When you break it down to its core essence, reading is a strange phenomenon. Think about it. You take letters, form them into words, add punctuation for emphasis, and voilà, an image has formed in your brain. Your eyes track sentences across the page and you step into a world where characters live and all of a sudden a movie plays in your mind.
The only thing is the image in your (the reader’s) brain and the writer’s intent may not be the same. Let’s take an example scenario. You have opened a book to page one and the first word is Susie. Your initial image of your narrator “Susie” may have at first been conjured as a schoolgirl and a red-head with shoulder-length hair (after all the girl in your sixth grade class named Susie had flaming locks the color of a vibrant sunset). But in the next paragraph the writer has informed you that Susie is 20 years old and bald because her head was shaved during brain surgery. A mental transition occurs and Susie’s image is forever altered in your mind as the story progresses.
Health complications occur and Susie is bedridden. Poor Susie. What an awful life event to have to endure. You root for her. You discover her mother is an alcoholic. Somehow Susie rallies through her illness and goes home to care for her dysfunctional mother. You invest yourself; you want Susie to find happiness.
You read on. Life’s disappointments stack up for Susie. Her boyfriend dumps her because of her bald head. Susie’s dog gets hit by a car because her drunken mother leaves the front door open. The reader has decided Susie must find redemption. You don’t just like her, Susie has become your best friend. You think about her plight while you are driving to work. You don’t want to turn out the light at night. You must know what happens.
But wait. What is this? The doctor reveals that Susie didn’t have a brain aneurism as you had presumed. You flip back to the beginning of the book. What? Nowhere does it mention a medical cause for the surgery. Susie’s surgery was necessary because of blunt force trauma delivered by Susie’s mother. A frying pan. Susie explains as she sobs to the physician how it was an accident, that her mother was drunk and didn’t know what she was doing. But you don’t buy it. Oh, how you hate mom. You decide good things must come Susie’s way and you keep reading.
But wait. Susie has just forced her mother to take a pill. You flip pages. Slurred words, empty vodka bottles line the sink, but there isn’t any mention of Mother Dearest ever ingesting alcohol. Now, Susie’s mom is screaming about how her water tastes funny. There is truth in mom’s words. Susie thinks back about how she purchased a case of vodka, then dumped it all down the sink. She goes to the pharmacy and buys up a cocktail of drugs. You are confused. Doubt forms. Could Susie be plotting to kill mom to collect insurance money?
You decide how this story must end, Susie must be held accountable for her actions. Mom must be saved. You keep reading the words, your mind keeps forming the images, until the very last page. Sometimes you are pleased with the ending, sometimes you are disappointed.
I once heard someone say that a writer’s job is to torture your reader. When you break it down though, an author’s only weapon is letters which form words that translate to images. Sure, writers can be devious and lure you along with red herrings. But at the end of the day, the rest is up to the reader. That is the beauty of the written word.