Priming Your Reader

I was just looking at the pile of writing samples I reviewed for this upcoming conference and on one I’d written a note that I would have stopped reading the story due to the violence on the first page.

There was no reason for it yet, so it made me lose interest in the story.

Which got me thinking.

Because I’ve read, and enjoyed, some very violent stories.  Or stories with very explicit and uncomfortable content.

But I don’t think any of those stories started off that way.  I had to buy into the story first before I was willing to “go there” with the author.

If I read extremely unpleasant content on the first page of a novel, I assume the whole novel will be that way.  Even if that’s not true.

That doesn’t interest me as a reader.

The scene may be there for shock value.  Or to “hook the reader.”  But that kind of scene will never hook me.

I want any unpleasantness to have a purpose.  I want to know that I can trust the writer to get into the psychology behind the events.

Or to see that the story has some sort of depth and isn’t just a “let’s do horrible, shocking things to people” kind of story.

Which is where this concept of priming the reader comes into play.

If the story builds towards that moment of unpleasantness in the right way, I can read the most grotesque, disturbing thing and have no problem with it.  Because I know why it’s there.

But throw that at me out of context?  No.  I’ll put down the book.

It’s worst when that happens in the first few pages, because there’s no time to prep the reader.  But it can still be an issue later on in the story.

I beta read a novel last year that had an extremely graphic zombie scene about halfway through.  I read the whole thing because I’d committed to beta it, but I did make a note to the author that I would’ve stopped reading at that point as a reader.

(I’m also not into zombies, so I have a low tolerance for flesh-eating anything.)

The rest of the book hadn’t had that level of violence, so when it happened it seemed gratuitous.  And, as a reader, I would’ve stopped reading because I would’ve assumed the rest of the book was going to go in that direction.

(Turns out it didn’t, so the scene, as written, just didn’t fit with the tone/style/whatever of the rest of the book.)

I think you can get away with unpleasantness dominating the plot more in a short story. People know you only have x pages to tell the story and they aren’t going to have to spend hours living with that crap.

(At least, I know I’m more willing to keep reading a short story that starts in an unpleasant way.)

I’ve mentioned it before.  I read The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson when I was a teenager.  I don’t remember all the details of the story, but I know it hurt to read that book because such bad things happen in it.  It was a good book, though.

(At least to my 15-year-old self.  I really should re-read it some day.  It’d be interesting to see what I think of it now…)

The reason I mention it here is because it was short.  I have the SFBC version and it has to be less than half an inch thick.

And something like that needs to be short.  (Or not dominate the story.)

I’m sure this is very much a matter of personal taste.  I know I read things that my mother would never touch and that there are people out there who read things I’d want to avoid.

So, maybe if the audience is the type that likes the “Oh John Ringo No” type of books, this doesn’t apply.

(You may remember me mentioning reading a blog post about some books that had long excerpts from those books and my saying that the books were so offensive I wouldn’t even link to the blog post at risk of spreading that crap further?  Well, the post was the one by David Hines that started that catchphrase.  I’ve never read anything by John Ringo.  After seeing that blog post, I never will.  Even the non-unpleasant stuff.)

Anyway.  My advice as a reader.  Prime your readers before you dump anything too violent or unpleasant on them.  And give it a purpose.  It shouldn’t just be there to show how gritty you can be or how awful your bad guy is.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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