The Chemistry of Reading

It’s the best and absolute worst thing about reading.

You find a book that absorbs you from the very first page and devour it in a single sitting, ignoring ‘real life’ responsibilities like preparing for that important meeting or feeding your children. Day turns to night or night into day. You’re so immersed in the story you don’t realise your feet have turned blue from the cold.

Then you turn the last page and it’s over.  

If your immediate impulse is to hunt down the next book by the author, if you wail at discovering it is not yet written or not instantly downloadable as an e-book in the early hours of the morning, you are addicted. Captured, not just in mind but also in body.

What you might not realise – literary romantics and artistes should look away now – is that you might just have been played like a violin by the very best of commercially-oriented writers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, most of us write in order to be read.

If, like romance novelist Nikki Logan, you see writing as more craft than art, it seems perfectly logical to identify what presses all the right buttons in readers and then use this knowledge to write successful books.

Some writers intuitively understand what works. Others learn through years of trial and error. Unfortunately, these lessons are not easily shared. Logan has done a lot of research into the chemistry of reading and, in her workshop ‘Arousing Your Reader’ during Swancon36/Natcon50, her presentation of a biological perspective was refreshingly tangible.

Readers, Logan says, are vicarious sensation seekers. As humans, we are addicted to a certain level of arousal. Not just sexual arousal but the stimulation of all our senses.

Consciously and unconsciously, we seek out thoughts, images, food and actions that deliver the wonderful feelings generated by dopamine (alertness, energy) and norepinephrine (attention, motivation, pleasure, reward).

The interesting thing for writers is that a person’s chemical response to reading about an arousing experience is much the same as having it. Replicate that experience in your books and you’re away.

“If you have read a book in one gluttonous sitting, overnight to 4am even though you have an important meeting the next morning, your body is willing to go into a cognitive marathon,” Logan says. “It will start taking risks just to keep that experience alive.”

If a reader learns to associate reading a writer’s work with arousal and the feel-good  rush of serotonin that comes from having their expectations met, they are well on their way to being  ‘addicted’ to the author.

“It is kind of a mercenary approach, commercial fiction, unlike literary fiction, where you put your deepest, innermost thoughts out there and bugger everything else,” Logan says.

“You want to get the reader hooked on your books. A reader with a ‘you’ habit will buy every book you write.

“Train your readers to have a positive dopamine response to your name on a spine or in a radio interview and that can make the difference between them picking up your book and someone else’s book. That can make a difference in how your sales go or how the editor feels about your work as they pick it up.”

Recognising this biological effect is all well and good but if you want to take commercial advantage of it, you must learn the best way to attract a person’s attention and hold it with what Logan calls “a nice steady feed” of arousal.

And that is where the skill of the storyteller comes into play, knowing what to do with your characters, what action or emotion to emphasise and when, what kinds of settings make the most impact, the level of intellectual or emotional punch needed.

Logan has identified tools and approaches that make the most of readers’ natural motivation to maintain optimal levels of arousal and to stimulate their senses on multiple levels. Their application is a little too involved to go into here, but the good news is that Logan is working on an e-book setting it all out.

It is a fascinating area of research that does not remove the basic need to deliver a gripping and well-written story. Rather, Logan’s findings go some way to explaining why such stories work and why certain tools are employed in the most popular and lasting books.


Nikki Logan lives in Western Australia and is working on her 10th romance novel for Harlequin Enterprises. She is also writing an e-book about ‘The Chemistry of Reading’ .

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2 Responses to The Chemistry of Reading

  1. Hazel says:

    Fascinating stuff. So much easier to become addicted to authors who know how to craft a good plot..Enid Blyton was my first addiction, followed by Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Winston Graham (Poldark sagas) Deborah Moggach..Alexander McCall Smith is my latest keep-me-up late discovery. Interesting to contemplate authors who can combine both art and craft.

  2. jgavinallan says:

    I love that name.
    Anyway…this was very informative. Great observations and very happy to read this.
    For me–it made me think.
    Not an easy thing to do

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