READER FATIGUE: WHAT IS IT?
Have you ever been reading a mystery and simply tired of trying to figure out who the killer is because the story stretches on and on? Or maybe you’re reading a drama and the ongoing sadness gets old, so you put the book away thinking you’ll come back to it someday. You may have been suffering from reader fatigue.
Tension, stretched to the max, without a break. Sadness without a single moment of comic relief. Pain without a moment of release. Any emotion sustained for a long time can wear on a reader. The person may not be able to pinpoint the exact moment that they lost interest in your work; it’s more an overall sense of getting tired. Perhaps they even liked what they were reading…until they didn’t. Too much of a good thing is still too much. That, my friends, is reader fatigue.
The most accessible example I can think of comes from a TV show, though the term for TV would be ARC FATIGUE. Same idea. Think of the show LOST. The overarching mystery is why these people have been put on island. It’s the question the characters ask themselves, the mystery that propels the story forward. Until one day when I simply stopped caring. That big mystery? It was still a mystery, but I was tired of waiting for the answer, exhausted by how long it took for the writers to give me the clues. They had me for three seasons, and then I was out of there. As far as I’m concerned, the characters are still lost on that island, floundering for answers. The reason why? Every episode the danger increased. The romantic tension increased. But the tension that seemed to escalate without a break or moment of respite. Hell, even the background stories added to the tension.
Everyday life is about more than moments of high anxiety. There is also a lighter side to life. I can’t remember any episodes where the characters laughed for more than two seconds or had lighter moments without it being a setup to drop a rock on their head. Maybe that’s my faulty memory, but even on an island, humanity would find a way to reassert itself. I bet those islanders joked around (especially once they found the beer), flirted, and experienced moments of joy (that were not immediately undercut by someone dying, getting kidnapped or a mystical beast appearing. I got tired of the show because every week was another dose of tension without a break. Great writing, but not enough variety.
HOW CAN I APPLY THIS?
Even Shakespeare had the fool, and I keep this in mind. My books are emotional, sometimes called tearjerkers. Bad things happen to my characters and things get increasingly worse as the plot moves forward. With that said, I plan for moments of respite. In IF I LIE, Quinn is intensely sad, but she spends time with George, an old veteran who has the ability to make her laugh. Those scenes with George offer a reader a break from the sadness. They also make Quinn a more complex main character. George is often called out as a favorite character in IF I LIE, and that’s one of the reasons.
If you are writing a book with sustained emotion of any kind, think about how you can counterbalance this with other emotions. A comedy can be made funnier with a few well-placed moments of drama. (ELF is a great example of this. It’s a funny movie, but there are dark moments.) A drama needs lighter moments. A suspense novel can use pauses to reevaluate clues or even laughter to make the characters relatable (DIE HARD comes to mind). Think through your arc and ask yourself if you’ve given your reader enough breaks, especially during the second act when the rising action is leading toward the climax.
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