Reader Interpretation and the Impact on Writing.

Have you ever discussed a book with a fellow reader?  Ever felt like you read completely different books even though the titles and covers were exact replicas?  Even though the words contained within the pages were identical?

Welcome to the world of interpretation. 

We bring our life experiences to the stories we read.  These experiences, along with our moral compasses and our self-imposed belief systems, shape the way we interpret the written word. 

Last night, Dear Daughter and I discussed speech and the scores she’d received over the past year.  She wondered why her speeches seemed to fare worse than another competitor’s.

After exploring her topics, cuttings and judges’ critiques, we came up with a viable answer.  It was one we had discussed during her speech preps: her topics are just so dang difficult.

Nay, not the topics themselves, but the discrepancy between her interpretations and the judges’ comfort levels with the delivery.

Speech One: our narrator related the story of a fellow inmate at the mental hospital.  Inmate had tried to commit suicide by lighting herself on fire.  This is dark material by anybody’s standards.  However, nobody had an issue with the topic or even the vivid details of the scars the fire left behind.  Rather, it was the narrator’s admiration for her fellow inmate that triggered the judges’ disquiet. 

DD had accurately portrayed the narrator in that she admired the inmate for her ability to take charge of her own life and so concisely act on her impulses.  Instead of understanding this perspective, the judges felt sickened that anyone could admire the gruesome nature of another child’s attempt at ending her life. 

The gist of their comments were, “Don’t smile during this part.  Show grief.  It’s wrong to admire something so horrible.  You should feel sad and disgusted at what Fellow Inmate did.”

Speech Two: DD performed the life of an emotionally neglected teen.  While recounting her character’s vast sexual escapades, DD embraced one particular account with wonderment and warmth.  Her voice softened.  Her arms embraced herself as she retraced the images of her lover dressing her and gently placing her in a cab when the night was over.  The judges scribbled furiously over this. 

“She’s fourteen.  He’s in his late twenties.  Show her being ashamed of her actions.”

“But she’s not, Mom.”  DD’s pretty astute for such a young lady.  “It was the only time she felt loved.  This was a special memory for her.  It made her feel pretty and important.  Like someone finally cared.”

Fellow blogger, Eric Trant, touches on this topic with his post: Viscerality: What is too much?  In it, he explores which topics are taboo.  Or rather, which portrayals of said topics are taboo.

I guess we all want to know the answer to that question.  What is too much?  How much of the down and dirty are we allowed to show as writers?  At what point does our character’s truth upset the delicate sensibilities or our readers?  Should that matter?

Do you, dear writers, white-wash the emotional impact of your story to keep your potential readers from walking away?  Does reader interpretation even enter your mind when penning your prose?  If so, how do you balance the final product with the truth of your story?  Do you have a secret manuscript you’re afraid to unleash because you fear people will interpret your words differently than they are meant?

Do you think more credence is given to the actual words on a page and not enough thought goes into how or why those words were delivered?  Do we need to be more aware of this so our intent is clearly spelled out or does that blatant telling cheapen the story?

Sheesh, so many questions.  I can’t wait to hear your answers.

8 responses to “Reader Interpretation and the Impact on Writing.

  1. Ooooh, such a dilemma.

    I am still learning my way through this writing thing, but I think that every story has a shape it wants to take. And when I’m working on something I try to feel the shape of it, and bring that to the page. It’s kind of like groping in the dark, looking for something you need, and it’s easy to give up and settle for the first thing that comes to hand–but if you persevere, when you get your hand on the RIGHT thing, you KNOW. So when I’m writing and revising, I try to put aside my thoughts of how the words will be received, and reach for that right shape. When you get that, you can let go of worrying about interpretation because you know you’ve told the story that needed to be told.

    Yeah. Easier said than done.

    • Michelle,

      For a self-proclaimed new writer, you have a great handle on the nuances of character emotion. Your method of feeling around in the dark for the shape of your story works for you.

  2. How funny that we were thinking the same thing. I can tell you as a judge, I would have caught on to what your daughter was angling at, or I hope I would have.

    This topic has given me a lot to ponderize. You mention the secret manuscript — I already mentioned I have a secret short story, but I also have a secret novella. I think I may soon have a secret novel, assuming this one reaches the goal word count.

    If you read through the comments on my swag at this topic, you’ll see mention these points, which I take to heart, along with your own:

    o Do not portray them as hopeless.
    o Write it not to shock, but because it ~needs~ to be written.
    o Do no glorify the act. (This is where the judges got caught up, believing it was glorification, when in fact the author’s intent and your daughter’s interpretation did exactly what it was meant to do, which was JOLT them with some reality!)

    – Eric

    • Eric,

      Thanks for the great run-down for other readers. All of your points are very valid and we would do well to keep them in mind when writing on touchy topics.

      I wouldn’t doubt if most writers have that dark, scary, secret story that had to be written tucked away somewhere private. I just sent mine to my agent. And while it scares me silly to think of the judgement that may be passed because of the way the story is told, there was simply no other way to tell it. Nothing is gratuitous, but it’s raw and dark and really challenges the reader emotionally. I have no idea if it’s something suitable for the world, but I think we all need to let go of our fears a bit and try it out. See where it goes.

      Also, I have no doubt in my mind that you would make a great speech judge. You don’t seem to view things in black and white, nor are you afraid to reach outside convention. It’s what I love about your personality and your blog.

      Thanks~ Cat

  3. That’s one thing I disliked intensely about speech and why I didn’t continue it. The judges are about as far away from objective as you can get. It wasn’t about delivery or ability, but rather if you told a story that the judge liked.

    Really, it was the same for writing as well. Teachers didn’t like the content and so ignored the ability. Yay for our education system and limited social norms.

    • LOL, tell me how you really feel!

      Yes, I agree on so many levels. But really, speech judges and education systems are a product of our humanity and our inability (or lack of desire) to see things greater than what is average.

      I don’t mean that in terms of genius, but rather in terms of kids/things/practices/ideas that challenge the traditional. Average is comfortable. Normal is comfortable. Social convention is comfortable.

      Stretching beyond our comfort zones is painful and petrifying. And yet there are those who still do it. Thankfully!

      I bet you had some pretty awesome speeches…just sayin’.


  4. The answer to this depends on why we are writing. If we are writing for the purpose of making a living, then we need readers and should have their enjoyment at the forefront. If we are writing out of passion, then we should let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps, using a pseudonym to protect our primary platform.

    Personally, I think that as writers, we do our readers a disservice when we water down the emotion and passion of a story. However, each individual must make their own choice on this matter. Neither is right or wrong and both have valid uses and reasons.

    • “If we are writing out of passion, then we should let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps, using a pseudonym to protect our primary platform.”

      How many can a writer have…?


      But your point is well-received. I have considered it for my dark YA and depending on what happens with it, I may need to go this route. I hope not, because juggling one identity is hard enough. I’m not sure how well two would go over with my time constraints!

      Like you, I think that every project has its own answer–even if it’s a hard one to make at times.

      Thanks so much for weighing in.

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