10 Unexpected Ways Writing
Fiction Helps Readers
It’s MUCH More Than Simply Entertainment
If you’ve written and published a lot of fiction, there’s a good chance that somewhere along the way you’ve had a dark night of soul–where you’ve questioned why on earth you’re putting yourself through this torture day after day, only to hear crickets echoing back at you.
I, too, have had times like this. Many of them, over twenty-three years of publishing fiction. I’ve never quite got to the point of declaring I was quitting, but I have spent a lot of hours questioning the value of fiction. Especially commercial fiction, which most indie authors publish.
A professional reviewer told me just recently that she will not give a novel more than three stars if she did not think it was a profound piece of art that would change the world, no matter how well written or entertaining it was.
There are so many books out there, that they are already considered by some readers to be commodities, easily returned for credit and swapped out with the next book on the pile.
Besides, we’re soon going to be replaced by AI storytellers, right? [Actually, no.]
So why bother writing fiction?
Derek Sivers, in Anything You Want, gives three reasons why anyone should set up a business:
- Business is not about money. It’s about making dreams come true for others and for yourself.
- Making a company is a great way to improve the world while improving yourself.
- Never do anything just for the money.
I have always considered myself a professional, running a small business, but Sivers’ book troubled me.
How was I, a fiction author, improving the world? I was just writing entertainment.
Why Readers Read
I’ve tussled with this for many years and done a lot of research.
And a lot of soul-searching.
There are two common and superficial reasons why readers read fiction:
- Readers read to experience life.
- Readers read to be entertained.
Neither answer made me feel like I was contributing to the world. So I kept digging.
What I discovered was that while readers generally believe they’re reading for either of the above two answers, they actually get so much more out of their reading.
Most of the benefits of reading are invisible to them—and only felt if they stop reading for a while. If you’re a serial fiction reader yourself (most fiction authors are) and have ever stopped reading for a long period of time, you’ll know that itchy, unsettled feeling that starts building in your middle after a few days or weeks without a good story to sink into.
Here’s ten reasons why you get that sensation.
Fiction frames strong emotions and helps readers face them
Brené Brown, in her HBO series, Atlas of the Heart, pointed out that experts and researchers have trouble dealing with stronger emotions. They lack the vocabulary and the courage to tackle heavyweight emotions like hatred and anguish.
Yet writers and artists do this all the time.
We frame emotions for readers. One only has to look at Dark Elegy, the sculpture project by Suse Lowenstein that captures the horror faced by mothers of victims of the Lockerbie air disaster, to understand how art (including fiction) helps readers come to terms with strong emotions.
Reading Fiction Teaches Readers How to Empathize
Fiction allows readers to see inside other people, to glimpse their thoughts and feelings. That practice teaches readers how to empathize with people—even people who are nothing like them, and with no shared values.
Empathy creates understanding. Understanding people who are unlike us is a much-needed quality, these days.
Reading Fiction Gives Readers Relief From Stress
The New Yorker reported that researchers had demonstrated that reading fiction creates the same brain state as meditation. Meditation is a particularly healthy practice, which foster deep relaxation. Reading provides the same benefits.
Reading Makes Readers Happier
Even if a reader’s preferred reading (and your preferred genre) is horror or noir, where everyone dies and unhappy endings abound, reading still makes readers happier than if they had not read the book.
Most fiction has an upbeat, optimistic ending, even if it isn’t an outright happy Star Wars style fanfare wrap up. Reaching the end leaves readers satisfied, even blissful. The horror and noir readers get their dopamine hit via catharsis—they emerge on the other side of bleakness and feel better about themselves and their world.
Regular Readers Sleep Better
Research shows that reading a novel before bed will give you a better night’s sleep than watching TV. Reading lets you disengage from the day’s highs and lows and properly relax before falling asleep.
Most of the research is based upon reading physical books, not ebooks, with their sleep-disturbing blue lights. But most ebook readers come with blue filters, these days.
Reading Slows Mental Decline, Later In Life
Unlike watching TV, where everything is presented to the viewer, reading is an active task. The mental work of imaging scenes and characters moving through them helps stimulate the brain in creative ways that can help stave off old age dementia.
Reading Increases A Reader’s Vocabulary
There’s a hidden upside to knowing more words.
Back to Brené Brown again: When she asked thousands of survey participants to name as many emotions as they could, the average number of emotions provided was three: Happy, sad and pissed off.
Having a wider range of words available lets a reader better express themselves. They can refine their meanings, focus in on subtle differences in their feelings, and discuss them with others.
There’s satisfaction in nailing down exactly what you mean and having someone else grasp that meaning. It paves the way to better relationships and problem solving.
It also enhances self-awareness.
Reading is a Rehearsal for Real Life
I remember the first time I experienced this phenomenon. Growing up, I had a troubled relationship with my father, where he mostly yelled, and I mostly shut up and tried to ignore him. Through my teen years, the hostilities broke out nearly every night.
But after reading a scene in a novel when a teen character stood their ground against an aggravated adult, and managed not to launch missiles while doing it, the next time I was facing off against my father, I remembered the scene and because I had nothing left to lose, I tried using the character’s responses with my father, suitably re-phrased.
I can’t say it was a miraculous, world-changing evening, but we stopped screaming at each other long enough to draw breath and let the heat dissipated a little. And I did get a tiny compromise, an admission that he might have been a little bit hasty, perhaps, maybe.
It was a victory. I used that mindset, that sense of calmly standing my ground, for many years after that.
Even if readers aren’t aware of it, they’re constantly drawing upon the responses and actions of characters they’ve read in stories to shape their own responses to life and the people around them.
Reading Provides Distant Mimetic Role Models
I’m digging deep into the research weeds here. Bear with me. I’ll make this as brief as possible.
Rene Girard developed the theory of Mimetic Desire earlier this century. For a quick(ish) introduction to the convoluted and frightening ways that Mimetic Desire shapes civilizations and leads to their downfall, I encourage you to read about Mimetic Desire here. Be warned, you’ll feel uneasy for days after reading it. But it is well worth studying. (And you’ll end up with a fistful of story ideas and character ideas, too–no matter what genre you write in.)
In short, humans desire what other humans have. The humans who have what we desire are role models. There are two types of role models: Distant and Close.
Close role models are the dangerous kind. They’re friends, or people at work, or local community figures, or public figures we can reach out and interact with. Mimetic Theory explains why these close role models will always result in a destabilized society, leading to hostility.
Distant role models, though, are usually historical figures, or mythological figures, gods…or characters in stories. People we can’t reach and can’t interact with. They remain distant.
People who are not readers have access to close role models and little else. Readers, though, have a library case full of role models that they can emulate in full safety.
Reading Provides Pain Relief Via Distraction
There is no research for this one. It came straight from a reader and landed in my inbox.
Last year, I went through a period of feeling inadequate because I had been spending time with authors who write and read literature which shapes minds, shifts the direction of policies, and changes the world. Books that will be around a hundred years from now, and on the classic-must-read lists. While I write entertainment.
Then I received an email from a reader who’d had such an unbelievable run of luck; they’d suffered cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and broken their back twice (the ambulance taking them back home after the first break was t-boned). They had pinched nerves. They were on multiple medications, some of which didn’t play nicely together. They were in crippling, chronic pain, so that just sitting hurt.
Their email said that they read my books to get away from all that for a few hours each day.
Yeah, I write entertainment, and people need it.
Readers aren’t always aware of these hidden benefits of reading. Entertainment and elucidation aren’t enough to keep a reader coming back for more and more stories, but these reasons are.
Next time you’re questioning how fiction serves readers and the rest of the world, remind yourself of these benefits.
I will be.