Posted in Books, Writing

What Happens When Your Reader Forgets He or She is Reading a Book

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. The single-sentence paragraph more closely resembles talk than writing, and that’s good. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction.

I’ve written a lot about grammar on here, and grammar is of course super important to whatever kind of writing you set out to do. Poor grammar = sloppy writing, and nobody will take you seriously if he or she can’t go through the pages of your writing due to poor grammar.

But at the end of the day grammatical correctness doesn’t make for a great story. Your grammar can be perfect, precise — and your story can still suck. I’ve read all sorts of short stories and novels over the years where the writing is impeccable in every way, with gorgeous language and tremendous detail, and I still found myself drifting as I tried to get through the page. A lot goes into a great story. Good grammar is one of them, but only one of them, and you need to bring a whole lot more to the table for your story to be effective and ring true for the reader.

What King says is right; ultimately, at the end of the day, you want the reader to forget he or she is reading a story at all. That’s the magic, the wonder, of reading a great book.

I used to write and direct movies, and I once had an opportunity to interview an editor for a paper I was writing as an undergraduate for one of my film school classes. I remember asking him what made for really great editing in his movies, and he told me it was the invisible editing. I asked him what he meant by that. He said he meant the absolute best job he can do in editing is when the audience notice doesn’t the editing. If the audience is pointing to the screen and noticing the beauty or creativity of the editing, he has failed. It’s when you get lost in the magic of the movie, or the magic of the book, that the creator is doing his or her job correctly.

King recommends that a way to make the reader forget he or she is reading a book is in writing more single-sentence paragraphs than long block paragraphs that take forever to get through. I agree, to an extent. I feel like most books you’d buy on the front shelf at an airport will be books that have lots and lots of one-sentence paragraphs. They’re easier to read. They move faster. They read faster. You can read so fast that you do get lost enough in the story that you forget that you’re reading a book and aren’t paying attention to how the words and paragraphs look on every page. One-sentence paragraphs can do wonders for your pacing and the suspense and the tension of your storytelling. I use lots and lots of one-sentence paragraphs.

I do believe, however, you can’t just fill your work with only one-sentence paragraphs. You need to have some variety at times, and I personally like it when authors slow down here and there to tell me a little more about a character or about the setting, even if it’s just three or four sentences in a paragraph. You don’t want your writing to move too fast for the reader or else your reader might get exhausted, and not in a good way. Don’t stop for a two-page paragraph. Don’t go overboard. But occasionally throw in a longer paragraph and you’ll find a better rhythm to your writing.

Writing is seduction, yes. You want to seduce the reader into picking up your book, not letting go, and getting so deeply sucked into your story that he or she can’t put it down. Even better, you want the reader to get so involved that the person forgets he or she is even reading a story. Those are just the best experiences, aren’t they? Both in watching movies and reading books, when you actually forget where you are and what you’re doing and just give yourself over to the experience? When the book or the film affects you to such a great extent that you almost leave your body in a way, are able to put yourself in the shows of that book or film’s protagonist.

This kind of superb storytelling will come with practice. It won’t happen on the first go-around. Just experimenting with your paragraph lengths and sentence structure and remember to cut more often than you add. Give your story weight but don’t feed your paragraphs with too much detail. Find the right balance and you will be on your way to writing a story that delights readers everywhere.

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