Dave Wolverton/Farland is an amazing writing instructor. I've been lucky enough to spend a bit of time with him as I've attended his workshops and presentations at local conventions and seminars over the years. Every time I hear him speak about writing I gain new insight. Another thing I was reminded of by him at this latest workshop is why people like to spend time with their noses in stories. It has helped me understand my own love of fiction, but also how I as a writer can best craft a tale that will capture the imagination of readers.
The main reason Dave gives for readers reading is stress relief. Not a huge revelation really. I think a lot of people would mention this as a reason for spending time in stories. It isn't enough to simply know this as a writer, however. You have to analyze what types of stress people are feeling in order to create something that will truly help your audience escape real life problems.
First, in order to relieve stress you have to build it up. Yep, that's right. Your readers have come to you to give them an escape, and you're going to make things a whole lot more tense and frustrating. Think of Frodo (because classic examples are best) in The Lord of the Rings. When you first meet Frodo, life is pleasant and happy. The Shire is quiet and quaint, the hobbits cute, hairy-footed people. Tolkien painted a picture for his readers to dive into. He gave them a desirable setting they could lose themselves in. What if the only thing that happened in the book was Frodo throwing Bilbo a party? Would anyone have bothered reading if he never left the Shire? Possibly... because there are always those weirdos out there... but the story wouldn't have struck such a chord with readers if Frodo just chilled at home in his hobbit hole. Tolkien had to throw the Nazgul at his happy setting, had to send Frodo in a deathly race away from his home. Frodo had to find out that the neat little heirloom Bilbo had left for him was in fact the item of power the world's dark lord most desired. Frodo's life became extremely stressful, folks. And that is what makes his story worth reading. Things are so difficult for Frodo that readers can say, "Wow, the stress in my life ain't half as bad," thus being relieved.
As a writer you have to take your readers' emotions on a roller coaster ride. The way to do this is by putting your lovable characters through hell. When your character comes off successful at the end of the story (yes happy endings are a must), your readers will feel a very real sense of relief. You as the author will hopefully put them through so much with your characters that when they leave your book and return to real life, they'll feel lighter because their own world is a cake-walk compared to the one you made up. Not every story does this, but all of the greats do.
So writers, go forth and ratchet up the stress for your readers! Try and make them weep and scream. Make them laugh and ponder the deeper issues we as human beings face, like faith and honor, hope and love. Don't let up on their emotions until the last page, so that when they put your book down they'll be ready to tell all their friends about it. And then you can write another story better than the first.