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Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Starting a Story with Cultural Touchstones, Narrative Voice, and Precision (part 1 of 3)


I mentioned last week about how I’ve been on a spy fiction kick recently, and all of the deceptions and double-crosses have left me thinking quite a bit about trust in fiction. Because really, every piece of fiction is a lie. And yet when we sit down to enjoy it, we’re willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and offer some modicum of trust (on credit, of course). And this begs the question: why? How do writers earn that trust, and how can we manipulate it?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on initially gaining a reader’s trust with a story’s opening. On Saturday, I’ll post I posted the second installment focusing on how world-building, consequential plotting and story structure affect reader trust. And on Tuesday I’ll post I posted the final installment, focusing on character consistency and narrator/character reliability.

Reader Trust as the Foundation of Fiction

The act of reading is an act of profound trust: without ever articulating it, the reader tells us that they will approach our words as truth in order to derive some benefit (catharsis, enlightenment, etc.) at the end of the story. Coleridge called this a willing suspension of disbelief, and while I know many people have a problem with that phrase, I’ve always really liked it. When we read a story, we are giving the author the benefit of the doubt: we’re not scoring points and indicating every falsehood the author tells us. Instead, we’re accepting the author’s lies fiction at face value because we believe that at the story’s conclusion, the experience will have been worth it.

This trust is not automatic. Nor is it easy. Reading a story takes effort, and some (Italo Calvino, say) take more effort than others (Dan Brown). In speculative fiction, this trust is even more important because we ask more of our readers. When reading secondary world fantasy or far-future science fiction, the reader needs to internalize our world-building. To be immersed in our imagined environment takes more investment on the part of the reader (more new words to remember, more fictional context to internalize). When reading a locked-room mystery, the reader inherently trusts that everything will be explained at the story’s end. If the reader is to be emotionally invested in a character, they must trust that the character’s actions have meaning and consequence.

Trust is what gets the reader to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to turn the page, and to read the next chapter. The reader needs to have confidence that the author will make their journey worthwhile: the moment they lose that confidence, the book gets put down and (at best) forgotten.

Reader Psychology, Reader Trust and Writer Control

Reader trust is only partially in the writer’s control. A reader’s willingness to trust an author is based partially in their own psychology, and partially in the writing itself. Obviously, a reader is likely to cut a much-loved author more slack than someone brand new to them. That’s because the author has built up a pre-existing level of trust, even if the text itself does not engender that trust. For example, I slogged through most of China Miéville’s Kraken despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it because on past experience I trusted Miéville to make it worth the effort in the end. When the book didn’t satisfy, my level of trust in the author for subsequent books decreased (although so far Embassytown has been undoing the damage). Short of only writing books that don’t suck, there is nothing a writer can do about this: there will always be readers new to our books, so I figure it’s best not to stress over it.

The reader’s preconceived tastes are equally important. Many people know what they like and only read within that one particular genre or sub-genre. When reading outside of their comfort zone, their level of trust may be nonexistent. Someone who only ever reads police procedurals is likely to be a harder convert to Amish romance. As writers, we might deplore this kind of blinkered reading, but it remains a fact. And one that we can do very little about: there will always be readers who we can’t convert.

Equally important is the reader’s state of receptivity. While Frank Herbert’s Gurney Halleck might gripe that mood is a thing for cattle and love-play, the fact is that the reader’s state of mind affects how they read. Some days, I’m in the mood to be immersed. I want something fun, vivid, and escapist. Other days, I want the mental challenge of unreliable narrators and non-linear structure. And sometimes, I just want to read some dry non-fiction. If I try to force myself to read something I’m not in the mood for, my willingness to trust the author is decreased. However, the author does have some influence over the reader’s mood. Before the reader has even finished the first page, we have control over the book’s technical execution, its cultural touchstones, and the narrative voice. And all three affect the reader’s frame of mind.

Technical Execution: Sine qua non for Reader Trust

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we do. When we see a book that is poorly designed, shoddily structured, or badly proof-read, the level of trust we’re willing to offer the author decreases. This, actually, is one of the issues I run into with self-published eBooks. When I see a traditionally published book, I know that a team of experienced people worked to make it the best book possible. That team worked for (typically) about a year after the book was finished to line-edit, copy-edit, proof-read, and design the final work. The fact that the editors actually acquired the book means that someone (actually a committee, more typically) thought the author worthy of their trust. Even if that book still has mistakes, even if it still has a lousy cover, the editorial team’s efforts contribute to increase my trust.

Many (and thankfully an increasing number of) self-published eBooks are well-edited, copy-edited, proof-read, and designed. But when compared to traditionally published novels, a greater share of self-pubbed eBooks are not. I have been burned so often by unprofessional self-pubbed eBooks that my level of trust for the entire category is (unfortunately) decreased by association. That may be unfair to those eBook publishers who work their butts off to execute well, but hey: that’s the capricious judgment of the consumer.

The quality of a book’s technical execution is the cost of entry to reader trust. A book can break all the rules of syntax (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange comes to mind) and still be excellent. But there is an inherent difference between breaking rules by design and breaking them through inattention. That difference is precision, and the sense of the author’s ineluctable control over their words. If the reader cracks open the first page, and they see haphazardly misspelled words, broken clauses, and meaningless tense shifts, their level of trust will drop through the floor because we are asking them to work too hard to get to the story.

Language is the rail on which the story runs. Would you trust a train where the passengers needed to fix it while riding?

Cultural Touchstones, Clichés, and Psychological Baggage

Assuming the writing is technically well-executed, we still need to wrestle with the reader’s frame of mind. One of the tools for doing so is what I call cultural touchstones. Writers are told to avoid clichés like pestilential vermin, but I believe that clichés have a use in fiction. They are able to cast a concise and powerful spell on the reader, and used appropriately, they become a shortcut into the reader’s mental/emotional state. While they should not be relied upon to the exclusion of all else, they can be incredibly valuable for getting the reader into the desired frame of mind.

Imagine for a moment a preschool, where twenty toddlers (our readers) are running wild and screaming bloody murder. The teacher, a much put upon soul, claps and shouts “Story time!” All of the readers kids take their seats, and look up expectantly. In this idealized scenario, our brave teacher is able to shift her audience’s mental state just by giving them a practiced touchstone, a pair of words that establishes their expectations based on their past experiences. Clichés work the same way.

Consider the sonorous phrase “Once upon a time…” If we come from a western cultural background, this hackneyed cliché is steeped in history and associations. It brings to mind princesses, wicked queens, fairy godmothers, and wolves in the woods. It carries with it a host of psychological baggage associations, which we can use when we tell stories. If we start a story with that phrase, we set certain expectations in the reader’s mind. They can safely assume that we will be dealing with the tropes of fairy tale, that the story will follow certain conventions relevant to the subgenre. Unless the author subsequently shows us that they intend to subvert those conventions, we should not expect a cyberpunk dystopia to follow.

Famous clichés (“Once upon a time…”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”) only work effectively when put to use tactically and consciously. They are the literary equivalent of a cannon. If they sneak into our writing haphazardly, then our writing will quite simply suck. We will be pushing the reader’s emotional buttons not wisely, but too well. Used sparingly, they have the narrative effect of slamming the reader into the desired mental state. Their impact is fast and powerful, but lacks in subtlety and nuance. For more finely grained control of your reader’s mental state, consider using imagery as cultural touchstones and narrative voice as a modulator.

Cultural Touchstones and Narrative Voice without the Cliché

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are inherently concerned with the conventions of fairy tales, yet she has enormous discipline in avoiding the clichés of the sub-genre. Consider how she opens Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the series:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show — it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons, 1990

Wrede does not use a single cliché, even though her subject matter is ostensibly fairy-tale related. Instead, she relies on imagery that is already associated with fairy tales (knights and dragons, royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, etc.) to put the reader in a fairy tale frame of mind. But by avoiding a reliance on a hoary old cliché, Wrede also gains the space to employ the second tool for managing reader receptivity: narrative voice.

In her first paragraph, she describes a stereotypical fairy tale kingdom. But through the application of careful phrases she establishes a sense of whimsy (“…the number five was fashionable”, “knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show”). These images and concepts are not cultural touchstones the way dragons or fairy godmothers are. Instead, they are included to show the reader that the narrator has a sense of humor and acknowledges the inherent silliness of all fairy tales. This contributes to reader trust in two key fashions: juxtaposed against the fairy tale imagery, it establishes that the author is familiar with the conventions of the subgenre, which in turn establishes Wrede’s authority and instills confidence. Second, it undermines (though does not yet subvert) fairy tale conventions, telegraphing to the reader that the author intends to play with expectations. This second contribution sets the stage for Wrede’s masterful one-sentence second paragraph (“Cimorene hated it.”), where she packs characterization, theme, and pacing acceleration into three short words.

This use of voice draws the reader in through unity of character, purpose, and precise execution. Examining the text closely, every word serves a purpose. Even the design contributes to its effectiveness: we have three editions of this book in our house (and an eBook edition on my phone) and every single edition has the first and second paragraphs on the book’s first page. It is the totality of those two paragraphs that Wrede uses as a hook. If she dropped the first paragraph altogether, the second paragraph (the classically “interesting” paragraph with character and emotional engagement) would be meaningless and emotionally dull. It is that slow first paragraph that gives her second paragraph context, like a steep hill on a roller-coaster.

Timing and Reader Trust: When Should the Reader Be Hooked?

Just about every piece of writing advice tells us to hook the reader ASAP, preferably in the first sentence. Like all generalities, it is generally good advice. But there are alternatives available, which may potentially make more sense for our story. Wrede’s first sentence, while interesting, is not a classically interesting hook. It fails to introduce a character, conflict, dramatic action, or thematic factors. Yet the precision of its prose and the sense of whimsy communicated through the voice is likely to get us to the second sentence, which in turn brings us to the third, and so on. Until we get to the second paragraph, have finished the first page, and find ourselves thinking “Okay, Wrede, you’ve earned our trust (for now). Let’s see where this goes.”

When I write, I like to think of it as getting the reader to the next sentence, then the next paragraph, then the next page, then the next chapter. Every sentence and every paragraph is a chance for me to degrade, lose, or (worst of all) betray the reader’s trust. The more of their trust I’ve built up, and the sooner I do so, the better. If I can earn a page’s worth of trust in my first sentence, great. Sometimes, that is possible. But if not? Well, that’s not the end of the world. So long as I can identify the point by which I need their trust, and so long as the writing to earn and maintain that trust is precise, I’m ahead of the game.

I’ve read many stories that never really earned my trust and just meandered into the action. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know what I’m talking about: front-loaded prologues offering backstory that only interests the author, epigraphs that I suspect most folks don’t even read, etc. Sometimes, slow beginnings are the best way to start a story. But the greatest tool an author has to get the reader through that slow start is the precision of their words. Nabokov pulls this off superlatively in Lolita, where even with a distancing framing device and an unreliable (and unsympathetic) narrator, every word follows inevitably and beautifully from its antecedent.

I generally don’t notice that precision consciously on my first reading of a text. When executed well, it should be invisible (if we can count the rivets on the engine, the train isn’t moving fast enough). But even if it’s not consciously noticed, it still affects how I perceive the story and the author. Precise control of language establishes confidence that the author’s expert hand is on the tiller, and thus builds reader trust. That trust isn’t limitless, and eventually the story must hook me. But precision will typically get me past the first paragraph, which in turn might earn the author the second paragraph, then the first page, and so on until I find myself immersed in the story. It’s a chain of chances, and precision connects the links.

Beyond the story’s opening, trust must be cultivated and maintained. In speculative fiction especially, that often hinges on how world-building is managed, or on the book’s plot structure, and the reliability/consistency of characterization and narration.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday Check out the second installment on world-building, story structure, and consequential plotting.

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