Reader Involvement

Video games one up books because by their very nature, the player is involved. While I read a lot growing up, when I think back on the stories that really affected me… I think about a lot of video games. I miss Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall like missing a best friend. I still laugh over getting double-crossed by a dancer in Skies of Arcadia. I’m playing through Metal Gear Solid and the dialog drips with delicious tension. Every smart ass comment Snake makes about the situation they put him in–I’m there, literally I’m sneaking around getting shot at ;p

When writing novels, we want to get the reader involved as much as possible. You can break the wall of text and grab the reader through multimedia but for most of us beginning writers that’s not practical. We don’t have the artistic skill, connections or funding to develop something that extensive. We’ve just got a word processor and our imagination.

Instead we focus on vivid characters that a reader can understand–better if they can relate to them. We suggest sympathetic antagonists who meet frequently with the protagonist. But there is a way to take it a step further. It’s tricky and I’m working over in my mind how best to achieve it in the current WIP.

Let the reader know something the characters don’t. Let the characters misinterpret each other. Make the reader want to jump in there and say ‘but, if you only knew….!’

Sounds easy, right? The trick is to avoid coming off as contrived.

In my critique group, Tammy is writing a novel that has a great scene where two characters meet. There’s an instant connection between them. A teacher catches them, is going to write the boy up for fighting. Although they’ve just met, they pretend to be in a relationship because the girl has no history of fighting so her reputation protects him. He sees her staring at him lovingly….. he thinks she must be a great liar. But WE know that she’s interested! We want to step in and say, “Jess she’s not lying, she really likes you!”

She writes this beautifully–there’s a distinct reason why the information is hidden and the misunderstanding occurs. It’s not just fun, it’s believable.

Later on Tammy is thinking about making Jess’ caseworker Cacey’s mom. So Jess has this history of fighting and he wants to see his mom but his case worker, just doing her job of course, is getting in the way. Jess, trying to stay out of trouble but sometimes being forced into it, would naturally complain about his case worker to Cacey. If we know her mom is a case worker and we know he has a case worker…..we can put two and two together and BAM! We’re involved, we want to yell at Jess, “don’t say that! It’s her mom!!!”

I was watching John Tucker Must Die yesterday and there was one of those scenes where girl A is spying on The Guy, pretending to like him. Girl B is helping girl A and sneaks into a car with girl A to give her some advice. But before Girl B can escape unnoticed, The Guy gets in the car so Girl B must hide. As the audience WE know Girl B is still in the car, Girl A knows Girl B is still in the car. The Guy doesn’t. Hilarity ensues as he reaches in the back for CDs, nearly grabbing Girl B. This is a totally cliche set up, but it gets me EVERY time. I just can’t help watch or read on, wanting to know if the person hiding is going to get caught or what kind of craziness will happen as the person tries to avoid being caught. Even better when The Guy and Girl A leave the car……….and Girl B’s skirt gets caught in the door. Now we watch anxiously, wanting to give Girl A suggestions for how she can keep The Guy distracted while Girl B tries to get her skirt free.

The tactic can also be achieved by characters just being themselves and acting out their flaws. My friend Amanda wrote a great Metal Gear Solid fanfiction where Otacon’s awkwardness pretty much makes him shoot himself in the foot and just keep digging the hole deeper. Her original character (who I play in a radioplay based on a different fic), Olivia, is blunt to a fault and thinks his awkward overtures are meant as a joke.

It makes you really want to get involved, to say, Olivia…damnit, I know that’s how you are but poor Otacon!

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