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Teach Your Readers How to Read Your Fiction

September 8, 2013

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In the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark we encounter a few lines about reading that could only be described as instructional. Few of us resent the tutorial. This book warrants guidance. Its complexity dial goes all the way up to eleven. Its characters could creep out David Lynch. Its soundtrack would include Rod Serling humming and finger-snapping the Adams Family theme. And like most of Murakami’s novels, this one advances a postmodern agenda–a clever re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. Lucky for us, this esoteric gem comes with an operator’s manual.

In the quote pictured above, our inimitable writer teaches us how to read his story. Along with his characters, we enter into the world of the novel bored at a Denny’s late at night in Japan. We are armed only with a huge book, a touch of insomnia, and an intrepid intelligence –all perfect equipment for a journey through Murakami’s bizarre tale. To allay our readerly fears about misunderstanding what the novel is up to, these early paragraphs set out to model the careful, meditative type of reading we are supposed to undertake. They show us the way. Like legends on a map they lead us through circuitous spice routes of story to the rarer flavors that await patient readers. Readers who masticate rather than hastily scarf down Murakami’s thick briskets of metaphor.

While we can’t all be philosophical marathoners or best-selling phenoms, we can learn from Murakami’s example.  Indeed, we can pick up a few tricks here and there from the pages of any writer we admire. The trick, of course, is to become willing apprentices. We must practice reading as writers with an eye toward sharpening our own writing. Based on this small scene, for example, we can learn to forecast to readers precisely how we want them to appreciate what we’ve written–and then, maybe in our spare time we can jog a little, perhaps journaling about each mile like Murakami with an epigrammatic, zen-like calm–but that’s for a different post.

If your novel or short story were a film, think of the reading lesson as a special kind of establishing shot. It allows us to glimpse what the French philosophers call the données of your story.  In geometry, the embedded reading lesson would be the “givens” of your proof. At its simplest, it’s a passage about reading that comes somewhere near the beginning of your story.

As an example, let’s look at this paragraph from the first chapter of The Great Gatsby

There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air. I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew. And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides. I was rather literary in college — one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the “Yale News.”— and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the “well-rounded man.” This isn’t just an epigram — life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.

I love how an antithetical type of reading experience begins our own. This novel will not be like those untouched red and gold volumes about getting and spending. Nor will it be another “solemn and obvious” opinion piece intended for pretentious fraternity Sports. What it will be only comes into focus in the last vague image. The single window. Attention readers. Calling all readers. Please move to the nearest single window. This is not a test. The novel’s story is traveling at five knots and headed your way. For the safety of your comprehension, please go directly to a single window.

There’s also Holden Caulfield’s description of his brother D.B. in the first paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye. D.B. is a rich Hollywood writer, but he used to be less of a phony, according to Holden.

He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was “The Secret Goldfish.” It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.

Psst. Hey you, Reader. C’mere. Shhh. There’s a secret story in here. It’s inside this one. And it’s the best kind of story. The kind, in fact, that this story likes to read. The kind this story dreams about when it goes to sleep at night. It’s an adolescent fantasy of responsibility and innocence. About a kid who thinks he can keep the tarnishing world away from something very precious. Oh, and the larger story that holds that one deep in the folds of its heart is bitter and funny. So prepare yourself to step inside. Reach out for the knocker on the door. It’s in the shape of a fantail carp. The brass has gone green at the edges.

None of this is meant to propose any hard-and-fast rule about reading lessons. Plenty of great stories don’t have them. And maybe yours shouldn’t either. And we all know that the opening of a novel contains some pretty expensive real estate. Maybe you’ve got every meticulous acre of yours spoken for already. No worries. I’m not advocating for any extreme renovations. No need to pull up all those curb-appealing bushes along the first twenty pages to add a gaudy scene about reading.

I’m only suggesting that you consider the embedded reading lesson as a possible approach into your house of fiction. Think of it as a way of polishing the porch railings, straightening the welcome mat, or pruning the flower beds.  Shouldn’t the entryway give visitors some indication of not only what to expect inside, but how to inspect it once we get there?

From → writing tips

9 Comments
  1. I really do enjoy reading your posts, just started this past week. This one was particularly good. I like the idea of giving a reader a clue or embedded lesson on how to best read the story.

  2. Liana permalink

    can you come speak to my newly hatched writer’s group???

  3. Your writing is edgy, provocative and thoughtful about the state of writing today. I wholeheartedly enjoyed this and other pieces I’ve encountered here, which work quite effectively as works of art. Kudos, and keep us riveted.

  4. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink

    Terrific as always thanks. When I was teaching English (before you were born) I liked to teach the New Zealand poet R.A.K. Mason. He always had one or two poems at the start of an anthology about his poems. “This short blade lacks lustre, But it can stab.” AND they contained ready-made answers for the slower students in exams. Unfortunately, Mason (long dead) is no longer in vogue. Thanks again for your blog, and pseudo-mild apologies for my waffle.

  5. So…it’s more complicated than random words strung together with punctuation? Darn, now you tell me.
    PS Do you teach at Dartmouth? My son teaches at Yale. It’d be funny if you guys knew each other. I’ll ask him.

  6. Melissa permalink

    Beautiful. As a child I always wanted to be like the characters who loved to read (Matilda, the Baudelaires), and it did not occur to me until I was older that this was exactly the authors’ intention. Books are shaped through the eyes of characters, after all…

    Also — that little paragraph from Catcher in the Rye is so perfect. It makes me want to reread the whole book. You should be an English teacher, if you’re not already. 🙂

    • You’re right. It makes me wonder about characters in films or TV who are expert watchers or visual investigators. As for being an English teacher…some would say I already am.

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