The Readers Know It

“A cop told me, a long time ago, that there’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing. Most of us scribblers do not. The ones that’re any good are aware of this. The rest write silly stuff. The trouble is this: The readers know it.” George V. Higgins

Did you ever start reading a book only to realize halfway through that the story is not going where you expected it to go? You still continued to read out of curiosity to find out where the author was taking you with his story. As a reader you probably felt cheated. You felt that the writer did not give you what he promised with his beginning, with the first few pages.

Whenever we writers write or tell a story we undertake some sort of informal contract with our readers. We promise them a certain kind of story, and we give them bait, a hint in our first few sentences or paragraphs. For this reason, when the readers start reading the first few paragraphs or the first few pages they more or less know what to expect, and this notion, this expectation stays with them till the end of the book.

Hence our first contract with our readers. To deliver what we promised, and to end what we started. Along the way there might be some digressions. But as long as these departures from the subject are not substitutes for the main events in the structure of the story, our contract with our readers is still fully applied.

A writer’s primary job is to communicate with the readers and create in them the same strong sense of story, the same intensity of feelings and emotion as he himself experiences. His aim is to talk across to the readers. If he is not honest in his writing, if he is not true to himself, if he does not give the readers the best possible story or book, no matter what kind of novel he is writing, then he has failed. And the readers will be the first to know.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote:

“I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly. But there is another reason: From the beginning I have adhered to a policy of ordinary business honesty that was installed into me by my father. My first stories were the best stories that I could write, and every short story that I have written since has been the very best story that I could write. I have felt that it was a duty to those people who bought my books that I should give them the very best within me. I have no illusions as to the literary value of what I did give them, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave them the best that my ability permitted.”

This is all about building a circle of readers, an audience. It is always best to have a master plan. When I write with the reader in mind, when I aim towards delivering my part of the contract with the reader, I can be at peace with myself regardless of the fact that I still have a long way to go. The knowledge that I am working towards this, to satisfy my readers, no matter how distant it may seem, is a lot more inspiring than feeling that I am thrashing around, collecting rejection slips. In the words of Ray Bradbury:

“If you write a hundred short stories and they are all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You fail only if you stop writing. I’ve written about two thousand short stories; I’ve only published about three hundred and I feel I’m still learning. Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer.”


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15 Responses to The Readers Know It

  1. Most books I read are well thought out, but there was one I read where the author seemed to take a major break from the storyline and discussed philosophy. It was a hard book to finish, which was a surprise since the author was famous and came highly recommended.

    • chichikir says:

      The book I’m reading now is like yours. It’s over 400 pages I read over 50 pages today from page 184 to page 235 and there was nothing relevant to the story in it. I am stuck, I don’t know if I can continue, but at the same time I want to know what happened. And it is a book by Michener. 😦

  2. You are so right about a readers expectations when they read. I usually have no problems with books. Most have been satisfying and pretty much as I had expected – except one, in particular. Many people told me that a particular author was very good, something like Kathy Reichs with her forensic pathology. When I saw one of her books in a used book sale I snatched it up, expecting a Bones-like experience. What I got from it was a bunch of character sketches. There wasn’t even a murder until about page 300 or so. It was very disappointing. I was later told, that I had picked the worst of her books, that all her other stories were brilliant. Those comments haven’t inspired me to pick up any other of her books, which is probably too bad. I may actually like the rest of them. Knowing, now, that a bad experience will put off a reader, I’d better not disappoint my own readers!

  3. Love this post–enjoyed the E.R. Burroughs quote.

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