Readers subconsciously read twice: first for the story, then for the bigger theme

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is published in partnership with the Poynter Institute.

I have come to believe that all readers read all stories twice — all the time.
The first reading comes through the eyes (and sometimes the ears). The second reading comes from the mind — the memory, to be precise.

The first reading is linear, a concern for what-happens-next based upon a sequence of scenes. In a compelling story, the reader speculates on how the story will turn out and reaches a point, usually late in the narrative, where the reader becomes sure of the outcome.

The second reading occurs in tranquility. The purpose is not to remember exactly what happened and in what order. Instead, the reader speculates on what it all means.

A first reading depends upon the elements of narrative: setting, characters in action, plot, suspense, surprise. A second reading has a host of names, each derived from the writing community that generated the story. These names include theme, thesis, premise, myth and archetype; but also the hook, peg, nut graph and hoo-ha (a Yiddish term of surprise and epiphany).

The first reading depends upon showing. The second reading also depends upon showing, but is enlightened by telling. The first reading is grounded in plot; the second achieves altitude.

Two-level reading in action

I have in memory a news feature that appeared years ago on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. It began with an anecdote. It was set in West Virginia. A husband stood in the morgue over the body of his dead wife. He looked over her face and saw that it was stained with soot. Near her temple was a small but deadly wound. How could such a seemingly small injury have killed her?

That question became sharper when we learned more about the woman, and why this story was focused on her. It turned out she was the first woman known to have been killed in an underground mine disaster. The writer was preparing us for the larger meaning of the story, delivered in a text called — in newsroom slang — the nut paragraph. It was something like: As more and more women work in jobs previously held exclusively by men, they have experienced the benefits — but also now share in the dangers.

We know that the “nut” of a news feature can be delivered — depending upon the scope of the story — in a word, a phrase, a sentence, and yes, a paragraph, but also a chapter, as in a book.

Writers who resist having to include a nut argue that a story should speak for itself. While I believe the nut graph belongs in the news writing hall of fame, I am also aware that a single story can come to mean many things to many different readers.

Meaning can change based on who reads, and when

I have learned in reading literature to resist the single theme as an interpretative strategy because the greatest works — “Hamlet,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” come to mind — can be explored over centuries, generating surprising meanings for new generations of readers armed with new ways of seeing.

Here is the lead to a 2014 story by Eddie Burkhalter for The Anniston (Alabama) Star.

One by one, they glued small bits of polished, colored glass onto a framed butterfly mosaic at the Goshen memorial Sunday morning.

Those who lost family in the tornado, which killed 20 at Goshen United Methodist Church when it slammed into the building during worship on Palm Sunday, slowly filled that butterfly.

“Out of pieces that are broken, beauty will come,” the Rev. Joe DeWitte told the hundred or so gathered at the memorial Sunday for a special 20th anniversary service to remember those lost so quickly to the tornado.

A church destroyed. Lives lost. Two decades of grieving.

In our first reading of this story, the reporter places us on the scene, both in the present moment, but also in that terrible moment 20 years ago when the tornado struck the church. Especially powerful are the words of memory and reflection from key players, what happens and what it means.

In this story, that meaning is not hard to find. The event is on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The themes of death and resurrection, of destruction and renewal are right there in descriptions of Christian prayer and liturgy. They are also in symbology, something not common in news reports; the butterfly — bursting gloriously from the cocoon — is an icon of Christ’s rising from the grave.

At some point, I will forget the scenes and dialogue, but I will remember the larger meaning: two readings, if you will.

A less obvious structure of meaning is embedded in a 2019 story from The Detroit News by Evan James Carter. It begins with one of my favorite quotes of all time, a moment when scatology meets science.

When an astronaut visits a children’s hospital, kids will ask whatever’s on their minds.

“What happens to a fart in space,” one child asked in a written question for astronaut R. Shane Kimbrough.

“Well, they’re propulsive in that environment, so you can actually move,” Kimbrough said amid a smattering of laughs in the room.

It’s a nice scenario: 10 kids in a children’s hospital listening to an astronaut encourage them that one day they may get a chance to live on the moon, or maybe Mars.

As I reflected on this story, I was struck by a pattern that came to me, almost in a daydream. It led to this question: What does an astronaut have in common with kids in a hospital? The answer was “confinement” and the desire to achieve what NASA engineers might call “escape velocity.”

The astronaut wears a confining suit and rides into space in a confining vessel. He or she is wired up like crazy, bodily functions being monitored back on earth. At times the child is confined to the hospital, even to a bed, also monitored for vital signs.

There is tension in the journey of the rocket man or woman. Though confined in tight quarters, the goal is to escape Earth’s gravity and enter the almost infinite expanses of outer space. Anyone who has been confined in a hospital stay, especially a long one, understands the sense of freedom that is felt when wheeled out into the open air for the return home.

There and back. The journey in the face of danger. The freedom of escape. The safety of home. I am tempted to say that the author could have made more of these in his report. But maybe not. The fact that I can derive these patterns demonstrates that he has delivered the goods.

How to write for double-vision reading

Two readings: the first for story, the second for meaning.

This concept did not come to me in a vision, but from a book, one that I highlight in “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.” The source of my learning was written by a famous Canadian scholar named Northrop Frye. I studied his work in graduate school, but was not familiar with “Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology,” an old library book I bought for three bucks. Here’s how I summarized its content in my book:

For as long as there have been stories, authors have played with time, and so can you. We say that life is experienced in chronological order, but that does not take into account dreams or memories. Stories have the power to distract us from daily life and plunge us into narrative time. Our experience of story time differs with each reading. Our first reading is usually sequential, a compulsive drive to discover what happens next. At some point our memory takes control. “What happens next?” is replaced by “What does it all mean?” Those questions give writers a dual responsibility: We attend to both what happens and what it means. We move from scenic action to matters of theme, myth, and archetype.

Here are some tips for fulfilling this “dual-reading responsibility”:

  1. Put these words on your workbench: theme, thesis, premise, news, nut, peg, archetype. Over time, discover which of these words — or others — help you make meaning in your writing.
  1. Ask Chip Scanlan’s favorite question (to a writer, or to yourself): “What is this piece of writing really about? No, what is it REALLY about?”
  1. A chapter in my book “Writing Tools” discusses the value of “writing a mission statement for your work.” Written at the beginning of the process, this statement can focus the evidence. But it can also be written near the end, when you finally discover what you want to say and how you want to say it.
  1. To quote my high school English teacher, “Don’t turn a symbol into a cymbal.” You don’t need flashing lights or a bouquet of arrows. There are subtle ways to help readers recognize a “descent into the underworld” or the “flowering of the wasteland.”
  1. Don’t let an archetype become a cliché of vision. Not all small institutions are Davids fighting Goliaths. Not every person in a wheelchair is a noble warrior working tirelessly to overcome a terrible obstacle.
  2. Remember that “focus” is the central step in the writing process. The search for a focus — the articulation of a focus in a title, lead, nut graph, or theme statement — will be the most reliable strategy to find and express meaning in your work.

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