How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reader Response Theory

One thing that used to bother me as a writer is that I would always have a point I wanted to make, and not really know how to make it.

My attempts to be obvious were heavy-handed and artless, and when I was subtle I found that the stories I wanted to tell didn’t say what I wanted to say.

This was the cause of no mean frustration for me, since younger me wanted to make a point with everything, to the point of ultimately giving up and writing either stuff that I considered meaningless drivel or stuff that was so chock-full of symbolism and heavy-handed ideas that it lacked any real development or originality.

It’s not that I no longer want to make points. My writing will always have a point. That’s not something you can get over. But I remembered something I heard about in college, and used that to change the way I worked.

What is Reader Response Theory?

Reader Response Theory, henceforth abbreviated RRT, is a notion that the meaning of a work will be constructed by the reader, not the writer, of the text.

RRT speculates that the mechanism of meaning is to  be derived from the interactions between the text and will be changed by the mindset of the receiving individual. This reception can be painted by the culture of the reader and also their experiences and opinions, leading to a broad range of diverse interpretations between people each bearing their own meaning.

What does it do to a writer?

I’m not slavishly devoted to RRT, so I should start with that. But it’s encouraged me to look at different things. One of the things I noticed about Ayn Rand’s fiction is that despite the fact that it is quite heavy-handed in its political agendas, it rarely says them outright. Nor does CS Lewis or HG Wells or other politically motivated writers, but that doesn’t mean those ideas aren’t there.

What RRT means for me as a writer is fairly simple: I don’t worry about making a particular meaning in my work and imparting it. That doesn’t translate to giving up on making my writing meaningful: I have points I want to make, and I am more than willing to create stories that make those points.

The difference is simply that in my writing I no longer attempt to fixate myself on a meaning. RRT logically extends the notion that by doing so, you lock everyone who is not receptive to that meaning out from the comprehension or enjoyment of your text, depending on what their barrier is (background knowledge versus preference).

How to write meaningful stories without meaning.

The idea of meaningful stories is simply “I want people to be able to learn from this” as a core goal in the writing process.

This is different from stories with a meaning; “I want people to be able to learn X from this” is not the same animal at all.

But, obviously, it is much simpler to write a story with just one point to make. Aesop’s Fables are still beautiful, even if they are simply designed for a moral lesson. Good craft is good craft.

But, for those of us who are at that intersection between brilliant writers and novices, how do we put meaning (rather than a meaning) into our stories?

By learning as much as we can about the world and life, and subjecting our characters to that.

This goal, of course, is impossible. Barring the restrictions of time and resources, we can learn a theoretically infinite amount (though whether it becomes useful is another matter, and whether we will be able to recall it is equally dubious).

The tragedy of almost every writer is that we have to write now, without the wisdom that we will have tomorrow, and without the experience we will have next week.

But we have systems and tools to fill that gap for us.

My first serious novel attempt, The Gates of Arstelem (unfinished, sadly), is an allegory based on a handful of Biblical events that are conflated together into a fantasy world. It’s not intended to proselytize, but it is nonetheless a work based on Scripture.

The reason for this is simple:

When I pitched ideas I came up with, they were often met with iffy reception by my friends and audiences. Nobody was too excited about them beyond the cool factor they could have, and cool factor is transient.

But, The Gates of Arstelem had more than that, it had some lasting meaning drawn from stories that still matter to this day.

You don’t need to write in allegory to have meaning, however.

Archetypes are broad over-arching concepts and motifs that recur across myth, art, and literature.

Use archetypes, and you’ll find that a lot of your job as a writer has been done for you. They’re common enough that your readers will recognize them.

This ties into RRT because you can predict what your reader’s response will be. Using archetypes allows you to bridge the gap between your mind and the reader’s mind, serving as a sort of common language.

Using these methods, you set your story as part of the canon of the world, rather than a stand-alone entity. Instead of trying to send a message, you can send many messages, as easily as if you were walking leisurely down the street talking to friends.

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