Friday, 14 September 2012

Are You Receiving Me...?!

When a writer gets inspired, he takes the world he wishes to communicate and telescopes it down, through the limiting lens of language, into a written form. What we get as readers - perhaps 100 years later, perhaps a world away - is a pile of paper with symbols on it. The reader doesn't get given a world by the author - the author isn't there - the reader gets a lot of words to interpret, and draws the author's world out of himself.

Reception Theory... a branch of literary theory that deals with the critical role played by the reader in the literary process. Without a reader, the pile of paper bequeathed to us by a writer is a dormant, useless object - as lifeless as a stone. It takes a reader with adequate ability to bring meaning to the writers words and generate a version of the writer's world in the form of mental structures in his mind, created exclusively from the reader's own knowledge and experience. A child may know all the words in an adult book, but cannot make sense of it because he doesn't have the necessary life experience and knowledge to create the intended structures in mind. And - get this - because we all have a different profile in terms of life knowledge and human experience, every single reading of a text produces a unique individual production of the writer's world. Every single reading of a text is a unique interpretation. A new version of that story personalised to that reader at that time of reading. Even two readings by the same reader will be different from each other.

A receiver of a narrative is not simply a reader of text but a producer of story.


How Can I Use This as a Writer?

Well, if a reader draws on his own life and human experience to produce a version of your story, you, as a writer, must write about the shared human values and experiences that will stimulate and excite the mind of your reader. What kind of writer activity does that to best effect?

To do this, we have to write in two ways: Firstly, Denoted information. We provide solid, factual information that is interpreted the same way by all readers to create a consistent story framework. If I tell you a story about a 'BEAR', you will get an image in your mind. But this is not enough information. She got a Polar bear; he got a fluffy teddy; you got a koala; I meant Angry Grizzly. So the denoted information must be clear and solid in order that the framework of the story is the same for everyone whatever their life experience. If I say I am about to be attacked by an angry Grizzy bear, we're all aligned with the same denoted picture in mind because we all have a common understanding of what an angry Grizzly bear 'means' to a person.

Secondly, Connotated information. This is where we get to the very substance of story. This is the information the reader brings to the party himself that fills in the gaps we deliberately leave in-between the planks of our clear and solid denoted framework. Let me put some more structures in your mind. I tell you I am being attacked by an angry Grizzly bear. I am cornered in a college music room and have only instruments to protect myself. You have a clear (denoted) picture of the situation because you know what an angry Grizzly 'means' and you know what a college music room is like; but now, you do something more. Your human understanding of the position of being cornered by an angry Grizzly has you responding emotionally and appropriately. The human in you wants to survive the bear attack, and your mind instantly searches for answers. There are possibilities that are unstated, and you instantly begin filling in gaps yourself - projecting possibilities, running through a mental list of musical instruments to find which I could possibly use to protect myself from being torn to pieces by a bear. THIS is story - not what I said, but what I didn't say. Not what I gave you, but what you gave to yourself from the threat you perceive that stimulated your human emotional response. If you are being attacked by a bear in a music room, what do you do to protect yourself? You can guess, and you do guess instinctively, but now we are getting somewhere as a writer, because the reader will read on, because he wants to know what happens next, and he instinctively feels a need for more information. This is the need you must work on as a writer. You have (presumably) no experience of bears in music rooms, so the story has stimulated you to new mental structures and new mental stimuli. The human brain likes this.

Mental stimulation through story comes from knowledge gaps. Show someone a gap in knowledge in your (denoted) story framework - work on human emotions to raise questions and create unknowns - and your readers will project knowledge into the gap and test it whether you ask them to or not. Then they read more. They cast around your story, desperate for new and more information to fill knowledge gaps because there is nothing like a gap in knowledge to make a person feel uncomfortable, insecure, intrigued, curious... and utterly engaged in the process of finding out the information that goes into that gap in knowledge and fills in the denoted framework from their own experience. This is story. And your reader needs to know what happens next...

What happened next? Me and the bear are forming a band. He's an amazing lead guitarist. Giraffe on drums. Mole on piano. Three hippos in short skirts on backing vocals. 

Did you get a picture...?! Of course you did. But if I said that in my band there was a dremble-fogger mindi-lobbing furiously on a lingle, it wouldn't mean anything, and you won't get a picture (not the same as anyone else's, anyway!); not because they don't exist - they do - I invented them - but because these things are not part of our shared life experience. I sincerely hope not, anyway. Those dremble-foggers can give you nightmares when they mindi-lob...