A reader's experience of a novel as a designed object

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Winkletter  •  24 Nov 2021   •  

Yesterday I was listening to author J. Thorn talk about the Three Story Method. It’s one of the lighter plot-driven methods for story development. Repeat the same three plot points: conflict, choice, and consequence. Your overall story follows this pattern and the scenes do as well.

I felt he was onto something, but I wanted to explore this idea from the perspective of a reader. What mental model does a reader create? How do they experience conflict, choice, and consequence?

I worked through a story I know well and tried to imagine a new reader’s mental model at different points in the story starting from the moment they read the title.

Then it hit me. The reader experience is exactly what Don Norman describes as the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation in product design. When a reader reads a story, they jump back and forth between the gulf of execution (what can the characters do?) and the gulf of evaluation (what happened?) just as they would when interacting with a new object. This is important because the designer (author) needs to help the reader bridge those gulfs in different ways.

  • The Gulf of Evaluation: Readers need feedback and mental models in order to evaluate the current state of the story world.
  • The Gulf of Execution: Readers need signifiers and constraints in order to imagine how the characters can execute actions.

Given this, I’m going to continue reading The Design of Everyday Things for further insights into the reader’s mind.

I’m also looking through the chapters I’ve written in my novel to imagine how I would rewrite them. Knowing what I know about story, how would I have written those chapters? I’ll add those descriptions to my backlog of work as bugs to be fixed at a later date. Then I can move on as if those changes had already been made.


@Winkletter I find it fascinating that you’re connecting novel-writing with design, 2 separate spaces that I’m also immersed in but never quite linked them link that before! The mentions of Don Norman’s book is so familiar but the cross pollination is refreshing.

jasonleow  •  25 Nov 2021, 2:20 am