(The results of an experiment, described in the first part of this series about the writerly reader. A condensed version of this study appears in my book Narrative Madness, which you can acquire at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon. I have sometimes altered spelling, punctuation and capitalization in the responses to make them more accessible.)
When we read a story others have read, we assume everyone has had a similar experience. However, the range of responses in this experiment demonstrates how differently readers envision a narrative. The amount and specificity of detail shows how thoroughly readers inhabit a scene, even one that is brief. As you read the rich responses below, feel free to reimagine these reanimations of my story. After all, it is your birthday!
The time was midday, afternoon, 1 pm, late afternoon, early evening (2), evening (4), “evening, just before dusk,” dusk, dinner time, 8pm, 9 pm, night-time (2), 12:25 pm and closing time. No one set the story in the morning. Four respondents named specific times, and one pinned the scene down to exactly 12:25 pm. Of those (18) who announced the time they did the experiment and the time the scene took place, two respondents (11%) staged the scene at the same time, four (22%) at about the same time and twelve (67%) at a different time, which means that the timing of the reading did not usually influence visualisation. Readers do not often take cues from their surroundings as imagination is not dependent on perception. We can easily visualize things that are not around us. But sometimes elements of the environment slip into the reading because visualization is not discontinuous from sight. We use imagination all the time to interpret what we see, so it is no surprise that we occasionally use what we see to interpret what we read.
One participant staged the scene in Murray, Utah, another by the beach. Three put it on a patio, terrace or a veranda, in one case with stand heaters. The restaurant was middle scale, casual to elegant, nice elegant, upscale, fancy and posh. It was a cafe (2), Carrow’s, TGI Fridays, a typical American diner, “a trendy bar like Lime,” “Italian or French,” Italian (4), French (2), The Olive Garden, a bistro, a “tapas bar contemp” and “neighborhood ethnic.” One participant wrote, “I was out eating ramen when I read this, so I imagined it where I was . . . a ramen place inside a Japanese grocery store.” This is the only participant who set the scene in the place they were doing the experiment.
The restaurant was big, noisy, “open, airy,” uncrowded, intimate and romantic. The decor was historical, oldish, art deco, “a la 1940’s,” “slightly ethnic,” “Vegas Italian,” “lattice and Chianti bottles,” modern, “concrete, wood and steel,” “reds, black-checkered” and beach decoration. Three people said the restaurant had small, round tables. Four mentioned tablecloths, two of them said that they were white, another that they were “ivory silk linens,” naming both shade and material. Two said there was art on the walls. Another described. Two mentioned the floors: “dark stone” and “nicely-worn wood.” One person added “intimate, soft music.” Besides the ramen place in the Japanese grocery store, I did not notice any connections between the respondents’ own setting and that of the story.
The lighting was natural sunlight, medium natural light, bright sunshine, bright, harsh, “appeasing indoor fluorescent,” not bright, soft, “soft light, a little warm,” low, “not dim and not bright,” “dimmer lighting, but not dark,” dim lights (3), “dark with soft light,” “darkish lighting, pools of light,” “candles but not lit,” candlelit, darker and dark (2). Of the 20 who named both the lighting of the place they were doing the experiment and the restaurant, nobody used the same lighting (except the ramen eater).
Nine respondents gave exact ages for the man, ranging from 22 to 54. Three respondents put him in his twenties, ten in his thirties, five in his forties, two in his fifties. One said he was young, three middle-aged, one older. As these are relative terms I did not count them when determining his average age, which was 35. Her age ranged from 21 to 40. Seven placed her in her twenties, eleven in her thirties, two in her forties. Two respondents said she was young, another middle-aged. Her average age was 32.
Thirteen of the 23 (57%) who gave ages for both characters said the man was older than the woman. Seven (30%) said they were the same age. Only three people (13%) made the woman older. The tendency to picture the woman as younger can be explained by cultural expectations.
Eight respondents out of the 25 (32% ) who specified an age for at least one character gave less definite answers for the woman. For example, the man was 30; the woman was 30ish; the man 30-40 and the woman “30-40?”; the man was 35, but she was “a little older”; 45 for the man, and “didn’t think about it” for the woman. This trend probably arises from the custom of keeping a woman’s age secret or vague. I did not see any correlation between the respondents’ ages and that of the characters, but I did not have a wide enough sampling to draw conclusions.
As for race, 87% of the characters were white, although characters were also Latin (2), black, Asian/black, mixed race and “monster” (if that counts as a race). The predominance of white characters is not surprising since 88% of participants were white themselves. However, the three respondents who described themselves as something else (black, biracial and mixed white) pictured both characters as white, or, in one case, white for the man, and “didn’t have much of a picture” for the woman. The nonwhite characters were visualized by white participants. The uneven sampling of the experiment, however, does not allow for any connections to be made between the race of the participants and that of the characters. Another possible explanation for the predominance of white characters is that Caucasians are portrayed more frequently in film and television.
The man came in many guises. He was good-looking, balding, feminine and looked “kind of like Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne.” He had an average build, a strong chin, a ruddy complexion, a mustache, glasses and slicked back hair. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, a trendy t-shirt, trendy wear, jeans and a dark shirt, a flannel shirt and khakis, beige pants and a golf shirt, a navy rollneck sweater, a maroon turtleneck, a plain button-down shirt, a white shirt and tie, a blazer, a dinner jacket, a dark jacket, business attire, a suit, a suit and tie, a white suit with a tie, a dark suit (2), “a 1940’s suit” and “evening wear, but from the fin de siècle.” Five participants mentioned exact colors; four others described shades; one gave the material; two named the time period of his clothing. In one case, the respondent and the man were both wearing t-shirt and shorts. In no other version did the clothing of character and reader match.
The woman was slender, pretty, sensitive and kind. She had brown hair, long dark hair, “long hair, maybe dishwater blond,” and blond hair. She was dressed nice (2) or “dressed up, but appropriate for the restaurant.” She was wearing lots of jewelry, a mustard sweater and shorts, a floral blouse, a dress or skirt, a white blouse and blue skirt, a scant but comfy dress, a sundress, a sundress and sandals, a red dress, “a simple red dress from Wal-Mart (though she might deny it),” a cocktail dress, “tailored ironic vintage clothes,” a floral 1940’s dress with shoulder pads, an evening dress, a cream backless minidress, and a nice dark dress with plunging neckline. Five mentioned exact colors, one mentioned a pattern and one gave a time period for her clothing. Three indicated she was showing skin, one mentioned her shoes and one referred to shoulder pads. One person said her clothing was tailored and even suggested her attitude toward her outfit: “ironic.” Another participant told us where she bought the dress, extending the story into the past. The same person extended the story into a hypothetical future: somebody asks her if she got her dress at Wal-Mart, and she denies it.
(Look for the conflict and resolution in the third and final part of this series.)