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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why We Read: VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE

We read for many reasons, such asto gain knowledge or to escape the everyday pressures of life. But as an author, what also concerns me is 1) what makes a novel catch fire in the hearts of modern readers, and 2) how can I meet that requirement?
Through study and observation, I’ve concluded that novel readers mostly seek a vicarious experience. David Farland seems to agree for he’s described this concept, at least in part, as the physical responses people have to the novel. Reader’s endorphins react, he details, to the obstacles, emotions, and climax of the story.

Which leads to my next question. If vicarious experience is key, then how do I as a writer, create that experience? In answer, I’ve looked to some of my favorite writers and I’ve determined that at least three elements are critical: mystery, detail, and restraint.

Take Stephenie Meyers, for example. Not because I enjoyed her Twilight series—which I did--and definitely not because I crave vampires—for I absolutely don’t—but because Meyers has the ability to make her stories come to life, to make readers feel as if they are living in the moment, and to give life to her words in such a way that they jump off the page. She knows how to create vicarious experiences.

For instance, consider Twilight’s revelation scene when Edward allows Bella to figure out who he is. There in the restaurant, the reader already guesses Edward is a vampire, so that in itself creates mystery and nervous emotion—suspense--in the reader. Then, throughout the discussion, Meyers incorporates tiny details that describe how the couple responds to each other as well as a sense of Edward’s physical restraint. The following few sentences, alone, depict what I mean, but as you look through that entire section of the book, you can see numerous, similar examples:

“I scowled, but nodded. He moved his hand out from under mine, placing both of his under the table. But he leaned toward me.”

If you’re anything like me, you’ll notice both your heartbeat and breathing kick up a notch just from the memory of that scene or from the sentences I’ve quoted here. That’s vicarious experience. So that’s what I work to create in my own writing. Have I succeeded? Only you, my reader, can answer that question.

3 comments:

Jolene Perry said...

For me it's all about characters. If I care about the MC, I definitely need to know what's going to happen to them. If I don't care about the MC, I really won't care what comes next in their life.
I will agree with you that it's the restraint and the suspense that comes with that which keeps me reading more than anything else.

Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen said...

Thanks for mentioning that, Jolene. I totally agree with you, for to me, caring about the character enough that the reader projects themselves into him or her is part of "vicarious experience." :)

Elizabeth Morgan said...

I totally read this way because I want to be like the people in the books.