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Meta-reading -- by Rick Ellrod

The Sign of the Sequel

Ever find yourself approaching the end of a new book—and you realize there’s no way the author can tie up the plot in what remains of the novel?  It’s that moment when you realize:  we’re in for a sequel.

That realization may be awful, or it may be exciting, depending on how much you enjoy the story so far.  But it changes the way you look at the book you’re reading, to know it isn’t complete in itself, but only part of a larger tapestry.  Your sense of the pacing and the shape of the story has to adjust.

Book open on its back, pages spreadBut the story alone hasn’t told us there will be a sequel.  Rather, we’re drawing on something outside the text itself—our knowledge of how much of the book remains—to tell us something about the story.

Years ago, when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, I almost missed the last chapter altogether.  The conclusion of the novel consists of a series of successive surprises, each overturning the last.  The second-to-last chapter seemed to end so conclusively that I only turned the page because I was in the habit of reflectively turning over the blank endpapers of a book.  —And there was the final chapter!  I could only make that mistake, however, because the last chapter was so short—six pages in my hardcover edition.

It’s harder to make that kind of observation in an e-book, where there are no physical pages to observe.  You can usually find a percentage or “location” indicator, but it’s not quite as obvious as the physical thickness of the pages.

Let’s call this process of drawing on outside information “meta-reading.”

Sources of Meta-Information

There are a number of sources from which we glean this meta-information, consciously or not.

Starting from the broadest case, we get some information from the genre to which the book belongs.  If you find a book in the science fiction section of the bookstore, then no matter how mundane the opening scenes may be, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is going to turn up at some point.  If you’re reading a genre romance, you can rely on the ironclad rule that a genre romance must have a happy ending:  either “happily ever after,” or at least “happily for now”—HEA or HFN.  Even if the characters’ relationship seems doomed as you approach the ending, you can be pretty sure it’ll turn out well—which may not be the case in a “mainstream” novel.

Getting to know an author’s habits and preferences is another way to guess what’s going to happen in the end.  If we’ve read a fair sampling of an author’s work, we can gauge fairly well the chances of a happy ending, the likelihood of violence or sex scenes, the kinds of characters you’re likely to meet up with.  It’s a little more tense approaching the end of a book by a new author, because we’re not yet familiar with what kinds of tricks the writer may (or may not) be willing to pull at the denouement.

Then there’s the back-cover blurb, or the flyleaf—often the reason we pick up the book in the first place.  The half-dozen paragraphs or so of teaser text on the flyleaf are designed to tell us just enough to get us interested.  They shouldn’t give away the whole plot, but they do create expectations—which the book as a whole may or may not meet.  Something that comes as a complete surprise to the characters may be something the reader is already primed for, because it’s part of the plot setup that the blurb describes.

Reviews take this principle further.  A review may include spoilers, but even without actual spoilers, it tells is something even before we open page one.

Once we get into the book, there are still more clues.  Chapter titles are out of fashion these days, but if there are such titles, they inevitably tell us something about what’s going to happen.  In my current novel-in-progress, I use temporary chapter titles that remind me what happens in the chapter, but remain obscure enough not to telegraph the outcome to test readers.  Still, when you reach the chapter titled “The Battle of Tremont,” you’re inevitably going to have an idea what to expect.

Finally, in the example I started with, the length of the book tells us something.  As we move through the story, we can measure our sense of pacing with the literal progress through the pages.  There have been a number of cases where it’s looked as if the plot was being wrapped up nicely, and I’ve looked at the mass of material still to come and thought, Something’s bound to come unglued here . . . or we wouldn’t have a hundred pages to go.

Setting Expectations

This kind of insight relies on an awareness of narrative practices.  There are internal necessities to good storytelling.  Guessing the imminence of the climax from the number of remaining pages, for example, depends on our assumptions about how much time after the climax will be devoted to wrapping things up—which, in a long story like The Lord of the Rings, can take quite a while.

Likewise, gauging the amount of space needed to resolve the plot assumes that the plot will be resolved.  Good authors don’t leave things totally dangling.  Our use of meta-reading plays off our assumptions about how stories are told—and can go awry if the author’s views are radically different from the reader’s.

For that very reason, the writer of a story has to take into account the context in which the reader encounters the story, and the expectations raised in that context.  The reader doesn’t come to the story as a blank slate.

If there will be major surprises in the tale, the writer (and publisher) need to make sure they aren’t given away in the blurbs.  If the author wishes to undermine the expectations created by genre classification or advertising, it’s important to be aware of the consequences.  Subverting reader expectations can be illuminating and satisfying to the reader, but it can also be annoying and frustrating. The implicit contract between writer and reader—‘I’m going to tell you a story you will enjoy’—places boundaries on just how subversive one can be without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

The writer’s conversation with the reader, then, extends well beyond the contents of the text itself.  It’s something that’s useful to remember for the writer—and the reader as well.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 8 Aug 2017 at 02:06
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Responses to this blog

Kath 8 Aug 2017 at 11:44  
The physical book can also trick the reader when it includes twenty-thirty pages of the first chapter of the next book the author is promoting. You see the story is winding down settling into the conclusion, hoping something else might be added to the mix, but the story ends over the page.

Or you've missed that it's the first part of a trilogy and that info is in tiny letters on the busy title page. I hate it when I've read a complex story line and I'm near the end of the book and I just know the strands won't be tied up neatly. Then discover it's the first volume...
Onalimb 8 Aug 2017 at 15:52  
I wish you could hear me clapping. Yes, absolutely. It's an underappreciated aspect of writing, one you've analyzed clearly and explained beautifully. Although we can never predict all expectations, we can predict many. Understanding them can help us use them to advantage, without being broadsided by them.

One of the things I love about e-books is that the metadata allows the author to clearly denote whether the book is part of a series, which one it is, and how many books are in the set. I have no objection to books in a series, but dislike the ones that leave you guessing about which ones belong and what order they're in.

Spaulding 8 Aug 2017 at 17:07  
I hope publishers, writers, or both get this down better.

I read a very good book — The Giver — until the end. The end wasn't. It wasn't an ending. You don't send a teen and a baby into the unknown wilderness as the ending of the book. It bothered me. A year or two later, I learned it was the beginning of an unusual quadrilogy. The first three books were separate stories of separate people, and then in the last book they intersect.

I get the problem. Especially for novices for trad pub. No one knows if the first will sell. Good writing, hope, and good marketing help, but no one knows.

Because of that, I did go with a satisfying ending, but it's not the ending the readers will expect — HPE. I hate cliffhanger endings, so the best I can do is HFN.

Any idea how we can tell readers "I hope this is the first in a series," before we know we have enough readers to make it the first in a series? I don't think anyone is trying to trick readers. We're stuck on the not-knowing part.
Rellrod 9 Aug 2017 at 02:33  
Kath — I've noticed the same thing about the tactic of putting the opening of the next book at the end of a volume. Not only does it throw off my sense of when to expect the conclusion, with a distinct jerk; in addition, I don't want to read the teaser opening, because I won't be able to continue with the whole story. It seems like a cheap trick.

Teepack 10 Aug 2017 at 00:54  
I read until I come across the words The End and then I know I am done.

Botanist 10 Aug 2017 at 02:30  
Rick, I had that happen to me only last month — the story finished quicker than I expected and was padded out with the start of another. I felt somewhat cheated.

Also, I've hit the "not enough novel left to finish the story" too often to be funny. Recently, the author at least had the decency to wind things up to enough of a conclusion for me not to throw the book at the wall, but I never forgave the author that finished mid flow, expecting the reader to proceed straight to the next 600-page book. Sequels and series are fine, but unless you explicitly advertise the book as only part of a story it should be a satisfying read as a standalone, otherwise to me it's misleading.
Bananas 10 Aug 2017 at 10:58  
Love this article. And from the author POV, it's instructive to keep track of the relative location in the ebook so we can see how other writers are handling turning points, for example, at the 25% and 50% marks. However, some popular authors are scamming the Kindle Unlimited system, padding their ebooks with not just one chapter of another book but several entire "bonus" books (books that exist elsewhere on amazon, equally padded out) to earn more $$$$. Amazon is reportedly clamping down on this practice, but I still see it a lot.
Kcm 10 Aug 2017 at 12:44  
Wonderful treatise, Rick. I particularly like your poem "meta-read." It satisfies my need to latch onto the idea being communicated. Now that I have done, dare I append (employing a mega-cliche) that, for me, the experience — good or bad—drawn from read itself is the "tip of the iceberg." It matters little in comparison to what I'm able to draw from my meta-read.

My meta-read is well underway as I mske my book selection. It needs to be for the selection process to be enjoyable. It's on-going and is fueled well enough now to persist even if books ceased to exist. Your term describes the all and everything of reading books, methinks.

Turning to another facet of the conversation, there was a time when writers—Dickens for one—knew how to exploit serialization of their stories for purposes of adding enjoyment to the purchaser's meta-read experience.


Rellrod 12 Aug 2017 at 02:32  
Yes . . . Arguably the whole reading experience isn't complete until it includes the choice and anticipation, the reading, the appreciation-as-a-whole, the critical analysis (if you go for that sort of thing), the 'emotion recollected in tranquillity,' the rereading . . .


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