Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Okay, I just made up that word. It’s not a misspelling of scheming, it refers to schema (psychology’s usage) “A schema is a mental concept that informs a person about what to expect from a variety of experiences and situations. Schemas are developed based on information provided by life experiences and are then stored in memory. Our brains create and use schemas as a short cut to make future encounters with similar situations easier to navigate. “

What all that says, is that as we build more experiences and repeat situations, we begin to form expectations about a situational outcome in similar situations.

For writers and readers that means if you pick up a book with a demure 16th century maiden on it, being clenched by a big burly highlander, you are NOT going to be expecting a slasher scene in the middle of the book. Or anywhere in it.

People who design covers, whether it be the author themselves, someone they hired, or a publisher and in-house artists, strive to make sure the cover is appealing, but also targeted to peoples’ schemas for the book’s subject matter. If I want a historical romance with a good-looking Scot, that book I mentioned above is perfect.

When we pick up a book based on the cover, then read the blurb, maybe a page or two, more of our schemas engage. A word might through us off and we think of other books that we didn’t enjoy based on a concept or wording that seems similar.

So what has this to do with writing you ask? Everything.

If I am writing a slasher book, but no one gets slashed until page 130, I have a problem, and any readers have probably dumped the book in disgust.

Same thing if I were writing something with a lot of sex—I’d better let the reader know up front (through cover, blurb, etc) and I better not wait until page 200 for the action. Inversely, if I’m not writing graphic sex, springing it on a reader at the end of a book, or in a later book in the series when it hasn’t been in evidence at all previously, can shock a reader.

Working with schemas doesn’t mean being predictable—we all read for new adventures—it just means falling within the expectations of the reader.


  1. While we feel these things instinctively as a reader, often we forget about this stuff while we're writing. But that's what beta readers are for.

  2. I've read a few of those where something just came out of left field. It left me grumbling, "What the..." Sadly, like Ken said, I don't always recognize it in my own writing because I already know it's coming. *wince*