The Reader’s Emotional Journey: Spotlight on the
Experience of the Satisfied Reader Experience
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
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
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
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
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.