Character Reactions Are the Laugh Tracks of Books

Any TV show that’s filmed live has little signs that tell the audience when to applaud. Almost all TV shows use laugh tracks so that audience members know when to laugh, and movies have soundtracks that tell the audience when they should feel happy or sad or scared.

What do books have?

Books have words. (duh) They have words that shape the mood like a soundtrack would. They have words that give the reader clues for what’s coming next (like signs). And they have words that show character reactions, reactions that tell you when you’re supposed to laugh.

That’s what a laugh track is doing, after all. It’s a recorded track of people laughing. That’s it. Other people laughing – and it works.

Have you ever been with a group of friends, and someone said something that made one of you laugh? Then, suddenly all of you are laughing and can’t stop. But when you try to explain to someone later, they don’t understand why it’s funny. And you can’t really tell them because, deep down, you were mostly laughing because someone else was laughing, and you got caught up in the moment.

It works with clapping, yelling, violence, and even yawning. Something about our psyche is tuned into other people’s responses (See crowd psychology).

So if you have a really funny moment in your book, show the reader that it’s funny through the other character’s reactions to whatever just happened. Granted, if it was really that funny, they should be reacting anyway. But the characters’ reactions help show the reader how funny it is. They make it seem funnier. Facial expressions, body language, statements, actions, etc. become the laugh track for the book. In fact, they help guide all reader reactions (scared, disgusted, annoyed, etc.).

Now, do laugh tracks always work?

No. If a laugh track plays at a sublimely unfunny moment, people won’t necessarily laugh anyway; however, it can help make a slightly humorous moment seem wittier than it was. Don’t ask me why (I wasn’t a psych major), but people definitely react more strongly when they get the impression that other people are reacting, too.

That’s why stage performers (actors/musicians/etc.) may joke about putting a “plant” in the audience. A “plant” is someone who knows when to laugh, gasp, cheer, and so on, and those reactions help influence the rest of the audience to be more involved in the show. The term comes from how historic snake oil salesmen or stage magicians would plant a cohort in the audience to pretend to be a complete stranger who is picked to help with the show.

Well, the closest thing we have to “plants” in books are the characters we create and the reactions we give them. So why not use them to our advantage?


Books Can Change the World

How much of how you think was shaped by the books you’ve read? By the written word? Stories, articles, and pamphlets – how much of your history and your culture was directed by words set down years before you existed?

When I started this article, I was thinking about texts like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or the works of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Writings that changed how people thought about government. Writings that may be the basis of your government now.

Then, I thought about how literature has been used to challenge social ideas. Like strict morality. Or slavery. Or the safety of scientific exploration. Or whether government monitoring preserves freedom. The list goes on. Books that as a whole are intended to be read for pleasure and that at the same time make people confront potential problems – or at least consider them.

And when I searched for books that changed the world, options popped up that I had forgotten to consider.

The Open Education Database’s article, “50 Books That Changed the World,” has the types of books I thought of but also religious works and scientific writings that I hadn’t thought of. I wish that the summary for each book explained a little better how that book changed the world, but some of them speak for themselves. And few would dispute their power.

That’s why when narrowed down to “10 Books That Changed the World” by The Guardian, some of the books are the same – but some are not. The same is true for Cheatsheets “The Top 25 Books That Changed the World” by Jacqueline Sahagian. If you do a Google search of books that changed the world, you’ll see post after post with some overlap and some difference. And if you read the comments, you’ll see plenty of arguments about books that were left off that list that were more important.

The one idea that they all agree on is that books have the power to change the world. It’s not a theory or a hypothesis – it’s a fact because it has already happened. Throughout our history, books have changed the world, and that means that they still can.

As a writer, that power is both thrilling and terrifying. The potential for change is in your mind, in your fingers, and in your keyboard. What if your book is the next to go on these lists?

What change will you write?


The Kind of Budgeting I Like to Encourage

How I Spend Money from Sarah's Scribbles

Sarah Anderson hit this nail on the head.

When I’m budgeting, I have to avoid going to bookstores – I have no will power. Only then, I feel guilty about not supporting my local bookstore, and I end up going anyway.

Fun fact: If you have filled bookshelves on all the exterior walls of your house, your heating bill will be lower.1


 1. At least it should be. In theory.


Free Un-copyrighted Reading on Project Gutenberg

If you want access to stuff you can’t find in print, you need un-copyrighted works to use in print, or you just like to read, check out Project Gutenberg. It’s an online library of books, magazines, poems, articles, etc. that are no longer copyrighted. That includes most of the classics as well as works where the copyright wasn’t renewed (for example, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost). It even has audio copies of many of them.

While easy access to the classics is nice, some of the other old books can be really interesting for research. There are herbals with recipes for medicines and teas. There are books with folk songs and sayings for different regions, others on superstitions, and more. If you have some free time, look through, and you might get some good ideas or useful details for your stories.

It’s also a great resource for genres and styles. Reading the early works in a specific genre really emphasizes how the genre has evolved. Short stories have changed dramatically, and it’s really obvious when you read any of the magazines of short stories (like Astounding Stories of Super-Science). It’s a good way to see what holds up 50 or more years later and what doesn’t.

Or I guess you could read for fun. You know… whatever works.