The Six Senses of Reader Engagement: The Big Three
I had a few requests to make this talk available; it’s the lecture I gave Friday morning of Write by the Lake.
So this is my broad-appeal speech about reader engagement. The course I’m teaching this week is also about reader engagement, but it’s predicated on a fact I won’t really cover here: namely, that humans think and interact in story. Narrative is our way of making sense of the world. [See Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, and the first Radiolab episode, which at one point interviews neurologist Paul Broks, who says that “the self is really a story–it’s the story of what’s happened to [your] body over time.” Also, here for some more relevant quotes.]
But my concern here is about the page-level stuff (i.e. even if you’re one of those crazy poets, or if you write lyrical essays—both of which can get away with skirting story/narrative—you still should be thinking about these things). What is it that draws readers to the words on your page? I’m calling these the six senses of reader engagement. But I’m breaking these down into the big three and the little three. Of course, I’m predicating this whole thing on the age old advice to appeal to the senses. We’ve all heard this one, yeah? Descriptions that appeal to the senses are stronger. This is nothing new. Writers throughout time have known this trick. Whether it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald drawing our attention to Daisy’s voice in The Great Gastby or Upton Sinclair in The Jungle describing the vague elemental smell that saturates the air as the immigrants ride the train into Chicago’s stockyards.
Actually, this whole appeal-to-the-five-senses thing falls under the umbrella of my first sense: the sense of realism. Concrete physical reality is always engaging. Ah, you say, but there are people who dwell in abstractions all the time. No there aren’t. There are people—like Einstein—who were/are really good at that sort of thing, but they don’t dwell in abstractions all the time. Einstein got to relativity theory by imagining “what it would be like to plummet down an elevator shaft, then take a coin out of his pocket and try to drop it” (Cron). Here’s Einstein himself: “My particular ability does not lie in mathematical calculation but rather in visualizing effects, possibilities, and consequences.”
So what I mean by this first sense is what the appeal-to-senses thing and “show don’t tell” is all about: readers absolutely need concrete physical stuff. Think about this. When you read a headline that 18 were killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad, do you engage with that? If you read that “in October 2006, nearly six thousand people worldwide perished in hurricane-induced floods,” what do you feel? “Now imagine a wall of churning water rushing down a dirt road toward a boy who clings desperately to his frantic mother. She whispers to him, ‘Don’t worry baby, I’m here, I won’t let you go.’ She feels him relax in that suspended slow-motion moment just before the water hits the two of them and rips him from her arms” (Cron, but altered a bit). You’re feeling more now, right? You’re feeling the implications of the deaths; you’re picturing a concrete image. We might even say, now it’s real for you. That’s what I mean by realism.
Nobody’s off the hook here. This goes for writers of Sci Fi and Fantasy, too. I originally labeled this sense as a sense of reality, but it’s not reality that’s important, it’s realism. You render the world with concrete physical detail and you can have anything happen (think of special effects in film). Here’s the start of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead:
When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.
But this brings me to my next sense: a sense of wonder. Curiosity. The strange and absurd is inherently engaging. This was my thesis last year for everything I did here at WBTL. And I quoted David Lodge more than once: “the essential purpose of art is to overcome deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways”—unfamiliar being the key word there.
You tell stories about unusual things that happened to you. You don’t tell stories about usual things.
I mean really. What’s more engaging? “I went to the store and got five pork chops, and a box of wild rice”; or, “while I was at the store, a guy in a chicken suit ran in, smashed the window of the poultry case, and shouted, ‘Run free my brothers!'” Not that you have to be that weird. But pick up almost any book and you’ll find something odd on the first page. Here’s the beginning of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, literally the first book I picked off my desktop:
They say it come first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that is was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku—generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World.
Here’s the beginning of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically-compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
Here’s the beginning of a favorite Joann Early Macken book of mine:
Baby rolls along, grabs a yummy snack,
waves at the people, and they all wave back.
Baby, what do people say? Baby says, “Moo!”
Sense #3: Sense of order. This one is huge. Maybe the most important of all these. You’ve got to toy with people’s craving for order. Here’s Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story:
Your brain doesn’t like anything that appears random, and it will struggle mightily to impose order—whether it’s actually there or not. Take a starry, starry night, for instance. As Nobel laureate in physics Edward Purcell wrote to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, “What interests me more in the random field of ‘stars’ is the overpowering impression of ‘features’ of one sort or another. It is hard to accept the fact that any perceived feature—be it string, clump, constellation, corridor, curved chain, lacuna—is a totally meaningless accident, having as its only cause the avidity for pattern of my eye and brain!”
The human brain is a pattern-making device. As scholars Chip and Dan Heath note, “The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.”
Conflict. Trouble. Disorientation. Disorder. These things get our attention because we want order to be restored. We want justice. We want harmony. And what these damned authors keep doing is screwing things up so that we absolutely have to keep reading to see if things will return to a peaceful state. Here’s Donald Maass on the topic: “Between what we are supposed to know and what we do not—questions unanswered—there is tension. Our minds strain to fill in the gaps And here’s Raymond Chandler: “In everything that can be called art, there is a quality of redemption.” Well, what does redemption first require? A fall of some sort. Trouble.
Listen to the beginning of Brian Turner’s poem “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” for how he’s appealing to all of the big three. Realism, wonder, and order.
Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open by accident, their oily bright shank
and diamond points like firing pins
from M-4s and M-16s.
In a steady stream
they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells
falling south of Baghdad last night, where Bosch
kneeled under the chain guns of helicopters
stationed above, their tracer-fire a synaptic geometry
At dawn, when the shelling stops,
hundreds of bandages will not be enough.
. . .
Bosch walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head.
Here, Bosch says, Take care of him.
I’m going back in for more
It’s concrete and real, but also poignantly strange, and of course, something is going very wrong here. Good stuff. (I’ll post the little three in a couple days; stay tuned.)