In research terms reading fiction is “text processing.” It’s a highfaluting term for the relationship between a reader and the book he or she reads. A relationship that writers must remember and cultivate in their creations. As Samuel Johnson says, “A writer only begins a book.”
In September 1997, the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Volume 4, Issue 3. reported a study on reading. The study had students read fiction that contained weak and unsupported statements about school. The fiction was set in either the school attended by the reader or another real school. The researchers expected that the readers would reject the untrue statements about their own school. They also expected the students would have an easier time believing the misinformation about the other school. The results showed that readers must actively construct disbelief when reading. This isn’t news to us today, but it remains a piece of important information. A writer only begins the book, the reader constructs a suspension of disbelief when they come to a book. So much so that they must actively construct disbelief!
Readers are looking for a specific experience when they approach a book. It might be entertainment or a new world to explore or to find new ideas with which to challenge oneself. The reader often tests himself: is he smarter than the book’s detective, can he learn the painful life lesson before the main character does?
Readers want to discover these things as they read. They don’t want the writer to describe settings or characters in minute detail. They want to be the hero, the smartest detective, the most self-aware heroine.
Readers fill in the gaps with their own life experience. Ask ten people who’ve read the same book to draw the house or room in which the story takes place. You’ll get ten different drawings with embellishments from each reader’s life.
This filling in the gaps is why the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time disappointed me. The director filled in some of those gaps with things that didn’t belong in my version of the story. She also left some things out that I believed were integral to the story. (Read A Wrinkle in Time the Movie That Wasn’t.) Many movie adaptations of books fail. I suspect this is because of the gap between reader experience and expectation and the director’s version of the story.
Why am I thinking about how a writer only begins a book? Because my book, My Soul to Keep, comes out in eight days. And I can’t wait to hear the story from my readers. The ebook version of My Soul to Keep is available for pre-order on Amazon and Kobo. (Soon it will be on iTunes and Barnes and Noble, too. The print version will follow.)
What about you? If a writer only begins a book, what books have you finished? Have you read a book then discovered that at least a part of what you remember was from your own imagination?