Go Ahead — Manipulate Your Readers

Manipulate Your Readers

The Best Authors Are the Best Manipulators

It’s all about what we put into people’s heads without having them notice that we’re doing it. We have to make them trust us so they’ll follow us into whatever world we want to lead them.

Why would an author want to manipulate his readers?

Let me put it another way: Why would an author want his readers unable to stop themselves from turning the pages? Unable to control their fear, their pleasure, their curiosity? Unable to control the need to run out and buy this author’s [yours?] next book and isolate themselves once again on this author’s story-island?

We want it. We do. And it’s all about our choice of words. Seriously. That’s it. That’s all.

Easy-peasy, right?

Mm. Maybe not.

In order to manipulate the reader with words, we have to know the meanings of words.

I think it was in Grade 9 that I read a dictionary from aa to the end of z. (Back in those days we had only TV — and one channel at that — to distract us.)

There are so very many lovely, delicious, enticing, amazing words, aren’t there? Like pilgarlic, for example. This is the first time since 1959, that I’ve been able to actually use it. Hooray. How exciting. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use it again.


Let’s say I wish to inject a mood or tell the reader something about Theresa in a passage, maybe both.

For the first time in person, Theresa is meeting a man she met on an online dating site:

“Yes,” she told the host. “The window seat is perfect. Thank you.” From this vantage point she would be able to watch for FaithfulMan271 — no matter from which direction he came — and size him up without his noticing her doing it.

But as she waited and waited, the pilgarlic staring at her from the farthest corner of the dark restaurant began to make her nervous. Had she made the right decision to meet FaithfulMan271 in this part of the city?

Now, first of all, most readers won’t know the meaning of pilgarlic and will have to look it up. (Here’s the definition: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pilgarlic) Most won’t bother. If they do, they will need to decide: Is the narrator intending the first use of the definition of pilgarlic? A bald man? Or the second: a man looked upon with humorous contempt or mock pity?

I would assume the second definition if this section of the book is supposed to convey that Theresa is a snooty, judgemental little bitch.

I would assume the former if FaithfulMan271 lied on the dating site [no! really?] and also put up a picture of his much, much younger self, and has made certain to arrive first so he can check Theresa out and make his escape if she is not up to snuff*. The first definition might also indicate that Theresa is a sweet young thang being stalked by a bald man. (Using “bald man” in this case, would give an author a great way to have the stalking antagonist easily spotted in a crowd.)

But forcing our reader to stop in mid-sentence to look up a word in the first place, then have to decide which definition is intended, is just plain mean. (In this case, I’m using “mean” as a euphemism for “stupid”.)

I’ve been a voracious reader since forever. I was a typesetter for 20 years, of a great deal of government gobbledygook — in both official languages — as well as typesetting scientific journals for eight of those years. So I know (understand) a lot of words. But when I am reading a book with an enticing title that leads me to believe this book will be some kind of fast-paced adventure, and discover to my disappointment that I have to meander through a forest of florid, flamboyant, ornate, fancy, convoluted, high-flown, high-sounding, magniloquent, grandiloquent, baroque, orotund, overblown words just for the guy to put the garbage out at the curb, I will sadly set the book aside until later. Much later. Maybe even lend this book to that friend who never returns them …

We must use words that will trigger primitive responses in our readers. Single-meaning words that the eye will use as stepping stones across the sea of their imagination to the shore of our story-island are best.

*up to snuff has two very different meanings, one British, one North American. And no, silly, we aren’t allowed to use footnotes in our novels.


Next post: Remain In-Tense

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction): http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

2 responses to Go Ahead — Manipulate Your Readers

  1. OKAY still having some problems, I now receive the email re: the transplanted heads, but any comment or like I’m trying to put in does not seem to be accepted. It states I do not have a valid email address, which of course I do. Will work on this. At any rate, thank you for sharing your literary wisdom/expertise.


    Jo-Ann xoxo…



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