Pavlov’s Reader: How to Train Your Audience to Your Prose.

You’re not the only writer out there (I advise to, most likely a host of, other writers here). You’ve read your own writings along with the writings – as wild and intricate as they come – of many authors. You’re prose is unique, which is good; but then again it’s unique, which is perplexing—especially in everyone else’s eyes. All of it: the restraint, the descriptions, the verbiage, and the punctuation.

Ahh that is key here: punctuation.

Apologies for the bluster of unnecessary – but in this case, very necessary – punctuation marks; so really, you’re welcome.

I just picked up three books and judged a few lines in the latter half of each book to see if the prose warranted the purchases. In one of the books (A Demon In Silver by R.S. Ford) I was offset by the author’s use of a single quotation mark to indicate spoken lines.

‘We could always ask to enlist in their army.’

The ice spike in my spine was due to my own proclivity to use single quotation marks to indicate thought lines.

‘Where did she go? These crowds are too thick to see anything. I wish I was taller.’

How long would it take me to adjust to the change? What length of time would be acceptable? And, most importantly, could it reduce my enjoyment of the story?

I feared these differences could obstruct any fluidity in my reading. Stops and starts to sort out what was meant every few lines.

‘And every author will have their own rules—so why not make mine known at the starting line?’ I thought.

The spark, it laid there.

To all author’s reading (even if you don’t consider yourself an author, for there is a definite chance you’ll have ideas, emotions, and stories you’ll have to communicate in the written word) make sure you train your reader to your writing idiosyncrasies.

Here’s how I’ve tailored my opening chapter, pages, and sentences to this end.

  • Speaking lines: “Cherry Park’s still underwater. Let’s just walk around Walmart a bit,” said Tom.
    • The quotation can be proceeded or preceded by a simple speech tag.
  • Lists: Ecstatically unloading boxes of fireworks from his car, Jeremy listed them off: Sidewalk Slammers, M-500’s, Patriots’ Pride, Bazooka Stuffers, Dragon Breath Bottle Rockets, and so on.
    • The “list” tag before the colon signifies the punctuation mark’s purpose directly before it’s used.
  • Emphasis: “If this sale doesn’t bring in the people—we’re gonna have to close up shop.” Dread tainted her admission.
    • The plot significance of the second half of the sentence and the power in the words used to describe the delivery give importance to the use of the M-dash.
  • De-emphasis/Aside:  Cassy passed the half decayed mill (which had always been abandoned as long as she could remember) on her way to St. John’s Middle School.
    • Since the mill and its abandonment don’t factor in to this specific part of the story the parenthesis evokes non-critical information. However, this can be turned on its head later in the plot with the set-up location of the mill given much attention on the page and much attention from Cassy or another character.
  • Sounds: Father descended the weak wooden staircase in his hefty work boots. Thump Thump Thump they echoed with each beaten step.
  • Emphasis of a Single Word: “I love a good Chicago Dog.” He made his point removing the ketchup from the lunch table.
    • The second bird with this stone comes when the audience understands the meaning of how you chose to emphasize a single word and can automatically transfer that onto the story’s narration.
  • Cut-Off Speech: Hassan tried to reason, “If we get groceries first, then on the way back–” But Dianna interjected, “But I’m hungry now! Can’t we just go through the drive-thru first and eat in the car?”

For the first instance – the introduction – of these, or any, special punctuation marks I spell out – or strongly hint to – their meaning as they’re used. After that, it’s a matter of reinforcement as needed.

The most common, easily accessible punctuations can be parceled out sparingly like at the start of a new chapter when a reader might have put the book down for a night. Don’t over tag all spoken lines with he said she said. Respect your audience’s intelligence.

Less commonly used punctuations, or punctuations where the variety of reinforcements available can be used to bolster your prose’s power, may need reinforcement when there’s a large gap between uses. Respect your audience’s memory.

Perhaps it’s not specifically punctuation in your work that the audience needs to comprehend.

Perhaps it’s the real estate of the page.

Or the sentence structure which for you carries great importance. Or it could be repetition of important phrases or motifs. Yes, important motifs.

Regardless, the further into the story the reader gets the more in tune they’ll be to your style—a subconscious connection between them and the story to help pour whatever message you wish to convey into their welcoming brain. Wield that power with care.

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