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.