At a conference I attended a few summers ago, 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 their 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 hopes. 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.
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?
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 10, 2019. Updated August 15, 2022.
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching young writers at the Young Writer’s Workshop or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.