The Six Senses of Reader Engagement: The Little Three
(What follows is the second half of my lecture from Write by the Lake.)
Okay, now the little three.
First: sense of desire. By this, I mean sex, but I’m phrasing it otherwise for reasons you’ll see soon. Sexual tension is pretty captivating. Attractive people are fun to think about. This is no mystery. The entirety of pop culture has caught on to this. And writers might want to consider harnessing the draw of sex. I mean, there’s a whole genre—Romance novels—that have this sense as their principal appeal. Hey, you object, romance novels are not just about sex. Yeah, but neither is sex just about sex. Sex is about intimacy and belonging. Sex is about intimidation and power. Sex is about procreation and survival. Sex and attitudes toward sex highlight morality and repression—institutional or otherwise. Fantasies about sex can indicate desires for freedom, security, increased autonomy. In other words, romance novels are just about sex. The point here is that sex doesn’t necessarily equate to the physical act of bodies coming together. In fact, what’s most compelling is unconsummated sex. If you’ve ever heard any instruction about writing sex scenes, you’ve heard this: don’t describe body parts bumping together. Young adult writers know this. Listen to this scene from E. Lockhardt’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks:
A half hour later and two hundred yards down the boardwalk, Frankie was shivering in that string bikini. She’d eaten half a chocolate frozen custard before the sky had clouded over. Now the cone was giving her chills, but it had cost nearly five dollars and she couldn’t bring herself to throw it away.
Her hands felt sticky and she wished she’d brought a sweatshirt.
“You gonna eat that?”
Frankie turned. Sitting on the edge of the boardwalk with his feet dangling was a husky, sandy-haired boy, about seventeen years old. His small, friendly eyes squinted against the wind, and his nose was dotted with freckles.
“It’s too cold.”
“Can I have it?”
Frankie stared at him. “Didn’t your mama teach you not to beg?”
The boy laughed. “She tried. But it appears I can’t be trained.”
“You really want a frozen custard some stranger has licked? That’s disgusting.”
“So it is,” said the boy, reaching out his hand for the cone. “But only a little.” Frankie let him have it. He stuck out his tongue and touched the custard. Then he squashed the top down into the cone, putting his whole mouth over it. “See? Now the worst is over and it’s just my own spit. And I have a frozen custard for free.”
“You’d be surprised what people will do if you ask them.”
“I didn’t want it anyhow.”
“I know.” The boy grinned. “But you might have given it to me even if you did want it. Just because I asked. Don’t you think?”
See, we’re dealing with something there in addition to any of the big three, aren’t we? I mean, there’s tension, but it’s not exactly disorder. There’s a draw to the potential of these two characters coming together in a romantic way. You see this same thing in Billy Collins’ poem “Love”:
Love by Billy Collins
The boy at the far end of the train car
kept looking behind him
as if he were afraid or expecting someone
and then she appeared in the glass door
of the forward car and he rose
and opened the door and let her in
and she entered the car carrying
a large black case
in the unmistakable shape of a cello.
She looked like an angel with a high forehead
and somber eyes and her hair
was tied up behind her neck with a black bow.
And because of all that,
he seemed a little awkward
in his happiness to see her,
whereas she was simply there,
perfectly existing as a creature
with a soft face who played the cello.
And the reason I am writing this
on the back of a manila envelope
now that they have left the train together
is to tell you that when she turned
to lift the large, delicate cello
onto the overhead rack,
I saw him looking up at her
and what she was doing
the way the eyes of saints are painted
when they are looking up at God
when he is doing something remarkable,
something that identifies him as God.
Now as you can see I’m going relatively chaste with this stuff. That’s because I want to challenge your thinking, not just read you Fifty Shades of Grey. So here’s the question I wrestled with in all of this. Even children’s lit? And I think yes, even children’s lit. I think even kids, who have no sexual awareness really, are aware of a special bond between mom and dad, and they crave that bond, right? And they become aware that it’s possible to create a family with someone outside of your family. So yes, we get this in children’s lit. An obvious example: Peter Pan and Wendy. But there are kids stories about, I don’t know, the turtle and penguin becoming close friends. That’s really engaging for kids. To broaden the reach of family and to know that you can create bonds with those outside of family is pretty thrilling. So, this sense isn’t just lust; it’s something broader, a sense of desire to couple, maybe. That sort of magnetism between people is really engaging to watch.
Next little one: Humor.
Listen to some of these one liners from the masters (Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright):
I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.
I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.
Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or just a really cool opotamus?
I’m addicted to placebos. I could quit, but it wouldn’t matter.
What’s another word for Thesaurus?
I went to a restaurant that serves “breakfast at any time,” so I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.
I would argue that humor is distinct from just a sense of order. Yes, humor toys with our expectations and creates a sort of tension-release pattern. There’s a surprise element to a good punchline, but humor is a particular type of surprise. My 14-month daughter has a sense of humor. Just yesterday, we saw one of our dogs lying on the ground with her two front paws resting atop a book. I pointed to the dog and said to Cora, my daughter, “Look, the dog’s reading.” And Cora smiled at her. It was funny. Was she drawn by realism? No. By wonder? A little, but I don’t think wonder caused her to smile. By her penchant for order? I don’t know—I mean, it was outside of the normal pattern—but did she want order to be restored? No. She enjoyed the situation as is.
So this is why I’d argue humor is a distinct sense. And it’s one worth mining. It really goes a long way.
Now I can think of plenty of funny books. Christopher Moore books are pretty clever. Jess Walter is hilarious in Financial Lives of the Poets. Sam Lipsyte in The Ask. You can name several, too, I’m sure. But here’s a caveat to this: I would maintain that humor is most effective when yoked to seriousness and poignancy.
Here’s what I mean, courtesy of George Saunders. It’s from a story called “Puppy,” about a family who goes to a squalid house to potentially purchase a dog:
Abbie squealed, “I love it, Mommy, I want it!” as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.
Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the past pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in house pooper, was now dragging her rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was, was deeply sad.
I chose this one because it’s particularly blatant with the point I’m trying to make. But the entirety of “The End of FIRPO in the World” showcases Saunders’ brilliance in this realm.
My last little one: Musicality. Not just of words, but of phrases and sentences. Words have three characteristics: denotation, connotation, and sound. We sometimes ignore sound. But it’s pretty crucial. My recommendation: read everything you write out loud at some point. You’ll figure out why you need to vary sentence lengths and patterns, why you shouldn’t use dialogue tags after every instance of dialogue and why it might be worth using, say, the word charred rather than burned.
There’s a really lucid explanation of this in Perrine’s Sound and Sense:
Here’s a poem by Ogden Nash
The turtle lives twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.
Much of the appeal here is not so much in what it says as in the manner in which is says it. If we recast it as “Turtles live in a shell which almost conceals its sex. It is ingenious of the turtle, in such a situation, to be so prolific,” it falls flat. But it’s not just the meter that matters. Here’s another version:
Because he lives between two decks
It’s hard to tell a turtle’s gender
The turtle is a clever beast
In such a plight to be so fertile.
But now we’re missing the repetition between decks and sex, turtle and fertile.
So, you see, the sound alone matters a lot to the creativity of a passage and to the reader’s engagement in the writing. Here’s a nonfiction passage from the very poetic Dylan Thomas to drive home this point:
I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War—an ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Saturday afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes.
Bringing it all together:
I. A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids’ Table
By Simon Rich (from 2007 New Yorker)
Mom: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.
Grandmother: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.
Dad: Me, too. When it was over, I had sex.
Uncle: I’m having sex right now.
Dad: We all are.
Mom: Let’s talk about which kid I like the best.
Dad: (laughing) You know, but you won’t tell.
Mom: If they ask me again, I might tell.
Friend from Work: Hey, guess what! My voice is pretty loud!
Dad: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren’t.
Mom: I’m angry! I’m angry all of a sudden!
Dad: I’m angry, too! We’re angry at each other!
Mom: Now everything is fine.
Dad: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.
Mom: There was a big sex.
Friend from Work: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!
Mom: I had a lot of wine, and now I’m crazy!
Grandfather: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?
Grandfather: Don’t tell the kids.
I think this is firing on all of the cylinders. Realism? Wonder? Order? Desire to couple? Humor? Musicality?
Now, one last addition. The reason literature resonates with people is because ultimately it appeals to one primary sense: our sense of humanity. Speaking specifically of fiction—though I believe this applies to all writing—Neil Gaiman says, Fiction is dangerous because “it lets you into others’ heads, it gives you empathy, and it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.” Barry Lopez says, “This interest you have is a calling to go inside yourself and figure out who you are and what that means. If you can do that, somebody else will be brought up off their knees.” There is nothing that connects us like thoughtful communication. And the act of writing is, I believe, ultimately an act of compassion. That’s why I like hanging out with writers so much. They’re observant, insightful, attentive, kind people. So thanks for coming to Write by the Lake and thanks for making this such a pleasant experience for all of us.