The Reader’s Emotional Journey: Spotlight on the Experience of the Satisfied Reader Experience
     Victoria Grossack

 In the January 2007 column we introduced the concept of the satisfied reader experience. In that column, we determined that a satisfied reader experience means that readers are enthralled while reading, that they put their books down only with great reluctance, and that they will sacrifice their own well-being (by skipping meals and full nights of sleep, as well as subjecting themselves to headaches brought on by eye-strain) just so they can keep on flipping pages. In fact, a mild-mannered reader will become cross and rude if interrupted, while a reader with an aggressive bent may kick and bite if someone attempts to remove the book from his hands.

In the January column we took a closer look at the reader in the phrase satisfied reader experience. In this column we’re going to focus on the experience part of the phrase.

What Do Readers Experience?

The reading experience can be analyzed from many different angles. For example, reading makes some physical demands on the reader. The size of the book, whether it is heavy or light, the sturdiness of the paper, the beauty of the binding, whether or not there are pictures and if are they by any chance in color – these various attributes impact the reader’s actual experience. We won’t cover these elements in this column.

Instead, we’ll focus on the emotions that people experience while reading. My theory – and it’s only a theory – is that some people read so that they can experience events without actually being there. For example, readers can feel the rush of adrenaline as a character is being stalked without actually being threatened themselves, and understand a little of what it’s like to climb Mount Everest while lying on the couch. They can even spend time in fantasy lands, something which is very difficult to do without the assistance of fiction. In other words, through reading, readers live vicariously.

A related reason for reading is to experience the peaks and valleys of profound experiences – but quickly, easily, in an accelerated manner, with most of the boring parts removed. In other words, one can experience joy and sadness or triumph and despair without having to experience the dull mundane trivia of daily life. Fiction provides readers with emotional journeys – even the chance to learn from these experiences – without the suffering and the time that often accompany such experiences when they occur in real life.

Emotions or Qualities that Can Be Experienced by the Reader

Below I have listed a set of emotions that readers often experience while reading and qualities that can stir the reader to experience emotions. Occasionally I have added a few words regarding the emotion or quality, but most of them are given without comment.

Beauty – This is not an emotion but it is nevertheless a quality that stirs some readers profoundly.
Boredom – Obviously the good writer does not want the reader to be bored. Nevertheless this is a sensation that happens all too often.
Confusion – There are several types of confusion. One leads to negative reading experiences, such as may be experienced by those trying to keep straight the characters’ names in a Russian novel – although reading Russian novels can lead to many other positive sensations. Another leads to a positive reading experience, such as when you think Mr. X committed the crime when it was really Dr. Y (as long as the clues were given fairly beforehand).
Curiosity – We all want our readers to be curious about what happens next – in the next scene, the next paragraph, the next chapter, even the next book in the series.
Hunger – It may seem odd to include hunger as an emotion or quality to aim for, but making someone feel hungry by writing can be worth a lot of money – advertisers think about these things all the time!
Surprise – This is one of the most important things you can aim for as a writer. I read in an article, completely unrelated to writing, that people get addicted to being surprised. If you can get people addicted to surprises in your writing, then you’re in good shape.

The list above, although not by any means complete, may seem long for an article. This is on purpose, in order to remind you of the many sensations that readers can experience while reading. I personally find that it’s easy to forget, and thereby neglect, many possible emotions. The list above is to help remind you of the breadth and depth and complexity of experience available to you and to your readers.

Aiming for Certain Emotions

At this point, I make no recommendations on which emotions you should include in your story to create a satisfied reader experience, although I will mention that different genres demand different emotions. Nor am I giving you any advice in this little column on how to make your readers feel indignation, or pride, or lust. We may touch on some of these subjects in future columns, but not here.

I believe firmly that you should have goals for the emotional state of readers. If you know how you want your readers to feel while reading your story, you are another step further towards creating the satisfied reader experience. You can’t expect to hit these emotional tones by accident. You should know which emotions your readers are supposed to experience, and where in the book.

For example, I told my agent that when the readers peruse a particular passage, I want them all to cry. The whole aim of my current writing project is to make everyone have this reaction when they reach the scene in question. Everything else in the project is designed to make my audience ready for it. With this objective in mind, there are choices that I must make along the way.

Of course, you will occasionally create unintended emotional responses. For example, something which you intended to be serious may come out as funny. At this point you will have to determine whether or not you want to edit or to take your story in a new direction.

Recommendations and Exercises

If you want to deepen your understanding of the reader’s emotional journey, pick up a book and try to notice how you feel while reading it. Jot down your emotions, perhaps even in the margin, so that you can return later and see how you were affected by particular pages. Or else review a book you have already read and determine which passages stirred you the most.

Then, when you have become aware of these emotions, study the book in question and ask yourself how the writer constructed the story that made you feel this way. Remember that the emotions that you experience while reading one scene are often the result of many prior scenes. For example, if Tom and Sally marry in chapter two, their wedding may not mean much to the reader. But if the reader has to wait a thousand pages for them to marry – if, in the meantime, Tom and Sally have loved and suffered and struggled – then the readers may feel tremendous joy and relief by the time they wed – assuming, of course, that the readers did not give up during those first thousand pages. In other words – and this is a very important point – it is not just one emotion that you want your readers to experience, but a complete emotional journey which brings your readers at last to a special emotional destination.


Again, there’s much more to be written on the satisfied reader experience – even on the experience part, we have barely scratched the surface. So, make sure that you have a regular subscription to Fiction Fix, and I will see you next month. If you want to reach me for comments, questions, or because you want to use this column, you can contact me at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.