First of Psychology Writing Hacks!
There’s no hard set theory on how language comprehension works (AN: this is pretty typical in most psychology, actually) but there are a couple of models on how the process works. I’m going to focus on the structure-building framework in this post, because I find it to be the most interesting.
Gernsbacher’s (1990) structure-building framework describes the process as such: the foundation for comprehension is laid at the first mention of a new topic (in our case, a character or setting). As more information comes about the object, additional concepts are added to the little mental structure. This includes inferences, and previous knowledge in the reader, by the by. If unrelated material is encountered, a new structure is begun. Concepts that are related are easier to follow. Interestingly enough, if a word with two or more meanings is encountered, the reader’s mind will choose the one with relevance to the story.
Hacking into the structure-building framework is all about making structures easy to build. The information should be laid out in a way where related concepts are introduced together. Make the information about things easy to digest, so the reader can automatically add it to their structure without much effort. Also important: cut back on unrelated information. For a piece to have cognitive flow, it is important to have the structures be linked to each other, like a little cognitive city. If information is unrelated, the cognitive energy spent building that structure takes away from energy that could be spent on the main information. On the flip side, if you want to write something that screws with your readers, just do the opposite of what I said.
I know cognitive psychology is pretty dry, so I hope I managed to make it kind of fun! Let me know how I did in the comments!
PS: Don’t forget to check out episode two of Zombvenger! at http://www.zombiepop.net/zombvenger-episode-two-dog-days/