The Reader is King

Dr. John Horne again joins us with this rebuttal to my earlier article. He has much to learn.


I’d like to dedicate this post to by brother,

Alan, without you, my intended reader, this post would not exist. You are in every thought.
You are in every word. If this post is any good, it is because you made it good.

About eight years ago I was in Perth, Australia, attending a conference. I had never been to Perth before, so I set apart some time to explore the city. My wanderings took me to a mall, where I found a Sci-fi/Fantasy bookshop. It was a delightful store—small in terms of square footage but stacked floor-to-ceiling with SFF books.

I liked the store so much, I decided to buy something. I followed the author names alphabetically until I found Orson Scott Card, and Ender’s Game. The book had been on my reading list for a while, and now seemed like a good time to purchase one of the most venerated Sci-fi stories of all time.

Later, on an airplane somewhere between Perth and Brisbane, I opened the book and read the introduction. In it, Card talks about the many fans who have written him over the years, expressing how the story had spoken to them in profound and idiosyncratic ways.

Says Card: “The truth of the story was not truth in general, but their truth.”

He then goes on to describe how the book has meant different things to different people.

One group of 13-15-year-olds related to it because they were intellectually gifted children, just like the characters in the story. To them it was their story and they found themselves defined in it.

An army helicopter pilot related to Ender’s Game because it reminded him of his own military training.

“All these readings of the book are correct,” says Card. “For all these readers have placed themselves inside this story not as spectators, but as participants…

“This is the essence of the transaction between storyteller and audience. The true story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. The story in my mind is nothing but a hope; the text of the story is the tool I created in order to try to make that hope a reality. The story itself, the true story, is the one that the audience members create in their minds, guided and shaped by my text, but then transformed, elucidated, expanded, edited, and clarified by their own experience, their own hopes and fears.”

I find it interesting that an author like Orson Scott Card is unwilling to take credit for the effect his story has on his readers. To him, the “true story” is what the reader brings with him, not what the author supplies.

Ever since I read this I’ve been intrigued by the idea that the reader could be as important, or even more important, in the storytelling process than the writer. And, after years of pondering, I am convinced that Orson Scott Card is right.

Importantly, I do not feel that this diminishes the writer’s role in the story. But it does invite further meditation on the relationship between writer and reader.

What then, should the writer be trying to accomplish? What is the writer’s game?

An Analogy

The writer stands to learn a lot from other art forms—the crafts may differ but the principles among art forms are shared in common. In my last post I talked a little bit about a painting (Rafael’s Transfiguration of Jesus Christ) but this time I will be talking about dancing.

Yes, dancing.

Both stories and dances start with an invitation.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott offers a useful story structure. The acronym is A. B. D. C. E. (Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending).

The Action, a.k.a. the hook, is nothing more than an invitation to the reader.

In the book, The Davinci Code, the hook is the blood-splattered dead body lying in the Louvre, with a mysterious message inked on the floor.

This is the author, Dan Brown, asking the reader: “May I have this dance?”

“… and the message says: Oh draconian devil, Oh lame saint.” [Dan Brown trying to woo the reader]
Writing coach Larry Brooks explains, in his book Story Engineering, why the first part of a story is “the most important.”

In a nutshell, the first part is the most important because if done well the reader will move onto the second part.

But if you botch the first part, the reader will put the book down, and never take it up again.

This is akin to a woman declining an invitation to dance. Maybe his breath smelled bad. Maybe his shirt was covered in food stains. Maybe he came on too strong, or too weak. Or Maybe he was just no different from all the other losers in this dance hall. Whatever the case, she has no obligation to dance with him.

In the moment of invitation the author is at the reader’s mercy.

Readers are a lot like women (even if they are not actual women), some are extremely picky, stuck up, or fickle. But most are nice enough to give you the courtesy of one dance… at least until a more handsome fellow cuts in.

But once the couple are on the floor, they dance, and the author leads. He is in charge now. She is along for the ride. There is rising action. There is falling action. And the whole dance progresses towards the final dip. This is the B, D, C, and E.

The final dip... until the next one.
The final dip… until the next one.

To keep the interest of his dance partner, the author needs skill, of course, but skill will only get him so far. An artist is more than just a technician mechanically going through the motions.

What else does the dancer need to do? What is his objective?

I once knew a Venezuelan guy who was a master at dancing in several Latin styles, and he taught me the secret to being a good dancer.

Said he: “In the dance, the man’s only purpose is to make the woman feel beautiful.”

He thinks:
Him thinking: “Yes! Feel the beauty!”

Absorb that for a minute, because it is quite profound.

The dance is not about him. Even though he initiated it, even though he leads it, the dance is about her.

This is not unlike the concept that Orson Scott Card was trying to convey. The writer initiates the story, and he leads it, but he does not actually own it. He may have a copyright on the text, but the text is just a tool… it is a mere template for something that is ultimately more nuanced and meaningful.

Whatever experience the reader has with the story, good or bad, she owns it. It is hers alone and no one else’s. And it cannot be invalidated.

The man who thinks that the dance is all about himself is not a great dancer—he is a peacock.

Similarly, the writer who wants to rule the story like a despot, who expects the reader to conform her experience to his intentions, who complains about being misunderstood, is not an artist. At best, he is a builder who knows how to make a story structurally sound. But it is a monument only to himself, and there is no beauty in it.

As Brandon Sanderson once put it, in one of his novels: “A story teller’s job is not to tell you how to think but to give you questions to think on.”

Ever get the feeling that an author is trying to tell you how to think, or preach to you through his story? That is the writer putting himself first, trying to steal the experience from you.

Like the dancer, the writer too must learn to let the story be for someone else. He must be like Orson Scott Card, who said that he wrote Ender’s Game because he wanted to do for other people what Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series did for him. From the beginning his motives were outwardly oriented, towards the reader.

And herein lies a paradox. The dancer, by focusing on his partner’s experience only makes himself look good in the process. And it is no different for the writer.

Now, does this have anything to do with the writer’s topic or subject matter? Not really. The writer must listen to the music inside of himself and determine if the dance is to be a waltz, a tango, lindy hop, the cha cha cha, or something else.

The writer gets to decide all the moves, and combinations of moves. But if he designs the experience only for himself, he runs the risk of creating something that is self-indulgent. And a self-indulgent piece of writing rarely results in a meaningful experience for the reader.

Why Authors Dedicate Books

Most authors write for the people that they care about. The writing process is also hugely gratifying for themselves, but in the back of their minds there is always that special reader that they hope the book will please. Look no further than a book’s dedication to see who the author was thinking of.

Sure, every once in a while some jackass will dedicate his book to himself, but most often the writer writes the story as a gift to someone else.

Dedications to individuals

The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis

The Red House Mystery

To John Vine Milne:

My Dear Father,

Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here.


A Storm of Swords

for Phyllis, who made me put the dragons in.

George R.R. Martin
I like this example, because it shows what an important influence a reader can have on a book. Martin’s reader essentially told him: “Spin me this way. Dip me that way.”

Dedications to fans and readers in general

The Secret Adversary

To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.

Agatha Christie

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The dedication of this book is split in seven ways: to Jessica, to David, to Kenzie, to Di, to Anne, and to you, if you have stuck with Harry until the very end.

J.K. Rowling

I can only imagine how rewarding it would be to have readers that are loyal to a series. If I am ever lucky enough to have such readers, I will love them with my whole soul. I think that authors with followings even a thousandth, a millionth, the size of J.K. Rowling’s can’t help but write for their fans.

And that is the way it should be.

Dedications to enemies

My Shit Life so Far

To all my enemies, I will destroy you.

Frankie Boyle

I have a hard time taking this dedication seriously, but if we accept it at face value, then we must suppose that one’s hatred for others can be the inspiration for a book.

The irony of it, however, is that you end up indebted to the people you hate, because they made you into the writer that you are. Without them, you’re nothing.

But ask yourself this question: Why dedicate a book at all? What does the author owe to these individuals? It was the author who did all the hard work. It was the author who agonized over every syllable for years on end.

The reason why books are dedicated is obvious: Most authors are not forces unto themselves. They receive help from other people, in the form of emotional support, love, feedback, and inspiration.

At the end of the day, books owe much of their value to the readers for whom they were written. One might even go as far as to say that a writer is the substance of their relationship with readers.

The Dual Nature of the Writer

While working on a piece, every so often the writer takes off his writer’s hat and puts on his reader’s hat. He does this because only as a reader can he assess the quality of his work.

I call it the reader’s hat but you might just as well call it the editor’s hat, because without this hat no revising can be done.

And so, the writing process itself becomes an interaction between the inner writer and the inner reader. The artist to which both of these personalities belong has to figure out how to dance with himself, and thus the story is born out of an awkward choreography performed in front of a mirror.

The inner writer is the creative force behind the project, but it is the inner reader that governs the process. And the artist must find ways to distance himself from the inner writer in order to tap into the power of his reader self.

For example, it might seem like a waste of time to set a story aside for weeks, months, or even years, but this is exactly what writers do. Why? because the artist must separate himself from the writing of the piece in order to see his own work as an objective reader.

The inner writer is actually quite easy to please. He is happy to just write whatever comes to him. And if the writer was king then nobody would ever rewrite anything. But stories get rewritten again, and again, and again, because inside each writer is also a reader, and she will kick the writer until everything is rewritten to the satisfaction of her experience.

And, to quote William Zinsser’s wonderful book, On Writing Well:

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”

The Reader’s Experience Trumps All

When I was three years old, back in 1984, I used to love the cartoon, Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. I used to play with my older sister, Briony, and my cousin, Gary, while it was on. We’d jump on my parent’s bed, and watch the TV.

I was Spiderman. Briony was Firestar. And Gary was Iceman.

It was great fun.

Recently, I found the old show on Netflix, for my daughter. And as soon as I saw it again I was shocked to find out that the writing was horrible.

But did that turn me off to it?

Not at all.

No matter how bad the writing, or the animation, I could not make myself dislike it. Even though the show was far from clever, and came nowhere close to my high standards of entertainment, I enjoyed watching it… every minute of it.

Why was I able to ignore the bad writing? It wasn’t just because the show was narrated by Stan Lee, although that was part of it. The real reason is because it made me feel something. Never mind that these feelings were prompted by childhood memories, the show made me happy.

The reader, the viewer, or any other consumer of art, will forgive a lot in exchange for feeling something. She’ll forgive bad writing, she’ll forgive long drawn-out book series with huge waiting periods between each installment, she’ll even forgive lackluster sequels. But what she won’t forgive is an author who fails to deliver a positive experience for her.

The writer cannot afford to be nonchalant towards the reader’s experience, because, in the end, the reader’s experience trumps all other aspects of a story. True, every reader is a different person, but they are all looking for the same thing, and Orson Scott Card tells us what that is in his introduction to Ender’s Game:

They want to feel that the story is about them. They want to be a participant rather than an observer. And, like the female dancer that needs to feel beautiful, the reader needs the story to make them feel good about themselves.