Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Readers are Rubberneckers


by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine


While driving along highways, I take particular interest in the overhead LED signs with their traffic safety messages. When they're imaginative they can conjure a smile, plus their pointillistic letters remind me of the Lite Brite I used to play with as a kid.

Some messages are strictly business, warning of a lane closing or a road crew ahead. But sometimes they make an effort to be memorable.  Here are a few slogans you may have seen:

ALERT TODAY - ALIVE TOMORROW

FAST DRIVE COULD BE LAST DRIVE

BOOZE IT AND LOSE IT

DRIVING FASTER CAN CAUSE DISASTER

BETTER TO BE MISTER LATE THAN LATE MISTER

I try to picture the person who's writing these.  If they work for the Department of Transportation, it's probably their most creative moment of the day.

Here's a message that I actually saw yesterday while driving along I-40 in Memphis:

AVOID A WRECK - DON'T RUBBERNECK

I kept an eye out for the accident it might be referring to, but saw none and wrote it off as a generic admonishment.  Ironically, driving past that same stretch of highway three hours later, there was indeed an accident in that very spot.  Apparently, Confucious was doing the signs yesterday.  Then again, on I-40 it was bound to come true sooner or later.

But it got me thinking about the sign again and the fact that people do have a tendency to rubberneck. As drivers inched their way past the tow trucks, they seemed to pay less attention to the policemen directing traffic than they did the state of the cars involved and whether any victims could be seen. (Don't worry, it wasn't that bad of an accident.)

People inherently want to know who, what, when, where, how, and why, even when it's really none of our business.  We turn on the news at night to see what happened to people we don't know in places we've never been to.

Don Henley's 80s hit "Dirty Laundry" included a line that has always stuck with me: "It's interesting when people die." Dark as that sentiment seems, it's very true, and maybe it has something to do with our own underlying sense of mortality, visiting it second-hand and coming out alive. That would be a question for our psychologist author friends, and you know who you are.

All of this is terrific news for writers. Since people are curious by nature, they are always in search of a good story, making them willing to invest the time it takes to read about the imaginary characters you've cooked up for them. As we write, it's a good practice to think about these rubbernecking readers and what kind of details they are hoping to get out of the experience.

Meanwhile, drive safely, and let's flash our lights in honor of the writer who came up with this one:

DONATE BLOOD, BUT NOT ON ROADS


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