writing

How do you get readers to trust you?

trustI went to my bi-weekly writer’s critique group last night. We get submittals ahead of time, gather our thoughts and comments, and then each of us gets 5 minutes during the meeting to share our suggestions. This week, we were reviewing the work of one of my favorite group authors–we’ll call her Mari. She is writing an amazing piece about a family coping with Alzheimer’s. It’s character-driven fiction, but could also be classified as creative non-fiction so detailed and realistic are the scenes.

The setting is a suburban town, a care facility for patients with Alzheimer’s. In one particular scene, a favorite parakeet of one of the residents escapes and a hawk swoops down and grabs it before anyone can return it to its cage. My comments focused on Mari’s ability to community the emotion experienced by all those involved. To my surprise, other group members shared their beliefs that this was impossible–a hawk wouldn’t be found in a suburban community (it was more detailed than that, but the gist of the objections were that this was not realistic).

Which got me thinking about the willing suspension of disbelief we all afford to fiction writers. Why had I accepted a hawk in a suburban neighborhood without questioning the veracity of that occurrence? It did sound odd on its face. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a bird of prey swoop down on potential food in in a populated area. So why didn’t I–like my fellow group member–think Mari had pushed the envelope a bit too far.

The simple answer: I know Mari’s writing. She’s always detailed, accurate, well-researched in her plots and settings. As such, I love her submittals because I always learn from them.

The problem is: Few outside of our tight critique circle will know this about her. Many might react as this other woman did and reject the premise. So how do authors overcome that lack of intimacy?

I considered authors who often teach me through their writing–Stephen Hunter, Carsten Stroud, Michael Harvey, James Tabor, Ben Coes–and analyzed why I trusted them when I didn’t know them (well, Ben and I are Goodreads buddies. Yeah, we’re tight. OK, we belong to the same forum) and realized that they established their creds early and often in their writing. They often shared details that were both enlightening and believable, many times on subjects I had enough knowledge of to nod my head in agreement as I read the passage. They established themselves as an authority on the subjects they were writing about. Therefore, by the time I got to an off-the-wall scene–like hawks in a suburban area–I was inclined to trust the author and believe. It was that simple.

This is important. How many people do you talk to who list one of their first three reasons for reading as ‘to learn something’. That long list of readers includes me. I stop reading stories that don’t teach me–about life, emotions, facts, history, something. Educate me! But I don’t start out trusting an author. S/he must earn that trust by being right (almost) all the time. If s/he throws a fact out there I know is false, I’m jaded toward her/him. A second–I move on to someone new.

In Mari’s case, I’ve read her work for years. She’s accurate and I learn from her. So I trust her.

Here’s your takeaway: If you’re going to weave a plot piece into your story that strains credibility, set up your characters so readers will trust them (and you) and willingly suspend their disbelief. My fiction deals with the fascinating bits of science that few know but most would like to. Think: Jurassic Park. By the time the plot reached living 21st century dinosaurs, you were onboard, completely buying that stuff about DNA in amber (or whatever it was). How about Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I mean–why not?

How about you? How do you decide whether you trust an author or not?


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a weekly columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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20 thoughts on “How do you get readers to trust you?

  1. I judge it on fairy dust. If too many things come alone just at the right moment, they will lose my trust but if it’s plotted well, it will feel natural and I will continue on.

    • I think that’s accurate. In my example, I was inclined to let the hawk issue go because everything around it was fine. Maybe the group members who objected thought it was a ‘final straw’.

  2. I got this response via email and the sender has approved me posting it for you-all. I think you’ll find it quite thoughtful:

    Long answer here, Jacqui. Feel free to edit or eliminate altogether. I’m answering in a private email – your choice whether or not to add to your blog.

    You’ve actually asked or implied 4 questions. 1. How does a writer build trust with the reader sufficient that the reader will buy into the premise of the story? 2. What is the charge of being in a critique group? 3. What is the dynamic of reading for pleasure or erudition, as different from reading for a critique group? 4. Does what a writer presents in a novel have to be potentially or absolutely true?

    I’ll answer in backwards order.

    4. Most writers stretch history in order to write their stories. Shakespeare’s history plays were based on true historical incidents but either he knowingly changed them (sometimes significantly,) or he relied on inaccurate histories as base material. Neither detracts from the power of his plays because the ethical and social issues he addressed transcend history, and the quality of his writing is sublime. The true histories on which the plays were based are now footnotes to the dramas he created.

    Or take a contemporary, extremely contemporary popular story, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Every student of art history knows that some of what Brown presented is historically true or close to the truth, and much was total fabrication for the purpose of creating an exciting story. Most readers, however, can’t tell where the fabrication begins but don’t care because the premise and action of the book are thrilling. The basis of novel writing is that some part of every book is not historically true. In many cases only experts will be able to discern the difference and only they will complain. If we want absolute truth, we must read other kinds of books.

    3. People read books for all kinds of reasons. I am often with you: I want to learn something I didn’t know before, and if presented evidence of new material, I’ll often do additional research on my own, not to prove or disprove the writer, but just because I want to know more. I read because I like the characters, enjoy the setting, am intrigued by the plot, admire the author’s voice, and want to know what’s going to happen next. But that’s reading for pleasure.

    2. My job in a critique group is to help the writer improve his/her book. Point out the spelling and grammar errors if they detract from the story. Let the writer know that Sam seems to have become Alex and the dog that died in the last chapter is still barking in this one. The syntax leaves me so confused I can’t figure out what happened, or a phrase is so gorgeous that I’ve read it 2 or 3 times. I know that everyone begins a phone conversation with hello and how are you, but I remind the writer to skip the drab can get with the sparkle. More importantly, the sweetest man in the world cannot become a serial killer without evidence of latent psychological disorder or sudden severe trauma, and a story about a carnival in Rio cannot ignore that the people are part of Brazilian culture. The murderer cannot be a character introduced on the last page but the murder must be solved. Consistency, quality, originality, character, and plot development – some of the hallmarks of good writing.

    My job in a critique group is not to write the book for someone else or to demand such change that it becomes “what I would write” instead of helping the person write the best book they can create.

    1.Building trust begins on the first page, even with the first sentence. Stephen King has little work on this account because his readers know what to expect and are always guaranteed that he will present a fine story. He has a body of excellent work behind him and his readers know it. They trust him because he has never disappointed. They will accept what he presents.

    Mari has no such body of work behind her. No one knows who she is. She has no reason to expect anyone to trust her on her writer’s journey. She must grip her reader’s heart and mind immediately to keep that person engaged with her work because it’s pretty easy to dump an unknown work. A member of her critique group may have done her a service by pointing out how improbable her suburban hawk sounded. On the other hand, if the hawk didn’t show up until page 100, if the earlier parts of the book entertained and enlightened, then maybe the members of the critique group were looking for reasons to find fault. What was the purpose of the hunting hawk? Did it promote the story or detract so much that the story sank? What was the purpose of disbelieving the hawk? Because if hawks exist in suburban neighborhoods, and Mari knew that, then the critiquers just proved that they don’t know as much as they think.

    A good enough reason for everyone to sit back and consider: what am I really doing in this critique group, and is it really helping this person write a better book, or am I standing taller only for having knocked down someone else? Someone I know always reminds the people in my critique group to “find something nice to say.”

    Thanks for an interesting topic. Please forgive me if I went overboard.

  3. Hi Jacqui I guess it comes down to personal taste for me, sometimes something written in the first few pages that does not gel with the story turns me off the book. Yet a good writer can weave magic and have you believe in anything.

    • In a nutshell. I’ve had that experience. Usually with a new author I’m trying out, but sometimes with an author I love. I’m reading a Timothy Hallinan book right now–the series is quite different from his other. I was angry at him at first (fiddled with my comfort level), but now I’m getting used to Poke Rafferty and his voice.

  4. I’ve been following another blog whose author is having difficulty with comments from admirers falling into spam and other weird trajectories. And I want to change the title of my blog before I start. Have no idea how to manage this. I need the dummy course in blogging and computer skills – which you already gave me and I still can’t figure it out. Hopeless, but I will get it one day. Don’t give up on me. Oy!

  5. I think I stick with a novel for a variety of reasons and they must all come together. Great characters, good pace and structure and written well. (That’s subjective, we all like different things) If they all come together I tend to find I’m fairly happy to suspend my disbelief. I may notice it or I may not, but I trust that its a story I’m reading, fiction. I read crime fiction. A lot of police procedurals. A lot are factually incorrect as cops spend an inordinate amount of time doing paperwork, but I’m not reading a documentary and I already know that when I’m going in, so if its a good book and something maybe wouldn’t normally happen, I’ll go with it. It is after all fiction.

    • You’re right, Rebecca–it’s a lot of little things that push the reader over the top. I can use Rachel Abbott’s Back Road as an example (since you just interviewed her). I had never read her before so had no preconceived notions that she knew what she was talking about or didn’t. My mind was open. But when I read a Jack Reacher, my mind is sure he’s got all his plot points in a row. No need to think.

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  8. First, I think this is an example of how a good writer can weave us so deeply into the story we’re just following along.
    Second, hawks can live in urban and suburban environments. They’re not as common as in the wilderness, but they can exist, so therefore, this is realistic.

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