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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Are E-Books Making Us Sloppy Readers?

reprinted with permission:

By Tess Gerritsen

When I was young, one of the great pleasures of reading mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie was the challenge of spotting clues and finding the villain before the fictional detective did. It required careful reading, and taking the time to ponder the evidence. I fear readers today don’t have the same patience.
I say this because of comments I’m hearing about my new novel PLAYING WITH FIRE, which has a startling “Sixth Sense” revelation at the end that completely flips the reader’s assumptions upside down. “You pulled a rabbit out of a hat!” “You didn’t play fair!” are some of the reactions.  When I point out the numerous clues that are evident throughout the story, clues that should have told them all they needed to know to solve the mystery, their response is: “Oh, I missed that,” or “I didn’t realize that was important.” They had read the story so quickly that they’d simply skimmed right past the half dozen glaring clues without pausing to consider their significance.
 A far cry from the days when readers would carefully ponder the evidence the way Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes did.
 I don’t think this was true 16 years ago, when I first started writing the Rizzoli and Isles series. Crime readers are a pretty clever bunch, and it used to be a challenge to surprise them.  I’d have to carefully disguise every clue.  Now I find that more and more readers are missing those clues and even need me to point out where they occur in the story. I don’t think readers are stupider; I think they’re just not reading as attentively as they once did, and the reason may be that many are reading stories in digital format. As a result, they’re doing more skimming and less pondering.
 And they skip right past vital information.
 PLAYING WITH FIRE is about Julia, a violinist who buys an old handwritten music manuscript in a Rome antique store. It’s a complex piece that accelerates into some high, piercing notes. Whenever she plays it, her 3-year-old daughter Lily seems to turn violent and even stabs Julia. No one else witnesses these attacks, and Julia’s husband doubts they even happened. The search to explain Lily’s behavior leads to a series of doctors and medical tests.  But soon it’s Julia’s sanity that’s in doubt.
 Although the answer to the mystery may be shocking to some, the evidence is actually there all along, in the form of some pretty obvious clues.  Which are….
(more comments below, after the spoiler)
— Julia has headaches.  Several times throughout the story, she complains of them.
— A pediatric neurologist discusses the possibility that Lily suffers from Complex Partial Seizures, where the patient appears to be awake, may perform bizarre behaviors, and is completely unaware this is happening. The patient has no memory of this and experiences only a puzzling gap in time.  The doctor also explains that these seizures can be set off by certain high frequency sounds or by flashing lights.
— The doctor also reveals that many patients with CPS are misdiagnosed as having psychiatric problems.
— Julia loses track of a few hours and fails to pick up Lily at daycare.  All she knows is that hours have passed and she can’t account for them.
— Her husband complains that lately Julia doesn’t seem to be listening to him and she doesn’t answer his questions.
— Julia later suffers another gap in time after she sees a camera’s flashing “low battery” light.

As I was writing the story, I worried that the clues were TOO obvious.  Wouldn’t readers find it too easy to figure out that the problem wasn’t Lily at all, but JULIA, who turns out to be a whoppingly unreliable narrator?

But no. They didn’t see that answer coming at all. They missed the clues, so they think the answer came out of left field.  All the signs were there, yet they missed the diagnosis.  So they blame the writer.

(Interesting side note — I just heard from a reader who was recently diagnosed with CPS. He recognized what was going on in the story because he’d experienced something very similar.)
 ******************END SPOILERS   *********************

So now we mystery writers face a dilemma.  As the percentage of our digital readers climbs, readers who click past pages so quickly they often miss vital details, how do we adjust our stories?  Do we label our clues with bright red flags?  Do we insert traffic signs warning them “slow down, twists ahead”?  Must we consider the shorter attention spans of an audience that seems to revel in reading faster, ever faster?

I don’t know.  I just know that I miss the days when we took our time to read — and understand — books.


  1. Hi Tess,
    Readers are almost certainly in a hurry these days, though I'm not sure you can blame it solely on ebooks. Perhaps it is the sheer number of books available (more than ever before) coupled with the pace of our lifestyles in an online world. Add to that, a dumbing down of the school system (I graded papers for a college freshman English course, and believe me, high school grads can be substantially uneducated in elementary grammar!)I fear your complaint applies to general readership more than mystery readers in particular, and to our society's sad lack of scholarship. (A trend which appears to be continuing--witness "Common Core.") Jane Austen said that she did not write for "such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves." (sic)That puts you in good company! :) Keep up the good work. Don't be discouraged.

  2. Tess, without contributing further to the "spoiler," let me say--as a physician--congratulations on using this for the plot twist that ties things together. As for readers getting sloppy, I think it's a two-way street. Yes, readers skim through the books that take us months (sometimes years) to write, missing the subtle clue we sprinkle along the way, and it's disappointing. But, with the access to self-publication we now see, some (by no means all--please note that) writers hurry through the writing process as well.
    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  3. It's probably a sign of the times, period - not just something related to ebooks. Actually, I'm one of those naughty readers who often can't resist turning to the last page just to make sure I get a happy ending or someone specifically survives. But ebooks are such a hassle - I can't easily flip back and forth - so they keep me from spoiling myself.

  4. I'm with can't just pin it on e-books. With me, I read e-books slower, because of my eyes. I prefer real books over ebooks and I always take my time unless I am on a time an influencer on an impossible deadline.

  5. I'm always a little disappointed if I work out whodunit before the big reveal at the end. And I always have been. So please don't dumb your books down :)

  6. This is an interesting thing, and I think there are multiple explanations.
    In some cases, it could simply be because authors are more accessible. 15 years ago, the internet was a much smaller place, so a reader who was shocked at the ending probably just told their book club instead of contacting the author or writing a review on Amazon. Now, it's easier for authors to see reader responses.
    Like some others have mentioned, ebooks may help to keep readers from flipping to the end. I know this tactic has forced me to stay on track with longer books.
    I often miss plot twists completely, though I can normally look back and see where they came from. (Note I read mostly YA, not mysteries.) I believe the reason I'm slow on the uptake is because could have something to do with how I read. If the book is good, I'll often read it within a few days, giving myself very little time to ponder the ending. Instead of wondering how the book will end, I just keep reading until I get to the ending. I've recently found I enjoy long books that I can't possibly read without long breaks since the ending takes so long to get to that I will think about how it might end.
    The only twist type things I've seen where I was annoyed at picking it up before the "stupid" character was a John Carter of Mars book, which was written about a hundred years ago. So many hints were dropped, and the main character couldn't realize the person he met was his son. It annoyed me for chapters.
    I've also seen discussion forums where people managed to find out huge twists based off tiny bits of information. In some cases, the reveal didn't happen until halfway through a series but the readers knew early on. (When it comes to any sort of family reveal, I think it's best to go very light on clues since these plot twists are so common readers have come to expect them.)
    There's also the chance a reader will miss a clue due to thinking it's a plot hole. I've had cases where I end up thinking, "How can that author do this?" only to find out the author meant to do it since it foreshadowed something. In some cases, if readers are used to poorly written books with plot holes, they might skim over something without realizing it's actually important and not author error.

  7. In my own Seatbelt Suspense® and in teaching other writers, I've always advocated this: WRITE TO THE SMARTEST READER. There has always been a huge difference in the ability of readers when it comes to spotting clues/red herrings in suspense. Avid suspense readers are far better at it. Then on the total other end of the spectrum is a reader who hardly ever reads suspense/mystery and happens to pick up one of my books. So a novelist then has to ask: to what level of reader do I write? If you write to the middle, you'll bore the smartest reader (who is most likely to be your fan), and you still may be writing above the level of the reader who isn't used to suspense.

    Writing to the smartest reader keeps me writing the best book I can. To fool my smartest readers (and they're always trying to guess my twists, because they know that's what my suspense is about), I have to be precise and creative in my balance of clues. I have to write smart, because they read smart.

    And, as noted above, this technique satisfies the majority of my readers. Most people who do read my work are seasoned suspense readers. These are the folks who are most likely to be my fans. Those who are not seasoned suspense readers but enjoy one of my books are likely to pick up another. They enjoy the twists. As they read more of my suspense, they, too, will become more seasoned in picking up subtle clues.

    Tess, continue your great writing. Bring less knowledgeable readers up to your level. Never compromise. If they don't like what you write--perhaps they want easier, lighter reads--they're not your target audience.


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