Think Like A Reader

Lyse Beck

Lyse Beck | May 31, 2024

Think Like A Reader


I always find Beta reading such a great opportunity to learn. I discover things that I’m sure I do myself as a writer that I critique as a reader. In my last few rounds of beta reading, I found myself thinking about the gap between being “the writer” and being “the reader.”

I mean, of course there’s a gap, right? The writer writes from the perspective of knowing the story — the mysteries, the hidden motivations, what’s lurking in the closet. The writer also sees everything — the location, who’s in the room, the knife that’s in the desk drawer. The writer knows where the characters need to go and why.

The reader only knows what’s on the page. They will pick up on foreshadowing with excitement. Or well-placed reveals with glee. Hint at something in the closet, and it’ll become an obsession for the reader. What the hell is in the closet?

It comes down to what makes it onto the page not just as the writer intended, but as the writer wants the reader to experience. This is what drafting and beta readers are for. But is there a way for a writer to think more like a reader when writing? Sounded impossible to me. But is it?

Take evoking more subtle emotions from the reader, ones on character and relationships. The reader wants to connect with the POV character. Wants to feel something, be drawn in. It’s why a reader reads. But it’s got to be on the page for them. It can be hidden between the words like a quietly dripping faucet or a screaming gut-punch. Different techniques for different reader reactions. But if it’s not on the page at all, well, the reader may just close the book.

Reader confusions can suffer from this gap. I think it’s near impossible to avoid confusions all together in early drafts. Mine are riddled with them. The writer knows exactly what’s happening, to whom, and where. But is it on the page? Setting and descriptions need to be clear. Whoever is visible to the POV char should be visible to the reader. If a character “materializes” into a scene mid-way through for the reader, the acceptable reason is because they used magic. If time passes, make it clear on the page so that the reader isn’t left in the past, wondering what happened. These kinds of “confusion gaps” are usually quick fixes.

Another kind of gap is when the reader is asking a question that seems like a very logical question, that no one in the story is asking. Why isn’t anyone asking? Because the writer doesn’t want to reveal the answer yet. This is actually a simple “question gap” to close as well. A character just needs to pose the question. They don’t need to get an answer, or they can get a wrong answer, but someone needs to ask. This closes the gap for the reader because they can then park the question and wait for the answer. It might even make a more eager page turn. This simple little trick has helped me mostly eliminate this particular kind gap.

Moving to a different kind of gap, something I call the “author gotcha gap.” This is something I’ve found in almost every early draft I’ve read, and I’ll bet I do it, too. It’s when the writer wants to ramp up some tension, or create an exciting reveal by leaving information off the page that by rights should be on the page. Meaning, the characters would all see it, but it’s left out on purpose to trick the reader.

For example, a character is holding an “object” or there’s “an unidentified corpse” everyone’s talking cryptically about. Then it’s suddenly revealed to the reader what everyone else in the story already knows. Oh, it’s a machete! Or the corpse is the MC’s long lost sister! Um, the MC probably would have mentioned that before, like when first entering the room. So withholding that for “effect” ends up feeling false to the reader.

Maybe it’s some action that’s being withheld. The main character walks into a room and gasp! She can’t believe what she’s seeing. It’s her worst nightmare come true! This can’t be happening! She turns and runs away, calling her friend. Only then is it on the page that what she saw was her wife having sex with her ex-husband. For me, I want to see that when she first walks in, because that’s what she sees.

What I realized is that these “author gotchas gaps” take the reader (me anyway) out of the story because the writer has broken the connection the reader has with the POV character in order to deliver a cheap thrill. It’s fun for the writer, but the reader might feel stiffed. This one can come down to reader preference, and I’m sure there’s times when it works. Personally, I prefer immersive thrills. Ones that flow logically within the story instead of against the story.

How about the “emotional gap?” The writer intends to evoke an emotion that the reader isn’t feeling. I think this is a much more difficult gap to close. This is when the writer really needs to think like a reader. Throw away what you know as a writer, and only focus on what’s on the page.

Is an action being used to convey an emotion, when that action could mean many things? For example, the MC picking up a photo of them young and smiling. This could mean longing, or remembering a time when the character looked happy, but wasn’t. Shivering could mean the character’s afraid, turned on, or maybe just cold. The key is to make sure the action that’s meant to describe a feeling is clear. If not, then convey the emotion another way.

What about when it’s on the page, clear as a townhall bell, but it’s still not evoking the right emotion? This could be a case of over-directing the reader (some might say “telling not showing.”) Readers want to form their own feelings based on careful, invisible manipulation by the writer. So clearly stating on the page that the character is wildly in love with someone might create a gap from over-directing the reader before they’ve had a chance to feel it for themselves.

So for an emotional gap, first, the cause for emotion has to be on the page. But also, the writer has to make sure what’s on the page will feed the reader’s emotions in a way that they will experience it for themselves.

It’s not easy to think like a reader while writing. It’s some kind of cognitive dissonance, right? Knowing while not knowing. Being in the moment while knowing the future. Keeping track of what’s on the page vs what’s only in your head. Seeing the words from a different angle to make sure they can’t be misunderstood. It’s crazy-making. Perhaps a gentler way to help turn you into your own reader is simply time away from your MS. Or use beta readers!

What works for you? Are there certain things that bug you as a reader that you can see in your own writing? Do you have any tips on how to close the writer/reader gap during the writing process?

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