December 07, 2008

Underestimating readers

by Terry Burns

As writers we study books on writing, attend conferences and workshops, are active in online groups and face to face groups that teach the craft, submit our work to critique partners and editors who help polish and perfect it. Is all that necessary? After all, our readers don’t have all this training, they don’t know when writing has the proper structure and flow and formatting and all of the things we seek to perfect in all this study.

Is that true? Don’t you believe it.

A mature reader who has devoured a substantial number of books may not be able to sit down with an author and discuss pov problems, story flow or scene structure, but they know when something is wrong. They know when something doesn’t work. They don’t know the technical aspects of it, but they know.
We do ourselves a great disservice when we underestimate our readers. Most movies, TV shows, plays, and yes books are written on a three act play format. Christopher Vogler wrote of this in The Writer’s Journey, and I have seen program after program presented on the usage of this structure. Your average reader has probably never been in one of these classes. They don’t know there is supposed to be a midpoint climax in the second act that sends the story off in a new direction. Or do they?

They are more likely to say the movie, book or story ‘died in the middle.’ They have been exposed to this structure all of their reading life and they understand when something doesn’t work the way it is supposed to.

They have specialized knowledge as well. The period of time most commonly known as “the Old West” only covered about 20 years from the civil war to late in the 1800’s. Those who devour westerns and historical from this time period are very knowledgeable. They know if your hero is using a gun that was not invented at the time the story is supposedly set in. They know if the clothing is not right, or if a historical detail is not accurate. Not only that, if they can contact you, they’ll tell you exactly where you messed up.

I like to have a movie star visual as I write. I can rent a video and actually see them moving about, helps them become real to me. Oh, I never describe them to the point that it would give away the person I’m using, that would not be good. And I never, never use movies as the base of my historical detail. A great deal of detail in movies is very accurate, but much of it is there to enhance the story, accurate or not. The trick is knowing what is true and what is not.
This specialized knowledge isn’t restricted to westerns. Civil war buffs, or military buffs of all types know their stuff. People tend to read what they like, and they tend to know a lot about what they like. I had a person tell me recently that they distrusted the accuracy of a Regency novel. Why? Because it had a turtle in it, and there are no turtles in England. Wow, who knew?
Historicals by definition are being read by people who know and love history. They may very well know more about the historical content than the person writing the book. That puts an amazing burden on the research we do in order to have the details as accurate as humanly possible.

So readers instinctively know more about the way the story should flow than we give them credit for, they likely know more about the historical detail that we are using than we realize, and finally, they know good writing when they read it. They may not know why it is good writing, but they know when they are immediately pulled into a story and when they are subtly kept there, pushed along chapter by chapter until they find it hard to find a place to put it down to do something else.

As writers, the compliment we cherish most is when people tell us they couldn’t put it down. The greatest comment I ever received came from one of my wife’s clients who was waiting outside the delivery room for her first grandchild. She was passing the time by reading one of my books and couldn’t believe it when they called her and she said, “Just a minute, just a minute.” I found that amazing . . . and humbling.

So now we know our readers know more than we thought. What they love more than anything is when we realize that and use what they know against them. When we think through a story that is developing, think what the logical next step in the story may be, then take it somewhere else. Not messing with the scene structure or story flow, but subtle plot reverses that delight the discerning reader. These plot reverses are very difficult to accomplish without first determining exactly where it is the reader surely thinks things are progressing. Readers love to be fooled, provided they weren’t lied to in order to achieve it. If you’ve seen the movie “Sixth Sense,” didn’t you have to immediately go back and watch it again to see if the clues were there for you to see all along? And they were.

No, we must never underestimate our readers. We write better if we give them full credit . . . then use it to make the work even better.

Want to win a copy of my new January release, "Beyond the Smoke"? Go to my website at and see what I think is the best Christmas Present mentioned in my blog. Tell me in the comment section at this blog and one comment will be drawn to win the book. If you want to know what the book is there is a book trailer right there on the front of my website.


Tammy Doherty said...

You visualize movie stars when you write - me too! I was having trouble really getting "into" my heroine, until I remembered that I'd chosen Kate Beckinsale as a basis for her physical appearance. Suddenly I could picture my character's actions and reactions! Not because I've seen Kate Beckinsale act that way, but just because now my heroine had a face and had become "real." Ah, the joy of these little writing epiphanies:-)

Okay, now for your question...I too think your friends' news is about the most wonderful thing to learn at this time of year. But it does, indeed, pale in comparison to the greatest gift of all:

Jesus Christ is the absolute BESTEST Christmas Present!

Now I need to go see how I can twist the plot on my current wip.

Thanks for an interesting post.

Tammy Doherty
tdinishowen [at] charter [dot] net

Kathleen Fuller said...

Great advice Terry, as always.

Anonymous said...

The greatest gift is salvation and eternal life. Thanks for the reminder!
Thanks, too, for the reminder that our historical research, etc. pays off in realism. I was beginning to wonder if I was spending too much time on my research, but your post assured me that it's well worth it to my future readers.
Have a nice Christmas,
Amy Ballard

Vickie McDonough said...

Great advice, Terry. As writers, we need to be thorough with our research.

Merry Christmas!

Audrey Hebbert said...

I agree--your friends' news is the best--news to be shared "from the rooftop."

And I agree that "present Jesus gave us--the gift of our salvation," is the best Christmas gift we can receive. I've already received it, and I'm always glad to share it with others.

You're right on with your blog post, Terry. I'm not a researcher, but I realize my facts must be accurate and I do the research, regardless. I remember my father's comments when someone used the wrong gun or whatever--He had only an 8th grade education but he was a rancher, raised in the Sandhills of western Nebraska and owner of his own ranch. He could spot a phony "city slicker author" a mile away.

Teresa Slack said...

Even better than your friend's healing, the gift of salvation is the greatest gift.

Makes all the standing in line and spending more than we should seem very trivial and insignificant. Thanks, Terry, for sharing.

Barbara said...

Terry, I always like your posts. You help us keep it real.

Every year I struggle with what to give my brother-in-law for Christmas. This year he is getting three Terry Burn's novels. He will be reading before the gifts are all open and keep reading until he has completed the books.:>)

The Greatest Gift: God's Gift of Salvation Through Jesus Christ.

Pamela J said...

I agree; the gift of our salvation, eternal life, is the best present and ANYONE can open that gift: it is waiting for them.
What a gift for Donn and his wife Mildred; the gift of healing. Another WOW from God for sure.
I do agree also, that readers KNOW the details of what interests them. I'd love to read one of your books, please enter me in your drawing. Thanks.
Pam W
cepjwms at yahoo dot com

Crystal Laine Miller said...

That is wonderful news about Donn Taylor's wife, Mildred. Cancer is such a stealer of joy. But our joy remains, no matter what, in that gift of our salvation from Jesus!

I like your technique of watching movies set in the time period of your book and watching how actors move, etc.

And I'd be humbled, too, if I had so captured the attention of a Grandmother waiting arrival of said grandchild! Fun. (But I understand the power of a good book!)

You always give good advice, Terry. Would love to be thrown into the cowboy hat for your new book.


Lloyd and Shirley said...

Eternal life is God's greatest gift to us all - a blessing to each of us who believes in Him!


Mary said...

Jesus, the Reason for the Season, indeed the reason for everything in this life. How precious is this time of celebrating Him.

Thank you for the reminder.

Merry Christmas Terry to you and yours and to your sweet friends who celebrate renewed health.

God bless, Mary

Anonymous said...

The gift of Jesus Christ....doesn't get any better.

Cleda said...

here's another comment to add my name to the drawing if it is not to late....

"I urgently and sincerely hope that anyone that has not unwrapped that gift of eternal life would do so this Christmas and make it their own. We will never receive a more awesome present."

thank you for sharing some awesome blogs....


CherryBlossomMJ said...

So true and right on key. Thank you for acknowledging the readers who are "kinda" smart. *grin*

cherryblossommj(at) gmail[dot]com

Creative Madness

Molly Noble Bull said...

Your info on writing is tops. Thanks. Better yet, you're a real for sure Christian. That makes you super tops.

Terry Burns said...

I drew the name for the copy of Beyond the Smoke and will soon have it on the way to Barbara A Kee