Under the auspices of the National Writers' Workshop Program, I conducted a workshop for the Cape Breton Regional Library System in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. One of the topics we covered during the workshop was how readers approach a work of fiction. The following are excerpts from this discussion.
In writing a short novel, there are several basic principles to keep always in mind. The best way to illustrate this is to consider how readers approach a book or story. Most readers have no expectations other than they hope the story will be good. However, readers make assumptions based on their experience of life and the general patterns of good writing they have read over the years.
Two things quickly become apparent: people read expecting a naturalist unfolding of events and they are conservative in processing information. In other words, if you mention a bird, and the experience of a bird for the reader is a crow, then you should make sure the bird you are writing about is a crow. Otherwise, you confuse and frustrate the reader. Therefore, if you are writing about a stork, then let the writer know that it is a stork and not a crow. It is your obligation as a writer to provide enough information to ensure that they remain engaged and not frustrated.
Writing should progress naturally, and not test the patience of your readers. Readers should never have to turn back in the course of their reading. Books do not come with an instruction manual! Misdirection involving the point of views of characters is fine. Someone may say in good faith that his sister stole the diamond, only to discover later that actually it was wicked cousin Mike. What is not fine is for a reader to make the natural assumption based on what has been provided thus far, that the wicked cousin is a man, only to find out subsequently that she is a woman. Readers, in the absence of directions from the writer, assume something about what a character is like their age, looks, where they are from, where they live now, and so forth. In the absence of directions from the writer, the reader is most likely to assume that the “normal” is in play - that a character called Mike is a man, that someone wearing an Armani suit is not farming, As I have said, the reader has to be assuming something, if the writer isn’t given sufficient direction from the writer.
Here is another basic principle. Readers need to know why they should keep reading: what is coming, what may happen, what problems may be created and perhaps, resolved, what kinds of changes may occur in the characters, why the things that happen to the characters, and the changes that occur in them matter. There needs to be as emotional and thematic indication for readers, to keep them interested.
There should also be reinforcement of information, especially if it is critical to the development of the story, especially a longer piece, to remind us what we are to expect. You might argue that if the reader turned back to page 75, the information is there. Remember, there is no manual. Novels are not written to be taught.
Another basic principle in writing is the development of the protagonists. If the character does not change in the course of the writing, it is not fiction. It is information. In other words, the main character or characters will find themselves in a different place, emotionally or intellectually at the end of the story than from where they began. It is a journey and you ask the reader to join the characters on this journey.
Lastly, you must provide sign-posting to help guide the assumptions and expectations of the reader. Readers must be compelled to continue, to want to know how the story ends. In sign-posting you are showing your ability as a writer, that you know more than the characters do, and if you signpost properly, you keep the reader on track.