When I open a book, I open it with the hope, the wish, the desire to be transported to a place that will allow me to create the world the author describes around me and let me forget about the four walls that actually exist. I want to be so connected to the story that no matter what environment I’m in, be it my home, a crowded coffee shop, an airport, the world around me disappears. If a book does what it should, I am able to replace that world with my own.
If a book does what it should, I am able to see the characters I’m introduced to as new friends or enemies. I can see them as individuals who might be similar to ones I’ve met before, but who have distinct personalities that make them different enough for me to feel like I’m meeting someone new.
And even when what they’re going through is similar to situations other characters I’ve known have gone through, if the world I’ve built up around them looks different, if how I picture them in my mind is different, it’s a brand new adventure to me. I won’t make comparisons to stories I’ve read or characters I’ve met before because in my mind I’ll have crafted a world that doesn’t look the same and I’ll have connected with characters who aren’t the same.
But when a book leaves gaps that don’t allow me to build a completed world or creates inconsistencies or has too many grammatical fails that my brain just can’t ignore, I’m not able to lose myself in the world the author has tried to create. I am constantly being pulled away from that world and back into my own. And the experience goes from being one of an escape to an unpleasant assignment.
If I can’t be fully submersed in the story, it becomes all about just retaining the words, making it through the three, four, or five hundred page book to get to the end. It becomes about choking it down because I have to and not reading it because I want to, or because I can’t wait to see what comes next, what my “friends” decide to do in response to whatever next bad thing is around the bend.
If an author doesn’t create enough of a setting to allow my mind to fill in the pieces, or creates one so elaborate and detailed that my mind just can’t keep things straight, then I can’t replace my world with the one I’m being asked to. If an author creates a world that is disjointed, where one thing is said to describe it and moments later an opposing thing is said to describe it, the world becomes fractured. My mind can’t wrap itself around the idea of something being idyllic and at the same time ravaged. I can’t rationalize or skip past a statement that says something is miles away and then later mentions it’s a few steps away. These errors, whether they are intentional or not, keep me from experiencing a story as I need to.
And it’s just as bad, if not worse, if it’s the character or characters who are flawed in this way. If an author creates a character who has a radical personality shift midway through a story without any real reason for the shift, it’s like chalk screeching across a chalkboard. Alarm bells go off, and my mind says, “WTF!?!” And if I am able to continue reading and I find that it was done just to create conflict, it will almost always prevent me from continuing on to the very end.
If a character doesn’t behave in ways understandable to their age, situation, or how they were initially developed, if their responses feel “off” in any way, “WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!” just keeps flashing before my eyes instead of the actual words in front of me. If their actions don’t fit in with who they are or what is considered “normal” for someone in their situation, they feel unbelievable. Which makes me unable to see them as friends or enemies, or see them as anything but an unrealistic and poorly developed creation of the author’s.
I can’t experience a book as I need to when the story doesn’t replace reality. I can’t experience a story when all I can see is the author behind the words. I can’t read a book where there’s too much telling – “He walked up the stairs, he opened the door, he stepped into the room, he closed the door, he turned to face me, he opened his mouth, he closed his mouth, he sighed, he raised his eyebrows, he sighed again, he walked away.” I can’t fall in love with a story when it feels more like a laundry list.
And I can’t fall in love with a story when it feels as if the author cares so little for the story they are presenting and not at all for their characters. I can’t invest my time or emotions in a book if it feels as if the author’s only care is the money they have gotten from me, the reader.
For me, experiencing a book is like taking a journey. It’s introducing me to a whole new world for however many hours it takes to read the story from cover to cover. It expands my existing world. It lets loose my imagination. It allows me to feel – happy, sad, nervous, scared, anxious, excited. It reminds me that things could be worse, things could be better, things could be different. It let’s me remember what it feels like to meet someone and fall in love with them for the first time. It let’s me never forget what it’s like to lose someone.
If I can’t experience a book in any or all of these ways, it’s not a book for me. No matter how lauded the author or book is. No matter how many bookish friends have sung its praises. If I can’t make a strong connection to a book, make the story my own, the experience has no meaning for me. It’s not a story I’ll remember, or if I do, it won’t be one I want to remember.
But when everything comes together, when the writing, the story, the characters do that thing they do, I can’t help but fall in love. Again. And again. And again.
How about you?