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The Real Reason People Read Fiction (and Why This Matters to Writers)

June 10, 2019

At a conference I attended last summer, a New York Times best-selling Christian author taught a session on why people read fiction. During it, the speaker made an interesting claim: while most Christian authors are passionate about their stories’ messages, readers typically aren’t. Rather, they tend to “read fiction to escape.” The speaker argued that “authors are entertainers,” and whether we like it or not, we need to give people what they want.

 

The speaker’s comments rolled around in my mind for a while afterward. Do people really read fiction to escape?

 

Though I understand and respect the speaker’s conclusion, it doesn’t fully equip authors to write engaging stories. I believe that a different factor truly draws people to fiction and should influence us as storytellers. But first I need to refute the speaker’s main point.

 

Why Escape Isn’t the Motivation

The idea that people treat fiction as a getaway isn’t new. Tolkien himself touches on this in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories.” In response to charges that fantasy is merely escapist literature, he acknowledges that “escape is one of the main functions of fairy stories” (emphasis mine). Then he adds, “escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to go out and go home? … Critics are confusing the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

 

I don’t completely disagree with Tolkien or the NYT best-selling author—but stopping here omits an important part of the picture. Suppose, for a moment, that their assessment is correct. What would this imply about stories? If people read to escape, this suggests they’ll be satisfied if that desire is fulfilled.

 

However, reviews on Goodreads and discussions about books and films show that people do not judge a story simply by how immersive it is. Twilight may be emotionally appealing (and popular), but that wasn’t sufficient for many readers. Similarly, Veronica Roth’s Allegiant received mixed reviews even though it provided escape like the other books in the series. Something was missing.

 

If we step back from this issue, we’ll realize why readers are looking for more. Escape is a negative impulse; thus it’s fundamentally deficient. Prisoners don’t long for escape to anywhere—venturing into the heart of a volcano wouldn’t improve circumstances. Their goals are more complex, and the destination matters. If we surmise that readers want escape, that’s technically not inaccurate. But if we focus only on creating a hatch for them to dive through, we’re writing with an inadequate objective.

 

Escapism also doesn’t explain why readers choose one book over another, and we need to comprehend these dispositions to be effective storytellers. Instead, I think a broader motivation is at play.

 

The Real Reason People Read

If escape is too limited a term to describe why people open a novel, why then do they read? Before I reveal my theory, I’ll share the premise for The Speed of Dark, a book I heard about the same summer that I listened to the best-selling author’s speech on escapism.

 

Fifty or so years in the future, researchers discover a “cure” for autism and present it to the public. The protagonist and several other autistic individuals must decide whether to undergo the surgery. Is autism a disease in need of correcting, or is it integral to who they are?

 

Personally, I’m intrigued. Yet I wouldn’t define the book’s pull on me as escapism. Sure, the story may serve as a distraction from everyday life, but that isn’t why I’m interested in it. If the pitch grabs you too, I’m guessing it’s not due to escapism either.

 

What entices me to read this book? The experience it offers—seeing life through the eyes of an autistic protagonist, facing the dilemma he’s wrestling with, and learning the author’s proposed solution.

 

Probe any reader about why they loved or picked up a book, and you’re liable to prompt this response in some form. People disliked Twilight and Allegiant because those books didn’t carry them to the emotional realms they yearned for.

 

People gravitate toward stories because they crave a certain kind of experience, not just an exit from the real world.

 

Why This Is Relevant to Writers

Perhaps you’re sold on my thesis so far but wonder if I’m splitting hairs. Since escape and experience seem like two sides of the same coin (readers escape in order to experience), is the distinction between them significant? When approaching writing, I’d contend that experience is a more useful guideline than escape for four reasons.

 

1. It clarifies a reader’s motivations. Ultimately, escape is a mechanism—and as I mentioned above, it can either be good or bad depending on the place people are trying to reach. If we concentrate on the destination (experience) instead of the gateway (escape), we’ll achieve more specificity, which builds the foundation for the next benefit.

 

2. It enables us to meet a reader’s expectations. We can’t write captivatingly otherwise. That’s why writers need to study their genre and consider readers’ preferences before drafting a novel. Like The Last Jedi, a story will flop with its audience if it doesn’t match their anticipations. Viewing storytelling as an experience instead of an escape better orients us to deliver the transportation readers are after.

 

Additionally, we’re more apt to think outside the box when crafting stories. Readers are continuously searching for new adventures and perspectives, and clichés impede this quest. When we direct our attention toward experiences, we’ll attempt to brainstorm a unique one—whether dealing with ethical dilemmas alongside an autistic protagonist, learning to cope with the frailty of old age while traveling to South America via balloons, or exploring the world of dreams within dreams to pull off an unusual heist.

 

3. It exposes the apparent dichotomy between enjoyment and instruction as false. The best-selling author pitted reader and writer motivations against each other. Readers seek to escape, and writers aim to convey messages. However, when we add experience to the equation, the tension dissolves.

 

In general, books with meaningful themes are the most enjoyable—and enjoyable books are the most meaningful. The old Roman poet Horace argued that storytelling should teach and delight—and those twin goals aren’t contradictory.

 

All experiences, no matter how varied, boil down to a “what if” that allows readers to walk in someone else’s shoes. God beautifully ordained the world to manifest the consequences of virtuous and vicious living (see the book of Proverbs). This affords us plenty of opportunities to weave lessons into the characters’ decisions and actions so that readers experience truth.

 

In other words, we can more easily connect revelatory reflections to a particular experience than tack a moral onto a door that leads nowhere in particular.

 

4. It deepens the purpose of fiction. At least to me, the prospect of writing just to help people escape is unfulfilling. Authors entertain by default, but I don’t want to be an entertainer, and I doubt this is our role.

 

Instead, authors are curators of experiences that both teach and delight readers. I don’t write to supply readers with an escape venue—I write to create an experience that will capture them and convey the ideals I’m hoping to communicate. The difference between escape and experience may be subtle, but it’s also pivotal.

 

The Real Reason We Write

A rule always has exceptions. Some people do read just to escape (regardless of the destination), while others are eager to encounter a message in fiction. However, I propose that people primarily read to have experiences, and authors need to cater to that.

 

An author who is oblivious to reader expectations is like a blind man throwing darts. A few may hit the target, but more by happenstance than anything else. To succeed at attracting the right audience, writers must read many books in their genre, talk with avid fans of that genre, and regularly evaluate beta readers’ impressions of their stories.

 

This is one of the reasons why understanding the reader’s perspective is central to our Writer’s Rank Quiz. That mindset needs to undergird every story.

 

We aren’t just the liberators handing a weary audience the keys to their cells. We’re heralds ushering them into the lands they ache to visit so they return rejuvenated and enlightened. The journey doesn’t end with deliverance at the Red Sea but with fulfillment at the Promised Land.

 

How will you strive to accomplish this mission the next time you sit down to write?

23 Comments

  1. Quinn O'Fallon

    Wow! I’ve often struggled with finding the purpose for my stories and stories as a whole, but this article has cleared up so many of my questions. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Quinn! I’m glad to hear this has been helpful for you as you think through your purpose as a storyteller. 🙂

  2. Emma Huckabee (Emma Starr)

    I am not a fiction writer (yet!) but I have always been a bookworm–a bookaholic, rather. Through the years, I’ve struggled with why I read and if I really should be spending so much time doing so. I would see quotes about reading like, “We read to escape reality,” and “I read to escape, “a lot, but if that was my sole motivation, I knew that reading was a waste of time for me. Christians are called to make a difference and live purposefully, so escapism is obviously a bad choice. From a readers point of view, I want to feel that I am learning something I didn’t know before–empathizing with a character who, in the real world, I probably would not have empathized with. I need reading to be worthwhile. Yes, reading is a form of escape. After a long day, I want to relax and read an intriguing novel. But, hand-in-hand, I want to experience something new and something I need to become a better person.

    This article helped me understand my purpose as a reader! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I totally agree with you here–escapism has always seemed a faulty purpose as a reader as well. I’ve considered writing a complementary piece about this topic for readers (I’d need to find a different publication to publish it), but am glad to hear that as a reader you were able to find this article helpful for that topic as well! There have been several stories that have helped to shape my beliefs and outlook on life and that’s one of the biggest reasons I value the art of reading.

  3. Daeus Lamb

    I’ve never thought about it this way, but I couldn’t agree more.

    By the way, what’s this book? “exploring the world of dreams within dreams to pull off an unusual heist” Is it any good?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Not a book, as I’m referring to Inception there. 😉 Great movie, though!

  4. Taylor Clogston

    Hey, thanks for reminding me to mark The Wife as “read” on Goodreads =P

    While I enjoyed the article, I think this varies enormously by the reader. Nearly everyone I know IRL reads for content rather than for form or theme (as far as they’re aware, at least, though I imagine at least theme impacts a lot of them more than they’d admit) and for this reason I don’t like discussing books with a few people who read way more than I do, because they’re velocireaders grinding through thousands of pages of written-to-market niche fiction a week and they have basically nothing to say about anything they read.

    If I look on Kindle’s Top 50 Literature and Fiction chart right now, going by the covers alone I see twenty-two Thrillers, seventeen Steamy Romances, six Lit Fics, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

    Though maybe genre pulp’s overwhelming market share isn’t a great argument against your point. I don’t know. I’m not even sure I’m arguing against your point.

    I don’t think I write or read for escapism, but I do write in large part because I want to entertain. I want to create for others the feeling of… almost community? Of community, then, with characters and their conflicts in the same way I had books when I was younger and had no one and nothing else. I guess that is just escapism, huh?

    Well, I want to use those characters and conflicts to address things that are important to me, and maybe that’s the difference. Nowadays that’s what draws me to a story most of all, when the author is clearly using their book to work through something dear to them, even if they come to a conclusion I don’t share.

    Yeah, we need to be aware of the experiences readers demand from their genres, but I think the end result of that is we just don’t shock them out of their escapism (or their dream, if we go all Gardner) when we deliver them what they want.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I largely agree with a number of your points here. I would argue, though, that the escape these readers want is still to a specific experience (for a number of them, this experience is apparently the experience of a thriller or a steamy romance). I’d also put your motivation in this camp of looking for the experience of community. However, I do recognize that escape and experience can in some ways just be different sides of viewing the same issue.

    • Taylor Clogston

      I think you hit what I was struggling with in “escape and experience can in some ways just be different sides of viewing the same issue.”

      Two hypothetical demographics might seek escape—say, Romance readers and Thriller readers—but maybe they’ll only feel at ease enough to surrender themselves to that escape if their expectations of experience are fulfilled through genre standards.

      So they are definitely seeking experiences, and even if their higher-order motivation is escapism, those experiences might be the aspect they’re most aware of and most comfortable discussing.

  5. Isabelle

    This was powerful, Josiah. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Isabelle!

  6. Antonio James Higgins

    This is one of the best articles on fiction I have seen. Giving an internet standing ovation.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Antonio! I’m glad you really enjoyed it. 🙂

  7. Germaine Han

    Fascinating, and makes sense, too. Will be thinking about this as I plan my next novel.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hope it helps as you do so!

  8. Ariel Ashira

    Oh, wow. Never thought about it like that. This is REALLY ENLIGHTENING! Thank you, Josiah!!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Ariel! Glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  9. Kassie

    This was EXCELLENT!! Great job! Personally I know a story will only “whisk me away” if it has a strong theme, but writing sometimes does feel like you may have to pick one or the other. Thanks for this!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Kassie! I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  10. Rachel

    Half way through reading this, it suddenly felt like everything clicked. Everything that I had ever heard about writing and the stories that had captured my heart the most became your strongest advocates for why your point was true. Thank you for posting this.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I’m really encouraged to hear that this article was able to have that impact on you, Rachel. You’re quite welcome. 🙂

  11. Derek Swain

    Thank you for mentioning how people tend to be interested in certain kinds of books because they want a specific type of experience. My daughter has been trouble finding fun things to do ever since we moved to a remote area, and I would like to find a book that can help her enjoy her summer until she can make friends. Maybe I should find some fiction books to help her.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I hadn’t been thinking about this application in the original article, but I’m glad that my words helped and hope you’re able to find the right book for her to enjoy this summer!

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