Reader’s experience & author’s influence

Sometimes, you start a chapter and just know that this is the creepy one. You know it as you skim that first page. And when that happens to me while I’m lying in bed in the dim light and drifting towards sleep, my self-preservation kicks in.

I don’t always manage to do this, but the most recent time it happened, I stopped myself. I set the book aside and reminded myself of which world I existed in, and resolutely tried to go to sleep without the drowsy conjured nightmares of this fictional world. That mostly worked.

The problem was, once I’d done that I struggled to pick up the book again. I knew that I was going to return to the story at a spooky moment, and I still had that lingering sense of dread that had warned me away from reading more just before sleeping. Having put the book down that way, it took extra work to pick it back up again.

I haven’t finished that book yet.

I was right about that chapter though. It was spooky. I read the rest of it, after psyching myself up to do so, and I’ve read some more after that chapter since.

But the material since hasn’t been as spooky as I’d expected. It was a very sharp peak of spookiness. As I’ve kept reading, I’ve struggled to tell how much of that diminishment of spookiness is in the story, and how much of it was inside my own head. Did the story actually reach such a heightened peak, or did I create more of a peak through some combination of reading late at night and apprehensively avoiding the book for a few days?

And, critical for me as a writer, how much of that experience was desired or intended by the author? How was that experience created?

People have funky and idiosyncratic responses to stimuli. Sure, there’s some general consistency, but when you’re trying to produce specific emotional responses in your audience via art you’re going to run into some odd responses. People will experience things that you didn’t anticipate, or that you thought weren’t there. It’s even worse when you have little control over how the art will be consumed. Once you’ve released art into the world, you give up any semblance of control over how it’s interpreted and just have to hope for the best.

Back to the spooky piece at hand…

The question that nags at me here is: how much of that experience came from the author’s decisions, and what can I learn from that? How much of that can I use in my own work? And how much of it was inside my own head, and won’t be shared by anyone else reading the book?

I’m lucky. I know that some of my friends are reading this book right now, and I’ll have a chance to talk with them about it soon. I already have a few questions lined up. But until then, I’ll keep reading and stewing, wondering what precisely is going on underneath the surface.