11

I've come across some answers and questions on this site which have gotten me thinking about re-readability. It isn't something that I think about much, but now that I consider it, I think it could be the difference between buying a book and simply checking it out of the library.

I will skip over the debate on whether or not you want re-readability in your novel. Instead, I'd like to focus on the following question:

Assuming you want your novel to be read multiple times, what can you do to make it re-readable?

Does it come down to some sort of plot technique? Perhaps something to do with the characters? Is it about hiding things that the reader discovers with every new read-through? What makes/can help a novel be re-readable?


To future viewers: While I've marked Mark's answer, I would like to make sure you see the answer from SaberWriter as well. He has an excellent breakdown which should be quite useful when planning your novel.

12

A book can be a puzzle or it can be an experience. If it is an interesting puzzle, and you are the kind that likes puzzles, the puzzle may pull you through to the end. But once you reach the end, the puzzle is solved. There is no reason to read the puzzle again once you know the answer.

An experience, on the other hand, is enjoyable as a whole. If you have a profound experience reading a book, you will want to have that same experience again in the future. More specifically, you will from time to time wish to have that old experience again rather than some new experience that you might get from reading a new book.

I think there are all kinds of discrete techniques for making books that are puzzles. But I think that making books that are experiences is about overall excellence of execution. To date, at least, we have not managed to reduce all human accomplishment to repeatable techniques. Much still depends on tacit knowledge or what we might more vaguely call sensibility. One develops that sensibility, that capacity for excellence of execution, by immersion in the art.

But immersion in the art is not enough either. Lots of people have immersed themselves in the art and not emerged as artists. There is some other ingredient as well. The nearest I can come to naming it is vision. Where that comes from, I don't know. And I wish there was a way to tell if you have it or not, but I don't think there is. (I would really like to know if I have it so I could direct my energies appropriately.) But whatever it is, there is not anything that can be reduced to a repeatable technique.

EDIT: This edit is to capture something that came up in comments to a answer that has since been deleted. We don't always want to reread a book that we thought was good, or even great. Often our reaction is that we want more of the same -- more by the same author, more with the same setting, more with the same theme. It is like going on a scenic drive. You may see a superb view, but you don't loop around endlessly looking at it over and over again. In most cases, you drive on looking for the next great view.

So why do we go back to certain places over and over? Why do we read certain books over and over? A great experience is part of it. We would not go back if it were a lousy experience. But why go back instead of looking for other similar experiences? This is part intuition and part guess, but I think the answer may be comfort.

When we seek adventure, we head outward, towards the new and unknown. But when we seek comfort, we head home, to the familiar. A well loved book is a kind of home, a place of comfort. Different books may be comforting to different people, just as different places are comforting to different people.

Is there a recipe for making a book comforting? I doubt there is. Comforting is not the same thing as comfortable. I have stayed in many comfortable hotel rooms, but none of them were comforting. Home is comforting. Certain books are our literary homes and we return to them for comfort.

  • 2
    "If you have a profound experience reading a book, you will want to have that same experience again in the future." An excellent insight and distinction, and one I had not considered. Thank you. – Thomas Myron Feb 17 '17 at 19:35
  • "If you have a profound experience reading a book, you will want to have that same experience again in the future." I had that experience with C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia especially Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the boy is transformed into a dragon and the results. It's must read and definitely re-readable. Great point. – raddevus Feb 17 '17 at 19:48
  • I think that yes, like you said, people go back to books if they are comforting. Something that makes them comforting is if the character or fantasy-concept within the book relates to the reader in a special way. This would be very individual based however and I'm not sure what the writer would do to encourage their book relate to the reader in a special way, because if they pick concepts that relate to a lot of people then it likely will not be in "a special way) anymore, such as unique. – user14025 Feb 18 '17 at 20:26
7

One aspect which has turned out to be really important to me lately: Stick the landing. By this I mean that the ending of the book has to be satisfying — it has to work with the story as a whole. (That doesn't always mean a happy ending, by the way; Brokeback Mountain is a deeply sad story, but the ending is appropriate.)

Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence was really great until literally the last 20 pages or so. Over the five books the heroes assemble and have to decipher a riddle. When the event which the riddle foretells happens, it is so completely mundane and anticlimactic that I actually dropped the book. It absolutely soured me on the whole series, and I'm sort of sorry I read it now. I won't read it again now that I know the macguffin is so ridiculous. It totally undercut the entire experience of the series.

So for me, the overall experience of the book (c.f. Mark Baker's answer) has to work as a whole. If 90% of it is good but the ending fails, I won't re-read the book. (Now, separately, I have read series of books where I liked the first one, or few, but disliked the last book, and I've tossed the end book/s and kept and reread the one/s I liked.)

  • 1
    Agreed. A poor ending will sour whatever great experience the reader has had. I think of the movie The Abyss which I thought was great right up to the last ten minutes. But I could never watch it again because I would know that terrible ending was coming. The peak experience does not have to be in the ending, but the ending has to not spoil it. – user16226 Feb 17 '17 at 23:30
  • @MarkBaker the ending of the Abyss is not so terrible if you watch the director's cut. It has the same ending, but there are some key scenes that were removed for the theatrical release, and with them restored the ending is much less random and disconnected from the rest of the story, and the story as a whole is more meaningful. (Of course, disregard this if you saw the director's cut originally.) – Nathaniel Feb 19 '17 at 2:12
5
  1. Sentences that scan very well. (Very easy to read but does not mean a simple story) The scenes must play out on the "movie-screen of my mind". I am no longer reading, but instead watching the action unfold before me.
  2. An extremely detailed plot layers of plot which make the reader think about what is going on at the character level (how it effects characters involved) and how it impacts the over all story. I mention this as detailed because I'm thinking about books I would want to read again. I might want to read a book again because the plot is so interesting that I want to "look" at it again.
  3. likable characters (I do not like to watch shows with characters I don't like (unless they are the protagonists) and I definitely don't want to invest time in a story if I don't like the characters I'm reading about.
  4. Characters who change and transform as the story plays out

That's pretty much it. If you were to actually write your book with all of those, I'm sure that no matter what the genre you would have a best seller.

Yes, More Details

Of course we could go into more detail, but get these as the foundation of your novel and you win.

Edit

I've come back to give some real examples of books I've read that meet the list above and are definitely books I'd like to read again (and have read more than once already.

If you haven't read those books, read them all immediately.

  • Thank you for the breakdown. Could you include some more explanation as to why those four things are required? I'm curious about them all, but especially #2. I'm sure there are people who say they prefer simple, straight-forward plots. – Thomas Myron Feb 17 '17 at 19:32
  • @ThomasMyron Updated answer with more explanation on that item. – raddevus Feb 17 '17 at 19:45
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    I think it's interesting that two of the examples used (The Outsiders and The Pigman) were two of my favorites. Interesting characters that change and grow. I find that some of the books I've re-read fit into multiple of the categories listed. Good breakdown. – Terri Simon Feb 17 '17 at 21:28
  • I just wanted to add that I've read 4 of these 5 titles and never felt the urge to re-read them. (But I also barely remember them from reading so long ago!) – idiotprogrammer Feb 20 '17 at 0:21
  • @idiotprogrammer Sure, you've read 4 of the 5 titles, but we're talking about reading the entire books. Plus, if you've read the titles before and you just read them here in this post, didn't you just re-read the titles then? Your confusing me. :) – raddevus Feb 21 '17 at 16:47
1

One option is to add foreshadowing that readers don't notice on a first read, but can spot or appreciate on a second one. (This disagrees somewhat with another answer.)

  • 2
    Supposing you could do that (and it sounds a bit of trick to pull off) then that would mean that the book gave a different experience on the second reading. But that does not answer the question, because it is only the things the reader experience in the first reading that could make them want to read it again. Unless the first reading inspires them to want to read again, they are never going to experience the hidden things that the second reading has to offe. – user16226 Feb 17 '17 at 20:35
  • @MarkBaker That is a concern; ideally you want people to realise they should have seen something coming, but that they'll probably need to re-read to see if they can verify this by noticing details that would allow it. – J.G. Feb 17 '17 at 20:43
  • Foreshadowing can be a nice touch afterwards, but as Mark pointed out, it in itself won't get them to read the book again. Once they do read it, foreshadowing that they can appreciate in hindsight can be good. – Thomas Myron Feb 17 '17 at 21:01
1

I think a lot of people are hitting it on the head with the whole experience vs mystery solved situation solved. It's hard to watch something again after you know the mystery. The suspense loses it's edge, and many of the tricks used to keep people reading to find out more will have been spent for a second go through. In situations like this, you may want to look at something as Mark was saying about if you create a good mystery book, people will want to read more stories you did.

In terms of a story, I can't say that I have re-read any book I have come across, but I have re-watched some movies Hundreds (literally) of times. I would think that this is comparable because they both tell a story through a different medium. There are plenty of movies that after watching it, I really didn't find any desire to watch again. It was a good movie, but the experience wasn't one that when I see the title again, I go OOO that was good let me watch it again. Movies that are rewatched bring you into their world and help you to experience a great tale. I would think this sentiment applies too to books.

In the end, a story is a journey through someone's fantasy that they want to share with you (assuming it is a fantasy/fiction story). If it's enjoyable, they will want to relive that fantasy over and over again.

1

Engaging the reader's imagination, usually through building a complex world and characterization. Your plot happens the way your story describes it. Re-reading a plot usually gives nothing new to a reader unless they either forgot or missed details from the first reading of a story.

On the other hand, even though characters perform the same actions when re-read, the motivations of why they performed those actions, especially actions that require difficult choices, depends on the characters personality and motivations. The motivations of characters are usually implied and not explicitly explained to the reader. They are instead implied by the actions those characters perform during the story.

When a story is re-read, the reader, who has already built in their mind the scenery of your story, will pay more attention to non-obvious details of the story such as the motives or thoughts that a character may have, especially when the character makes make difficult decisions.

During a re-read, your readers may consider why you chose to have the plot takes the path it does, why you have written a story in a particular style, what it would be like to actually live in the world you create, or what one of the characters in the story might do in a situation other than the ones you describe. These are all ways that allow a reader to use their imagination to more fully enjoy the re-reading of a story. Since they allow the reader to engage their imagination in a creative way, the re-read is also a more active form of reading than the initial read.

If you write stories in a way that encourages readers to engage their imagination about your world, or to speculate about un-written details about the motivations, history, or personalities of your characters, you will also be encouraging readers to re-reading that story.

I speculate that the authors that do this well create many more details than they actually reveal in their stories. This allows them to create worlds and characters that have hidden (unwritten) details, and they can then include subtle clues about those hidden details in their stories.

  • As with J.G.'s answer, the problem here is that you are suggesting that the reader may get more out of the story on second reading, and while that may be true, it is only what they get out of it on first reading that is going to make them want to read it again. – user16226 Feb 18 '17 at 13:27
  • @MarkBaker: The OP's question was "What can you do to make a story re-readable" and not "what can you do to make a reader re-read a story?". I admit that the two questions are close, but they are not identical in meaning. You are correct that the decision about re-reading a story will be made by a reader largely due to the first reading. But engaging the reader's imagination doesn't only occur after the first reading. If a world or character engages my imagination, I often do creative speculation about them after I finish the story, which then prompts my interest in re-reading it again later. – Mark Ripley Feb 18 '17 at 13:38
  • Even so, the get-more-out-of-it-next-time approach implies that the first reading is less satisfying than the second, in which case, why should a second occur. It also supposes that the only reason to read something again is to get something you didn't get last time. But this is not why we go back to any experience. We go back to get the same thing we got last time -- because we liked it. The key therefore is to create an experience that the reader will want to have again, not a new experience they missed the first time. – user16226 Feb 18 '17 at 16:16
  • @MarkBaker People do like to repeat fun experiences, but they become stale if they are exact repeats. They also like novel experiences. The compromise between these two extremes explains why people are attracted to variations on formulaic themes they enjoy. Any experience will lose its thrill with repetition, while variations on that thrill hold up better over time. The first time reading a story tends to be the best experience, but to be re-readable something new is required to add variation. My answer is to allow the reader to use their imagination to help create that variation in a story. – Mark Ripley Feb 18 '17 at 16:29
  • Yes, repetition can become stale, but when we want variety, we turn to something new. We don't go back to something old in the hopes that it be different this time. When you go back to something, you want it to be the same as last time. If I order my favorite ice cream, I want it to taste like it did last time. I don't order strawberry hoping it will taste like pineapple this time. We reread a book because we want the same experience it gave us last time. When that experience grows stale, we turn to another book. – user16226 Feb 18 '17 at 16:43
0

Wit can sure help. I've always enjoyed re-reading witty things like Candide, Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, Kafka's Trial and Dorian Gray.

Let me push back at the question a bit. I don't think a novel needs to be re-readable but it should raise enough questions that you should want to explore the story more deeply another time.

But that is just writing a rich story with lots of beautiful phrases and details. As an adult I may not catch every detail the first time around, but two or three years later, I will have forgotten most of the details -- it's almost like reading it for the first time.

The great thing about reading a book you have already read is that you know it's going to be good.

When you read later, you don't have as much suspense, but you are in a perfect position to enjoy the language and narrative asides. Even when I am paying attention during the first read, I miss a lot of stuff, so a second read can make up for my initial sloppy reading.

As an essayist and sometimes critic, I sometimes re-read things to write about them. But then again, I choose to write about literary works after deciding that it's good.

There have been times I have approached works later on and realized that my maturity and life experiences have changed the way I viewed the work and what viewpoints I identify with. When I grew up, I loved the TV show "All in the Family" and thought Archie Bunker was such a ridiculous figure. Now that I am in my 50s, I find a lot of Archie's attitudes are not so ridiculous (even if he words them poorly).

Maybe it would help to bake into the story different points of view.(this could be an argument for 3rd person omniscient).

0

I'll drop a very original approach to re-readability.

Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar.

An author's note suggests that the book would best be read in one of two possible ways, either progressively from chapters 1 to 56 or by "hopscotching" through the entire set of 155 chapters according to a "Table of Instructions" designated by the author. Cortázar also leaves the reader the option of choosing a unique path through the narrative.

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