What's behind: the reader feels invested in the characters, the reader likes the tone so far, the reader likes the premise.

What's ahead: how is this story going to finish, who killed his wife, what is the purpose of the 787 device?

  • 1
    The answer to this is yes. If you want a good story, both elements are needed. However, if one of the 2 is really, really good. They may overlook a weaker plot or a weaker character development. Generally, you want both.
    – ggiaquin16
    Nov 21, 2017 at 18:11
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    What's behind - But the entire book will be behind if the author is successful. It is an experience, and we stay in it as long as it is enjoyable! The anticipation we feel is because of what we have read. What's behind.
    – SFWriter
    Nov 21, 2017 at 18:20
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    If what's ahead is much better than what's behind, the risk is that the reader would start skipping pages to find out who killed the wife.
    – Alexander
    Nov 21, 2017 at 18:57
  • There's no 'or' to me. I start to read to know the characters, and then I continue because I want to know what will come next. Nov 22, 2017 at 12:52

2 Answers 2


Consider the mania around spoilers. Why do we demand that people discussing books and TV shows online warn us if their posts are going to contain any information about how the story ends.

Here's the thing about spoilers: if the point of reading a book was to find out what happened, spoilers would be great. They would not spoil the experience, they would simply provide it faster and more efficiently.

And, in fact, we know what is going to happen in most books we read. We read them because we want to read a book in which that happens. We buy it specifically on the understanding that that thing is going to happen. We would be very disappointed if the girl did not get the guy, the cop did not catch the killer, the hero did not complete his quest. It would be like opening your presents on Christmas day and finding the brightly wrapped parcels were full of old phone books and gravel.

So, we know what is going to happen. We want it to happen. And yet we don't want to be told that it is going to happen. Why? Because what we want is the experience of watching it happen. Life is about being there. You want to be at your kids graduation even though you know they have passed their requirements. You want to watch your grandchildren unwrap their Christmas presents even though you were the one who wrapped them. It is not about the surprise or the mystery, it is about being there.

So it is with a story. Stories are a form of being there. We love books and shows that take us somewhere and make it real. We want to be in Middle Earth or Hogwarts or Stars Hollow. We want to belong to the place and the experience.

What has come before in a story tells us where we are and how vivid the experience of being here is going to be. If we want to continue reading, it is because we want the experience we are having to continue. If we only wanted to know what happened, we could skip to the back page or look up the plot on Wikipedia. We want to be there. The beginning takes us there and allows us to choose if we want to remain there.

Of course, if we get there and nothing is happening, we will get bored and we won't stick around. So if there is a parade going on, or a fight, or a wedding, or a race, we will stick around to see how it comes out. But not for the mystery of how it will come out. We know how these things end. We stick around for the experience of seeing it come out exactly how we know it will come out. Because life is about being there.

Spoilers don't cheat us of the pleasure of finding out. The problem with spoilers is that all they give us is finding out. They rob us of the experience of being there.

  • Yes, good point. I suppose I was looking at the question from a more literal stand point of having a well defined character that is enjoyable vs having a well defined plot with maybe a weaker character.
    – ggiaquin16
    Nov 21, 2017 at 23:28

Neither. People keep reading because they enjoy what I would call the assisted imagination of reading. Or watching the show or movie, or playing the role playing game, all of these are forms of assisted imagination.

When the assistant (the authors of such products) are poor at their job, the imagined reality is poor too. It doesn't make internal sense or seems arbitrary. It doesn't feel like it follows rules, so expectations are not met. It stops being interesting or surprising. Then the process (reading, writing, playing your role in the game) becomes a bore, or actively disliked, and that is no fun.

Few readers / viewers actually want the story to end, but clearly it must, and in the course of 50,000 years of story telling some standard satisfying ideas of how to tell it and end it have been discovered, so the audience is entertained and not too disappointed at the end.

Even then, the trick is usually to end the story at a new beginning: The villain was discovered, fought, and defeated, then a new phase of life begins. Or the girl was discovered, pursued, and finally consented to marry, then a new phase of life begins.

Stories (verbal, in print, in video) help us imagine an alternate reality that most people simply could not imagine on their own. But it is fun to do. They don't keep reading because of the fun they had, and they don't keep reading just to finish (if the imagined reality is really fun they don't want it to ever finish, which is how franchises like 007 or Harry Potter come to be), they keep reading because the reading is fun.

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