Author Intent, or Reader Response? Bring it on!


This post by Craig Snider

(Warning! This post is long, and may incite violence and irrational responses in readers! You have been warned!)

Recently, I perused the comments on a Stephen King Facebook fan page, and a debate started over the interpretation of King’s novel Under The Dome into a television series. After reading through the comments and seeing how upset people were, I was reminded of a debate I had with a fellow writer about Author Intent, and Reader Response. If you are not familiar with these terms, I will explain them briefly. Authorial Intent is the concept that refers to the author’s intended interpretation of their work as defined in the piece itself. Reader Response is the interpretation of the work as defined by the reader’s experience of the work without the influence of the author’s intention.

Cover of
Cover of Under the Dome: A Novel

Typically, people will feel strongly one way or the other. In truth, a combination of the two are ideal. But, here are my thoughts on the subject, if you would be so kind as to indulge me for a moment.

Writers, or artists in general, tend to feel very protective of their work, and they bristle at the idea that someone would approach that work without any regard to what the author intended for the reader to gain from reading it. My writer friend asked, “why even bother to write it if they don’t understand the piece or its underlying themes and symbolism?”

I completely understand that, and as I have a Bachelor’s in English Literature, I also understand the beauty of literary scholarship and research. But, let’s face it. Most general readers are not picking up a book with the intention of doing research about the author or literary theory. And they shouldn’t have to.

When someone reads a book, they will derive something from it. That experience will be completely personal because it will be filtered through the perceptions and experiences of the reader themselves. Their own pasts and mode of thinking will color that book in a way that reflects something about them. How often have you heard someone say, “it was like the author was speaking directly to me!” This is because the reader will automatically interpret the meaning of the piece in a way that speaks to their own psyche.

Now, that isn’t to say that once the reader has finished the book they won’t then try to find out more about the piece and who wrote it. That is just natural when we feel moved by something,   we want to find out more.

But, here is the real point. As writers, we are trying to tell a story. Not to ourselves, as we already know the story. But to someone else. That is whole point. If you just keep your stories in a drawer with no one to see them, then you aren’t really a writer. You are just someone who likes to write. Once you’ve finished a piece and sent it out into the ether, it no longer belongs to you. Sure, you are the author, but nothing more. You are not the gatekeeper, the interpreter, the last word, or the end all be all god of the piece. You are the author. Nothing more.

Once it is in the hands of the reader, they are free to interpret it as they wish. That idea really offended my writer friend. He felt that if the author is doing his job, the reader should be able to interpret that piece completely as the author intended it. Here’s why that won’t work.

Think of a ball. As soon as you read that, an image of a ball appeared in your mind, yes? What kind of ball? Maybe a baseball, or a bouncy ball, or a basketball. Okay, so now I want you to think of a dirt smudged baseball, with some of the stitching coming out of it, and a looped signature of Jose Conseco. So, that made the image much clearer, yes? But, what color were the dirt smudges? The stitching? The signature? Was the ball in your hand, on a table, or floating in the air? Well, you say, those are just little details. True. But, we are just describing a ball. Imagine trying to get an abstract idea across with as much accuracy. It would be pretty difficult.

Here is another example from another side. A writer said his editor had a problem with a description of one of his secondary characters. The editor said the writer’s description didn’t fully give the reader a clear concept of what the character looked like. The author argued that it did. The description was something to this effect: A greasy teenager. This immediately evokes an image. You have already decided what this kid looks like. You don’t need to be told each minute detail in order to see him. There’s nothing I hate more that when a new character is introduced and we get an APB of them.

Katy walked into the room. She had shoulder length brown hair, blue eyes, and pouting red lips. She wore a pink chemise and a black skirt, her calves clad in black leather boots.

Blah, blah, blah. Who cares?? Honestly, what does this add to her character development? To the plot? Nothing. Especially if she is a secondary character. The only reason to include this kind of description is if it does further your understanding of her as a character. Here is a brief example:

She walked into the room, her shoulder length blonde hair gleaming. Her blue eyes sat like ponderous moons on her face, and her pouting red lips evoked the memory of a kiss. She flicked her hair away with a hand that sported blood red nails.

While this certainly won’t win a Pulitzer, it does give an impression of this character. But, it really isn’t necessary. Characters are defined by what they say, think, do, or don’t do. Not by what they looked like. Think of Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road. As I recall, not only are there no descriptions of the two main characters, they DON’T EVEN HAVE NAMES! They are The Man, and The Boy. That’s it. We get to see their ragged clothes, but that is only to illustrate their desperate situation. If there was more description in there, I don’t remember it, because it was woven into the story as needed.

I know, this is getting really long. I’m almost finished…

DRAW! Day 21: Choose your own adventure
(Photo credit: chaimann)

Writing is like gesture drawing. Your goal is not to try to get the reader to envision the story exactly as you see it. You are trying to get the most important parts across as cleanly and efficiently as possible. A simple bit of description, metaphor, or action can go a long way to creating an image in the reader’s mind. That’s it. They may not understand the underlying themes on a conscious level, or an academic level, but they will feel it subconsciously at the very least. Then, you can hope they may spend the time to dig into to it more to discover new levels they never knew existed. Or, they may get it in the first reading, but that still will not be exactly as you saw it, because they are not you. They do not have your experiences or thoughts. They are an individual with their own background that colors everything they see, read, hear, or think about.

So, your job is not to make the reader see it exactly. It is to create a story that resonates with them on a level that makes them want to know more. Anything else is the writer’s ego invading an art form that should be felt, not dictated.

English: Black Rhinocerous Diceros bicornis mi...
English: Black Rhinocerous Diceros bicornis michaeli at Cincinnati Zoo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your thoughts? On which side of the line do you stand? And, don’t worry. If you want to tear into me, I have very thick skin.



24 thoughts on “Author Intent, or Reader Response? Bring it on!

  1. As a writer of haiku and using that as the daily practice, the words written are open to interpretation. That is the nature of that form of writing. My job is to chose the words that convey ideas for readers to think about. A favorite quote, and I don’t remember who said it, is ‘if you are in love with a phrase or something you wrote, cut it, for it doesn’t fit’. When you write scripts, you words are always going to be filtered through the actor saying them. So, like you, a long explanation to say, do your best then let it go. Doris


  2. If you want that reader to be part of that book, then the reader has to bring his/her own experiences, wants, and needs to it. It has to be an interactive thing or you won’t hook potential readers at all. You have to give me something that I can make my own and then feel things from my own experiences.

    Brilliant blog posting. Thank you!


  3. I believe that SK fans have expectations of greatness when it comes others trying to make movies/series from SK’s work because we are his fans we know his work and the greatness shines through in his work. Which makes it harder for people to except changing his work in anyway. I believe books are almost always better 😉
    From An SK Fan 4 life !


  4. renwomyn, absolutely! Poetry, especially short-form poetry, requires, nay demands, economy of writing and the ability to evoke strong images and feelings with only a handful of words. I think fiction should aspire to equal heights of artistic brevity. Thanks for reading!


  5. Nancy, I couldn’t agree more. Once you start to pare away all those little, useless details about how your character looks or dresses (unless important for character development of course), then you will begin to see your characters more clearly. Great response!


  6. Jesse, you have said it beautifully! If your writing is bloated with unnecessary details, and you don’t give the reader something to connect to, you will lose them! Thanks for reading!


  7. …I usually avoid Koontz because of all of the unnecessary information—literally page after page of useless details! I already know that grass is green, and who really gives a #$%& that the carpet is puke-pink?!
    King usually gets to the point—extra details are usually relevant (or at least humorous), which is one reason his writing grabs me and doesn’t let go
    As for movie/TV adaptations, I love it when they follow the original story as closely as possible. I always try to remember, however, that no matter what comes to the screen the book will remain uncompromised. No one can screw that up!


    1. I love Dean Koontz because he gets to the point. Well, except with Strangers. That book was really long and took a while to get going. I think King goes overboard with detail. 🙂 It’s a good thing every writer has a different style. There’s something for everyone to enjoy.


  8. When I write, I try to think of me as a reader. This may not be the right thing to do, but it’s what I do. I like a little bit of description of the characters pretty early in the game. Not too much description of the surroundings, but I want a brief description when the scene changes. This ties in with my last blog on here. People never hear or see what you think they do, for the reasons you stated. We all come from different places in life. Actually people don’t see us, as we think they do. Cher’ley


  9. Cher’ley, I love what you said: “Actually people don’t see us, as we think they do. Cher’ley”
    That is really insightful, and so true. And, I would say that we often see ourselves differently that we truly are. It is a shocking and disconcerting moment when your self-image is challenged and found wanting.

    Great response!


  10. Great post. As a reader I like to interpret the story myself. I don’t want long descriptions, especially of the characters. I want to picture them myself. Excessive detail is one of the reasons I can’t read Stephen King. He takes seven pages to describe the colour of grass instead of getting on with the story. The only book I could get through of his was Misery. It was a decent length without excessive detail. IT should have been no more than 400 pages instead of 1,000. When I write I tend to not use a lot of description, allowing the reader to interpret the scene as they want. I just make sure the important details are there.

    I wish books would be made into mini series or TV shows instead of movies. They need to cut so much of the book to make it a movie. The best adaptation I saw was the mini series of Intensity based on Dean Koontz’s book. It was so close to the book I felt like I was reading it again as I watched it.


  11. Great post, Craig. I love readers who sometimes find what I call “little gems” in my books, things that I never thought of but when they explain, I often think, Oh yeah, I see what you mean and most times totally agree. I really get excited when people interact about characters, plot, dialogue, etc. To me, this means the readers has taken possession of my words and have made them their own. I couldn’t be happier. Thank you, Craig.


    1. Sherry, thanks for the response!
      I know what you mean about the hidden gems. I say, take full credit!! LOL. But, the reader interaction is the most important part to me. If you have no readers, you probably aren’t a writer yet. Thanks!


  12. Thanks for explaining this Craig. Very interesting post. As a writer I hope my readers will interpret the words the way I intended, but sometimes it’s quite interesting to find out they read something quite different into what I say.


    1. Leander, I think every artists would like their audience to be able to see their vision as the intended it. It is an important human need to feel understood. But, at some point, we have to surrender to the will of other human being! Hehehe. But, we can always hope some literature major or astute reader will be able to find all the little clues we’ve left behind!


  13. Kristi, I couldn’t agree more. Every detail needs to play its part in furthering the elements of fiction in some way. If it is just there to allow the writer to show off, leave it in the rough draft. But, put it in the final? Then, you’ve lost me.


  14. Cindy, despite being a King fan myself, I have to agree with you. I loved IT, but it absolutely could have been shorter. And, I too try to avoid superfluous details. Any description added must work toward furthering the story somehow, or to make the scene more vivid at the very most. Great response!


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