How To Engage Readers

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The most important part of telling a story is engaging the reader. Think about it. If you pick up a book and you find that you just can’t relate to the writing, what do you do? If it isn’t required reading, you will probably put it down. We should keep this in mind through the entire process. Think about what you are trying to make your readers feel and then evoke those feelings throughout the tale. Grab the reader and keep them there until the very end… and maybe even leave them wanting more. I’ve gathered examples from passages of some of my favorite books to illustrate the art of evocation in writing. To get the full effect, read the passages out loud.

Writing For The Reader

We want to create a world where readers can use their senses and emotions to understand the story. A good story requires the reader to do most of the work themselves. The author recounts it while the reader sees, touches, hears, smells, and feels it. All of these things evoke emotions. Show readers an unfolding and endless dream, where reality blurs and the story becomes their reality.

Engage With Description

Avoid telling and jump right in to showing. Following are two passages with the same meaning, but one far outdoes the other because it draws us in.

Showing: “It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.” From Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

Telling: “It was the last week of November and it was cold. It was a rainy afternoon. There was mist on the mountains.”

There are situations for which a short description is the best way to go about telling a story. For instance, multiple paragraphs like the first one would not work so well in a short story or flash fiction, and in the case of a novel, you may wish to put your emphasis on action, dialogue, or characters. A novelist may utilize all parts of creative writing to charm their audience.

Engage With Characters

Characterization is an important part of any story. Every major character should have that something that makes readers identify with them. Yes, even the antagonist. Make them hate that character with every fiber of their being, make them fear them, or do it even better by evoking compassion for them.

Have you ever read a story or watched a movie with a main protagonist you either hated or worse – felt nothing for? If you do not feel an affinity for the hero, you don’t enjoy the film or the story. Bring characters to life. Readers should sympathize, fall in love with, like, and admire the hero of the story. Once you have them personally involved with the protagonist, throw the character into a situation in which their lives are in jeopardy or they suffer heartbreak and loss. When readers cry, laugh, or yell at your heroes, you have done your job.

Example of great characterization: “Rage burned in Tahn at the thought of it. He’d not been able to find the man responsible. Wendra’s memory of her rapist had blurred to little more than sadness. The carrying of her first child should have been a happy time for her, but now served mostly as a reminder of its awful inception. It had darkened his sister’s disposition by more than a shade. Tahn did his best to keep things normal in their home, but with Balatin gone, silences in the house brought morose thoughts more keenly. And not just the thoughts of the rape itself. When he could admit it to himself, Wendra’s pregnancy served as a reminder to him that his own childhood had somehow become lost to him. Anything before his tenth year had simply disappeared. It gave him the vague sense of being an adopted orphan. At times, it left him feeling like dried bread that crumbled at the touch.” From The Unremembered by Peter Orullian

With this passage, we recognize the weakness and imperfection of our protagonist, but we can also feel his empathy and pain. This is just one part of a man who becomes a powerful figure, but never loses his humanity. And I don’t know about you, but I even care about his sister, who is not characterized much at all. I want justice for both of them. When the action comes in, I’ll be rooting for him. I feel engaged with the characters.

For tips on creating engaging characters, check out 8 Ways to Write Better Characters

Engage With Dialogue (or silence)

This one is fairly self-explanatory. The dialogue will follow the personality and mood of the characters doing the talking. Sometimes there will be silence. If the silence is in the middle of conversation, there will be reasons for it and the reader should be able to recognize why it is there.

“We need more men on this street.”

“What do you mean?”

“All three houses are owned by women. You and Deanna inherited your homes and Andi bought hers. Colin and I are outnumbered.”

“That’ll keep you in line.”

“I’m a rebel at heart.”

She laughed. “You’ve been with the same woman since you were seventeen. How exactly is that rebellious streak manifesting?”

——— Silence ———–

“I haven’t figured that out yet.”

From Three Sisters by Susan Mallery

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