28 January 2013 - 12:40 pm

Squishy hearts in blenders

That's your finger on the buttonPicture by radarxlove

That’s your finger on the button
Picture by radarxlove

Or, why reader trust is important.

I posted recently about how writers have to be good liars (by writing what they know) and how failing to do that damages reader trust. After I finished that post, I got to thinking more about reader trust and why it’s so precious to a writer.

As a reader, when I read a story, I want to be swept up in it. I want to find characters to connect to; I want to care about them and travel the journey with them. Love or hate them, I want to get involved. I keep reading because I want to know how it ends, I want to see how this story comes out, and what happens to these people I’ve become involved with.

For a reader, it’s an emotional journey. They ride the ups and downs with your characters. They approach your story with their hearts open and hand you the strings. They invest their time, attention, and imagination in your work. They rent you space in their minds to play out your story. They not only want to know that they’re going to get a good return on that investment, but that you’ll respect the hold you have on their hearts.

This isn’t about treating them gently. You can put their hearts through a blender if you want to. You can make them cry; you can make them angry; you can give them nightmares. Do it well, handle it responsibly, and they’ll thank you for it! (I’ve had readers thank me and curse me in the same email after particularly upsetting parts of my stories. Those emails still make me darkly happy, because I know I affected them deeply (in the way I intended). I haven’t once got abuse for it!)

This is why I wrote a post about killing characters; it’s an evocative subject and how you do it matters to your readers. Similarly with rape, race, religion, and other such sensitive topics. (I haven’t written posts about them yet but maybe I will one day.)

If you’re going to carry your readers along, they have to know they can trust you. Mistakes and inconsistencies damage that trust because it’s a lack of care on the writer’s part. If you’re careless with one part, what other parts have you been careless with? What if you run out of steam towards the end and it winds up lame or limp? What if you forget about elements your readers care about, like a character or subplot, and don’t tie them up? If you haven’t thought through your magic system enough to have it make sense, what else have you compromised on? (It doesn’t always follow and everyone is human, even writers, but this is the effect that these things have.)

Arbitrary elements that throw the reader into discomfort can have a similar effect. For example, if you randomly kill off a character for no apparent reason, you’re going to unsettle the reader. Who else is in danger? Is there a plan here or are you just using cheap tricks to play with them? Would you kill off someone they care about just to hurt them (the reader)?

Readers want to be lied to. They want to believe in the dreams you place before them. They want to suspend disbelief and jump wholeheartedly into your world. But no-one wants to be made a fool of. No-one wants to be made to feel stupid.

If you start to make them feel like you can’t be trusted, they’ll pull away from your story. They’ll protect themselves. They might even get annoyed enough to put the story down and never finish it. We’ve all done it: found ourselves frowning at a story, sometimes because of what’s happening in it, sometimes because of how it’s being handled. We’ve had that ‘wait, what? no’ moment when something just doesn’t make sense or seems out of place. It quickly descends into ‘are you kidding me?’ and ‘FFS’.

Fool me once, shame on you
Fool me twice, shame on me
Fool me thrice, and I’m asking for my money back

This doesn’t mean you can’t shock your reader or do something unexpected. Plot twists are a perfectly valid mechanism in stories. Reader expectations can be violated to good effect. However, if you’re going to do these things, be aware of the risks and work with or around them. It’s possible to do this and have your readers love you for it, too. (For example, you can foreshadow twists in such a way that they are only predictable in hindsight, or the shock factor might perfectly fit the story.)

So try not to piss off your readers. Handle them with respect. Readers want your story to be fantastic. They want you to be worthy of their trust. Take the strings to their hearts and hold them with care.

Then throw them into the blender and watch the suckers happily weep blood.

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