Reading should be a joy.
Or rather, it needs to be a joy. Because reading is not a passive activity. Reading takes effort. And any book that is not worth that effort is not going to be read.
Luckily, many books are a joy to read. Perhaps you’ve read a few of them, yourself. Or at least heard of them—books that give joy are often popular and successful.
But what makes these books a joy to read? And, more importantly, how can we create new books that bring joy?
A Lesson in the Impossible
In a previous blog post, I claimed that it was impossible for a story to evoke happiness in the reader, and I stand by that statement.
But I since I know someone is going to misread that old post in an attempt to thwart me, let me clarify as I reiterate: reading books can bring joy, but they don’t do this by creating joyous moments for the characters. Happy characters are boring characters.
The happiness the reader enjoys comes from the experience of reading itself, not from the fact that story’s events are of a happy nature.
But what experiences actually produce this kind of joy? Another way to express this problem is to ask: “How does the writing satisfy the reader.”
And I have narrowed it down to three ways, which all happen at different parts of the book.
Joy #1: Beginning the Story (Narrative Voice)
Assuming the reader has never read this book before, and does not have a preexisting understanding of the story, the joy they get at the beginning of the book must come from a the Narrative Voice.
Because it can come from nowhere else.
At this point in the story, the reader does not know the characters well enough to root for any of them. Nor can they be taken in by fantastic plot twists or great drama or character growth, because there hasn’t been enough time for those things to happen yet.
The only thing a story can offer in its opening pages is Narrative Voice. It is the setting of the stage and establishes the story’s tone.
Start the story with a particularly delicious or compelling voice, and you get the reader feeling joy before they are even done with the first page. This is a moment of truth for the writer. For no amount of success outside the first page can compensate for failure within it.
Joy #2: During the Story (Narrative Development)
Once the initial thrill of starting the story has cooled, the book must rely on something more than Narrative Voice to keep the joy flowing.
For all the Narrative Voice in the world cannot build a character arc or keep the plot moving. You could write an entire book where a compelling Voice spends all 500 pages describing a peanut butter sandwich. It could even be the best description of a peanut butter sandwich ever conceived. But it does not make for a good story that brings joy to the reader.
Eventually, you have to turn your efforts toward Narrative Development.
Narrative development brings joy by making the reader care. You take these characters, and you let us know what kind of people they are. You make them multifaceted, and then you put them into situations that forces them to gradually change.
It is this gradual and natural-feeling change, both in the characters and in their situation, that constitutes Narrative Development. The reader gets the idea that nothing is standing still. Everything is being drawn toward the inevitable confrontation and its conclusion.
This development must be slow enough not to feel contrived, but fast enough to keep the reader’s interest. If you succeed, then the reader gets joy from noticing the subtle changes, and hoping that they move in a direction he expects (or being surprised when they don’t).
The hardest part comes when you realize you have to keep this up for the rest of the entire story. Because if narrative development is not happening, then joy is not happening. And if joy isn’t happening, the reading will end prematurely.
Joy #3: After the Story Ends (Narrative Structure)
The third source of joy is the most important. And the strangest, since it occurs outside the experience of reading.
Because whether or not the reader enjoys a book while reading it is not the true measure of a book. What really makes the difference is whether the reader still enjoys the book after he is done with it. Because that is when he makes the judgment about whether the book was worth his time.
And the joy that comes after reading a good story is controlled by yet another element of narrative—this time it’s Structure.
Because Narrative Structure is what causes the pathos—the sweet release at the end of the story that causes the reader to evaluate the whole.
A story with good Narrative Structure is like a knot demonstration. It starts with a featureless length of rope or string, that slowly has conflict introduced in the form of knots that disturb the placidness of the straight line. More and more knots are added, until it seems like no force on Earth could possibly untie them. And then, to our amazement, the problems get resolved, and the knots untied little by little, until we are looking at that featureless rope again, and our brain releases an endorphin rush.
This is what makes the reader say, “Wow! That was a good story.”
But the problem with creating a good Narrative Structure is that it has to be there at every step of the story. You can’t shoehorn structure in during the last chapter, any more than you can start planning a house’s foundation after you’ve started shingling the roof. Even though it delivers its payoff after the book is closed, it must be included from the first page onward.
The principles contributing to the reader’s joy are simple and limited in number.
If your book has all three, then it is by any objective measure a good book. And whether or not it becomes popular, you can know that you wrote something great.
After that, all you have to worry about is getting the book published, which is an entirely different matter.