Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Psycho Bites: Inside The Reader's Mind Part 1

My eyes are tired from reading so many psychological articles, but every so often something crops up and inspires the writer in me. Several studies have recently got me thinking about how our words create mental representations in the readers.

Writers are master manipulators of metal representations, writing words for readers to picture. Most of us will use subtle tricks without realising or understanding the why or how, and research has uncovered a lot about reading which will help you put your finder on it. I'm here to point them out and put you back in charge.


How your story progresses forward in time can have subtle effects on the readers. Even walking through a door or saying 'an hour later' is enough to elicit extra processes in the reader's mind without them being none the wiser.

In real life, we remember events in our lives in little episodes such as, “The time we were chased by geese,” which may or may not have happened to me... The point is, we can remember more from a current episode, and research suggests that a simple transition such as walking through a door is enough to end an episode. Therefore if you want to move a scene along, having your character walk into a different room is enough for readers to part with that moment and feel fresh for the next. On the other hand, be careful where you use chapter breaks as these may interrupt the flow of the scene.

Time passing in the story also affects the readers’ ability to keep that info fresh in their brain. Indicating a five hour gap in time can make the past scenes feel further away to the reader than indicating a half hour gap - that’s not a huge difference in time, especially if your story moves forward a fair bit.

This finding has a few implications. If you have a five year break, then you’re likely to push all information beforehand into one time in history and start afresh for the next. This is why stories with a short time-scale such as Othello can feel intense; all the events are clumped together. Secondly, you may want to remind readers of that thing that happened 100 pages back, especially if lots of time in the story has passed. Lastly, using chapter breaks when there are huge changes in time may be beneficial, helping readers make distinctions between different episodes.

I hope this has got you thinking about the time-scale and transitions in you novel. Part 2/3 is coming soon, looking at some psychological points around descriptions.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Psycho Bites: That's What She Said

I asked you guys if you had any writing quibbles and you answered with a thought provoking question.

“What are your opinions on said versus other dialogue verbs? I've heard from a few places that said should be used in the majority, or even totally, because it's a word that becomes invisible to the reader. Is there any evidence on that?”

Readers will always have different sensitivities to taglines, but you’ll annoy less people by using 'said' too often than going mental on the fancy alternative verbs. My thoughts are to use exciting synonyms of ‘said’ sparingly so that they have the most effect when you do, but there's no reasons to boycott all alternatives. In my mind, ‘said’ is a device rather than a word, and research supports this idea.

We don’t look at every word when we read. Instead we make jumpy eye-movements called saccades which often leave out small words and those which are highly predictable (blue moon, apple pie). We still process those words, but we don’t necessarily make a saccade onto them. For example, ‘I pulled out my keys and put them in the toaster’ is less predictable than if I had finished the sentence with ‘lock’. In theory, you’d spend less time looking at and have a higher chance of skipping ‘lock’ than ‘toaster’. After a tagline, it’s common for ‘said’ to follow, making it very predictable when implemented in a tagline.

Frequency also affects processing of words. We take reading for granted as automatic and simple, but it’s actually a complex process which speeds up with practice. Said is very common. You’ve seen it more, your brain knows better than other words, and therefore you’ll process it much faster than less frequent words such as ‘murmur’.

But what does this all mean?

Well, combining these snippets of research together suggest ‘said’ can be breezed over and sometimes skipped entirely. Therefore, it seems the ideal conditions for using said word (pun intended, sadly) are as followed:

  • Said is perfect when you want your readers to focus on what the person is saying rather than how they are saying it. This could be either if context strongly implies the way dialogue is said or if what is being said holds far more weight which further description would only distract.

  • Said is good to use when it’s not too clear who is talking or if the paralinguistic actions are more important. Just quickly drop in the name and get back to what’s important. 

  • Said is good when there’s a fair bit of turn-taking. You need to be able to follow the source of dialogue when there are three or more talkers. There’s nothing worse than a ‘he mumbled, she screamed, he murmured’ structure when three characters are in discussion. Readers can and will assume that characters aren’t constantly talking in a monotone without being reminded every tagline.

You’ll notice that covers nearly every reason for a tagline. However, ‘said’ doesn’t tell you anything about emotion or delivery and it opens the door to ambiguity (was that sarcastic or not?). It won’t heighten the atmosphere of what’s being said at that all important moment (think of ‘Go!” Todd said’ versus ‘Go!” Todd cried’). If ‘said’ doesn’t work, then a more specific word is needed. This occurrence should be less frequent.

Think of ‘said’ as a device rather than a word. It’s not a thrilling word because it’s not supposed to be; instead you can use it as a quick name dropper or an attention diverter.

This article was inspired by you guys – click here if you have any writing queries you’d like me to delve. Leave a comment down below if you found it useful or have an opinion too.



On a quick status note I’m currently buried by work: finishing off my dissertation, applying for some fantastic career opportunities, and keeping up my freelance editing commitments. There may be fewer blog posts in the weeks to come, but I will make sure those posted are of the highest quality.