Thursday, September 2, 2010

How Long Do Readers Remember?

I've been working on a couple of stories, a novella and a longer, novel-ish type thing, and in both I introduce some small story threads in the beginning that come up throughout the story. But, I'm wondering if the reminders of the threads are too infrequent, if they end up feeling disconnected because of how far apart they are. As an example, in one story I mention a rumor about a monster that's running around in the streets, a wolfman. I mention it twice in the first ten pages, but then it doesn't come up again until page 50, when we figure out how the rumor got started. Both times it's not a big announcement, and the story works just fine without it. But, I like it, and I'd love for readers to understand it.

Do you think 50 pages is too long for a reader to remember a small detail?

And, how do you feel about stories that you end up having to reread to fully understand?

Oh, also, I have a short story coming out in a new anthology and will be doing a reading at Skylight Books here in LA if anyone is interested. If you are interested, don't tell me though, I'm nervous enough about it as it is. It's hosted by Janet Fitch!


  1. I think it depends on the storyline and the effect the rumour has on the characters.

    I think that with the right sort of writing, the reader would be smart enough to keep up.

    The rumour must have something to do with the story though...

  2. I'd say 50 pages isn't too long to have to remember something. Besides, being able to reread something and see the puzzle pieces lining up to fall into place is, for me, one of the very best parts of a good book.

    For one example, Sirius Black is first mentioned not in the 3rd Harry Potter book but in the very first chapter of book 1. It's not the sort of fact that sticks in one's mind until, after reading the third, one gets the urge to revisit the first and sees the name again.

    If your reader looks at the story again, they'll be able to see that you set the details up right for them to fall into place, and they'll probably appreciate it.

  3. Good luck with the reading! That is awesome. On your questions - I don't think 50 pages is too long for most readers.

  4. I prefer stories where I have to flip pages back to catch all the details to the ones that repeat things more than they need to but fifty pages really isn't that long. I think your readers will remember.

  5. Misha, The rumor does have something to do with the story, but only in a very minor way. It's a detail that I think is interesting if someone notices it, but it doesn't hurt the story if you completely gloss over it.

    Dominique, I'm relieved to hear you say that! I do also like to reread things, but I need to feel that I was able to get through a story the first time with some sense of understanding. Great point about Sirius Black.

    Christine, Thanks! It has been awhile since I've done a reading in front of a big crowd. I'm trying to stay cool about it for now, but I should get practicing!

    Taryn, that's a really good point. I hate books that hit you over the head over and over and over again with the same point because the writer thinks it's so clever.

  6. I think it depends on how important the detail is. If it strongly relates to the plot or characters, I always like to have it repeated a time or two.

    Hope the reading goes well!

  7. I think that if it works for you, it's probably fine the way it is. I think you're overthinking this. I have these sorts of references in my books, and I figure that either the reader gets them or not. I have no control over it. I also assume that my reader is going to be smarter than I am.

  8. I don't think that's too long for the readers. If you've mentioned it twice at the beginning, that should be good enough.

  9. Fifty pages is way too long. It better be a heck of a rumor.

  10. I'd probably remember a detail about a monster roaming the streets. I'd feel let down if it never tied back in. 50 pages isn't too long.
    Have a great time at your reading. It's one of those times when you wish you could just relax and enjoy the experience even though the changes are slim :)

  11. i love callbacks and complex plotlines.

  12. It depends on the execution. If the first mention is so off-hand that the reader can't reasonably recall it when the subject is called back, no good. But if the first mention can make an impact, then even if the reader doesn't have the incident att he top of their mind it can still be reintroduced with clarity.

    Stand-up comics do it all the time; it's called a callback. They frame one short joke early in the set, and then come back to it as a punchline later in the set, usually at the end of something much more elaborate.

  13. There's no harm in repeating important facts. Let's face it every TV serial begins with a recap these days. It really depends on how important the fact is. In the case of a mystery you actually want your readers to lose track of the facts to a certain extent which is why you drop the clues in without any great fanfare.

    Personally I have a poor memory and if there are more than four characters in a story I have to start writing notes so I know who everyone is.

  14. If I see mention of a rumor of a wolfman running around in the streets, you better believe I expect it to influence the plot at some point later in the book. It's like a gun on the mantlepiece. The mere fact it is there in Act One means someone better use it in Act Three. I don't think you have to worry about people missing it. Don't talk down to your readers.

    And if someone doesn't catch it until the second read, but then it all makes sense, so much the better! I love re-reading books to see how all the little hints added up before I realized it.

  15. Loren, thanks. The detail isn't significant, but maybe people will get it the second time around if not the first.

    Scott, it's very hard for me to say if it works for me, though. Something like that I feel I can't evaluate on my own as the writer.

    coffeelvnmom, okay, thanks. Part of the reason I brought it up a second time was because I did want it to be a little bit stronger.

    lakeviewer, it's definitely not a heck of a rumor! It's just an interesting tidbit at best.

  16. I am going to go off on a slight tangent..:D
    I like details that are not of immediate consequence. As a kid one of my problems with many books that I read was the fact that every action seemed to have a major consequence, which seemed very unrealistic to me..I like details which have more subtle effects and that don't affect the main plot..

    Your question seems to address another issue though (about subtle symptoms having big effects). And I think, 50 pages isn't too long. It is short enough that, if the reader did forget the detail, it wouldn't take too much time to go back and cross check (especially if it is in the initial bit of the story)..It could also serve as a wake up call for the reader! With most (great books) books, I feel, like the the more I put into the book, the more i get out.

    very cool regarding the reading. Good luck with that. And I will not tell you that I am interested..:)


  17. Jolene, I'm glad that detail sounds significant to you! And thanks for the encouragement on the reading. I will partially be fun for sure, especially when it's over. :)

    B. Nagel, that's great to hear!

    Rick, much of this cannibal story has its roots in stand up comedy for sure. :P Seriously, this is a good point. Thank you!

  18. Jim, Thanks for explaining this. I also get confused when there are a lot of characters in books and I start to make charts myself. It's tough because those are also the stories I tend to write. Maybe that makes me more sensitive to it.

    Tara Maya, I'm glad you think that's an important detail. :) You're right that I shouldn't talk down to my readers. I think I often talk down in an attempt to be clear. Those two things don't have to go hand in hand, and I need to remember that.

  19. Lavanya, some excellent points! I really like what you say about the wake up call, because I know I've dealt with that myself as a reader. When I don't know the author, I do try to get a measure of how important every detail is. Some writers randomly digress (not necessarily in a bad way) while other writers make every detail important. When I stumble upon something that tells me I need to pay closer attention, I usually respect the writing more and have more fun reading it.

  20. I should clarify, Domey, that in what I've read of your writing, being overly obvious is not a weak spot for you. :) I'm very excited there is a wolfman, or at least the rumor of one, in this novella. Is this the same one that also has cannibals? Because, wow, wolfmen AND cannibals is pretty damn cool.

  21. Ha ha! Yes, the wolfman and the cannibal are together in the same story. Aren't you excited! Thanks for your offer to read my work, by the way. I'm going to take you up on that, and if you want me to read your work, I'm happy to do the same!

  22. For me, I think it depends on how crucial remembering the detail is for reader comprehension. If remembering enrichens their experience, deepens their understanding, or broadens their perspective, 50 pages is certainly not too many. It can be fun to mentally trace back those threads. (No one will get lost in book three if they don't remember the first reference to Black.)

    However, if remembering the previous references to the detail is essentially for comprehending your story, you are left with the following question:

    * Is it okay for a group of readers to get frustrated and give up, or do I want this to appeal to readers of all levels?

    If you want to appeal to a broad audience, then you usually want to avoid obstacles to comprehension. If you're willing to admit that your story is targetted higher on the reading comprehension scores, it may not be a concern at all.

    So the keys are target audience and how essential the earlier references to the detail are.

  23. Congratulations on the reading--that's awesome, and it sounds like great company to be in.

    I don't think 50 pages is too long, but it depends. I'd expect beta readers to point it out if it was too obtuse.

  24. Great! I am very eager to read the cannibal story, and pretty much terrified to have you read anything I've written. Especially since Dindi, alas, has no algae in it. An oversight which I corrected with the other series, of course. It could be that's what I was missing all along.

  25. I think many readers will catch the references, even if they're 100 pages apart. People are good at pattern recognition.

  26. Personally, I like small story threads in the beginning that come up throughout the story, even if they are far between. I'm a careful reader and so I get excited when it seems the writer is leading me along with breadcrumbs. Even if I've overlooked or forgotten about it until the end, I love the surprise.

  27. Ah... in that case, I think I'd keep the rumour there to add richness to the story.

    It might be my personal preference though, since I love when a story makes sense of some weird things that pop up in a story. If it doesn't slow the plot and if the reader missing the point of the rumour doesn't ruin the story, I'm all for including it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.