Readers Participate in Your Story


Readers Participate in Your Story

In a previous post, He Shoots, He Shows!, I pointed out that readers participate in your story whether or not you want them to.

I learned this lesson from my first novel (never to see the light of day) which I circulated among friends. One reader thought the heroine Virginia was a bitch because she had a lovely husband but was messing up the nice guy she was having an affair with. Another thought the husband was a villain because his coldness forced his wife into the arms of the nice guy. Another thought the nice guy was a weakling for agreeing to the affair.

See? Same novel but completely different reactions.

Reader reaction

You can’t control how people engage with your fictional (and even non-fictional) work because readers bring themselves to the story. That is, their own world views influence how they see your work. In my example, people’s history/values around marriage, affairs, relationships, etc. are going to affect how they interpret the story.

You can’t control this nor should you try because part of the fun of reading is identifying with the stories and characters. Don’t attempt to take this away from your readers.

Having said that, I suspect that there might still be some niggle.

Participate fine. But I want my message to come across


So, there’s a good news and a bad news thing with this.

The good news is that your mastery of your craft will help get across your message, whether it is the protagonist is more sinned against than sinning or Mary really should end up with John. One of the important ways to achieve this is to show readers unfolding events rather than telling them about them. It ups the chances readers will identify with the story and hence your intent. In fact, if you get feedback that your message is not getting across, it is an opportunity to go back to the work and see how you can show more effectively.

The astute among you will immediately spot the fly in the ointment. “But,” I can hear you saying, “If I show the events, it gives them even more leeway to interpret the way they want.”

That is the bad news bit I was talking about. It is true—showing does indeed give readers more opportunity to bring their own values and perspectives to the piece. So, the remedy for getting your message across (i.e. show) also makes it easier for them to adopt an interpretation different from what you might wish.

Where do we go from here?

The answer is not to pepper the piece with a lot of stuff about how the reader should understand the story, neither in the tell part nor in the characters’ dialogue.

The answer is to accept that the ship has sailed on trying to control the message.

This is not a battle for control nor should it be. If you want to control the message, write propaganda. If you want to write fiction or memoirs, just write it and let the chips fall where they may.