How Inequity and Deservingness Propel Readers Through Story

Posted by John Brown on March 20th, 2009

Inequity and deservingness are two of the main factors that keep readers reading. If we want to write killer stories, we need to know how they affect readers. A few years ago I wrote an essay on this and thought it probably too technical for most folks’ taste. But I passed it on to a recent attendee of the killer workshop and he found it helpful. In fact, when he watched Pride & Prejudice shortly after reading the essay, he saw how these factors dramatically affected his rooting interest. So I’m thinking others will find it useful as well. 

In order to understand it you must first read George Saunders’ short story “The Bohemians.” You’ll find it here in The New Yorker, January 19, 2004. It would probably be rated PG for some profanity.

Now if the story doesn’t pull you in, stop reading. Because the essay probably won’t make any sense to you. You’ll only be able to understand it if the story works for you. But if it does, then ask yourself what the main character’s problem was and what drew your interest? Then read my essay, “How Inequity Evokes Reader Interest.”

Please note ”The Bohemians” does present a character with a problem, and the story cycle applies, but not in the straight-forward manner it does with most stories. BTW, if you’ve ever read Patrick Rothfuss’s excellent Name of the Wind, you’ll see inequity is what shapes the story there as well. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you give it a go.

I’ll be interested to see your responses to Saunders’ story, my essay, and/or Rothfuss’s novel.

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4 Responses to “How Inequity and Deservingness Propel Readers Through Story”

  1. Hezekiah Says:

    John, I haven’t had a chance to finish reading Bohemians, and I haven’t read the inequity article, but I have to say that I must be missing the boat on Name of the Wind. I just don’t understand why this book is praised so heavily. It’s probably just not my kind of book. I haven’t finished it, yet, but I’m having trouble getting to the ending, and my wife assures me that nothing happens in the rest of the book.

    The writing is superb. The characters are good, but the plot is so plodding that I have put it down twice already, and may not pick it up again. I have 200 more pages to go. I think that if I were reading this one piece at a time, perhaps as serial fiction on the Internets, I would like it more, as it seems very episodic.

    In the end, perhaps it’s that for me there’s no real big question, such as: will he save the world? Will he get the girl? None of that. The only real question there seems to be is: why is Kvothe so famous? Just not compelling enough for me. Since that question is so broad, the spine of the book is lacking. The plot is all over the place. There’s a little story here, another there. Very nice, and tells me about Kvothe, but I’m just bored. There doesn’t seem to be any progression towards the resolution of an over-arching conflict. I guess for me the spine is weak.

    Anyway, I just had to say that to someone.

  2. John Brown Says:

    I don’t think you should feel you’re missing the boat. You’re just not in the audience for that tale. Nobody is ever in the audience for everything that gets published or even most of what gets published. I can pull 10 books off the shelves that folks rave about and can only hope that 2 or 3 pull me in. The best thing I can do at times like that is figure out what was lacking for me and let it guide my writing. AND tell myself that my stuff won’t be universally liked either and not expect it to be.

    It’s true the book does have a weird structure. I felt the book ended on about page 600 or so, because that’s when the main plot question resolved for me. The last part was a weird tack on. Mildly interesting, but had nothing to do with the main story line. Rothfuss wrote it as one big honking two gazillion page thing and tried to break it up. But I did like everything else that went before. Enjoyed it immensely. The scene where he did his master performance in the tavern/music hall–holy cow, he was plucking MY strings there.

    Still, I think it’s always counter productive to feel you should like a specific work. Then it becomes medicinal. And who wants to read for that reason?

  3. Jenny Jo Says:

    Only two years late, but whatev. I came here from the SFWA website.

    I went and read the Bohemians, and am partway through your essay, but I thought I’d let you know my thoughts about the story before reading the essay. I feel like the problem that drives me in theis story is the helpless feeling of being a kid, and especially a kid in a less than ideal situation. Your parents and other authorities can do whatever they want to you, you don’t know what’s real and what’s not, you’re mean because you don’t know how not to be mean. The end of the story offers some resolution to the problem: the characters learn a real truth (Mrs. H is not what she seems), and an inhuman monster (Mrs. P) turns out to be something different as well. They gain in sympathy and self-determination. It’s not that anything really great happens to them, but that they take some steps out of the hell of childhood and into maturity.

    As for the Name of the Wind, I don’t remember being bothered by the “early ending”. What really kept me reading was the question of how Kvothe went from being that boy to being that man. I think framing the tale as he did was a masterful move on Rothfuss’s part. The “three silences” at the beginning are so intriguing that they carry us clear through the book. Also Bast is very interesting. Anyway. I will read the sequel just as soon as my husband releases his death-grip on it. ;-)

  4. John Brown Says:

    Jenny Jo,

    I can’t wait to read the sequel either.