Writer Brain versus Reader Brain
By David G Brown
Catering to the reader’s brain is at the core of immersive, engaging writing. This is not the same as catering to the reader’s tastes. It’s important to tell the story you need to tell, but by keeping a reader’s experience of the text in mind, you can craft a much stronger and rewarding narrative.
When you start developing the concept for a novel, you necessarily immerse yourself in context. This includes character histories, relationship backstories, plot antecedents (what led to the current conflict), worldbuilding, and research in general. Your manuscript’s context will quite naturally take up a lot more space in your head than the story itself.
Quick side note: context also exists at the scene level. I’m referring to interiority—a character’s direct thoughts, emotions, interpretations, intentions, and motivations. I’ll come back to this in a bit.
Because our writer brains are so full of context when we set out to write a new manuscript, it’s easy to apply it too heavily. In many cases, aspiring writers allow context to take over the showcase completely. However, whether you’re writing pop romance, YA adventure, character-driven drama, literary thriller, or even narrative nonfiction, the showcase should always be story.
Immersion or immediacy refers to how deeply a story transports readers to another time and place. The writer’s version of a home run comes when the reader is so deeply submerged in a scene that the world around them disappears.
Here’s the key: in a scene.
Let’s get specific. A scene is the character’s moment-to-moment experience of a time and place and conflict. A scene is not worldbuilding clarifications, heavy interiority (a character sitting around thinking), explanatory dialog (two characters discussing context to help fill the reader in), or backstory.
Now it’s true, backstory can be used to great effect, and a writer can create vibrant scenes in flashback. However, all backstory has diminished conflict because it has already happened. (Parallel timelines are different in that they form two complete arcs.) In most cases, a story’s stakes and tension exist in the narrative present. This is also your primary landscape for seeding immersion.
When you hold fast to scenic writing and scale back context, you allow the reader to experience the narrative directly. And when you hint at context rather than explain it, you allow the reader to actively participate in piecing everything together as the story unfolds.
Alternately, when the narrative is oversaturated with context, the reader’s perspective becomes less experiential, less participatory. This makes the novel less engaging, and therefore less interesting. Also, heavy context has the added effect of making the story harder to follow. Summaries and explanations fall on the page as flat data. When context is hinted at in the midst of a scene, it becomes part of the reader’s experience; it’s much easier to remember and interpret dynamic memories than flat data.
The Writer’s Maxim: show, don’t tell
This ubiquitous piece of writing advice is at the core of the disconnect between writer brain and reader brain: show, don’t tell. Taken absolutely, this sounds like you should always show and never tell, but you’ll wear your reader out if you show 100% of the time. Instead, aim for 90% showing and 10% telling. At this ratio, showing facilitates immersion and telling offers a helping hand. Showing is story; telling is context. Showcase story and allow subtle and artful context to bring depth to your world, characters, and conflict.
“Telling artfully” comes down to scenic relevance. This means narrowing your focus to the moment-to-moment experience of the characters in a scene. For example, your protagonist walks into her mother’s living room, glances at an urn on the mantle, and quickly reflects on a memory (backstory hint) about her deceased father. When you pepper in context that is relevant to the narrative present, it is all but invisible.
The other important consideration is timing. Avoid frontloading your manuscript with context. Trust your intuitive readers to pay attention, gather clues, and draw their own conclusions. Open your story with a visceral and cinematic scene wherein your protagonist generates plot consequence by making a decision—by taking action. The 90/10 guideline is most critical in your hook. In order to convince readers to keep turning pages, you need to facilitate immersion as soon as possible.
Balancing Scene and Exposition
Back near the beginning of this post I mentioned context at the scene level: a character’s direct thoughts, emotions, interpretations, intentions, and motivations. These aspects of interiority can also sink a scene if they are laid on too thick, and often they can be shown instead with a clever detail. Aim to keep direct thoughts and interpretations to a minimum, and, whenever possible, demonstrate/show intentions, motivations, and emotions. (This is tricky with a first-person narrator, since every word of exposition is a direct thought, but it’s important to avoid explanations and summary in all POV modes.)
As Douglas Glover notes in this great craft lecture, exposition shines when it’s focused on the “three wheres”—where am I, where have I come from, and where am I going.
Ultimately, you have to write the book you want to write. However, by showcasing story instead of context, you invite readers to experience and participate—to truly step inside your literary creation.
David Brown is a senior editor and founder of Darling Axe Editing. He is also an award-winning short fiction writer, and his debut novel is represented by the Donaghy Literary Group. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David lives in Victoria, Canada, in the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.