Reading a book is an investment. It’s an investment of the reader’s time, trust, and mental fortitude. After all, they took a chance on your book. They are expecting you to deliver on your story. So how do you make sure this happens? How do you get your reader invested in your story from the first word to the last?
Keeping your readers…well…reading means you’re doing something right.
As an author, you are, by default, also a reader. What do you look for when you pick up a book? You look for entertainment. Part of that entertainment is being able to figure out the twists and turns in the book. You enjoy finding clues to things that could happen. Sometimes you can ever foresee the climax of the book before you even get there.
And sometimes the author throws you completely for a loop.
As a reader, the emotional investment in the story is the payoff. You want to root for the characters and get your happy ending. Or your cliffhanger. You get to see the conflicts and tension through the story resolve to a satisfactory conclusion. From the very first word of your book, you want to engage your reader and get their investment.
So how do I do that as an author?
There are nine engagers an author can use to help their reader get invested in their story. Let’s look at each of them.
The most important of the nine, empathy helps the reader care about what is happening to the protagonist in your story. You need to establish this bond between reader and character as quickly as you can. Otherwise, the reader won’t stay invested. They won’t cry or get angry as they read, and they won’t care what happens.
Like cats, people are naturally curious. Readers especially so. We read to experience things that may not be accessible in our real life or may not really want to encounter. For example, what is it like to walk on a pirate ship? Or shot to the moon? Or wake up from cryogenic stasis well into your own future? By posing questions to the reader that makes them wonder if the protagonist will succeed, you keep their curiosity engaged.
Curiosity comes in two different forms. Positive curiosity is that feeling of anticipation or expectation. Negative curiosity is that worrying feeling. You can keep the curiosity going – both positive and negative curiosity – by raising questions throughout your story that keep the reader challenged and looking for the answer.
Cliffhangers are a dramatic way to keep your reader’s curiosity going and they can be used between scenes, chapters, or even books.
When a reader empathizes or sympathizes with one of your characters, they begin to feel tension. Tension could be worrying about whether the protagonist gets to live happily ever after, or it could be the anticipation of the protagonist seeing a loved one they’ve been fighting for at the climax of the story. By building tension in the story, you get your reader invested because they need to see how things will play out.
How do you build tension in your story? Make sure there is something standing between your protagonist and their success. Typically, the antagonist of your story is the one trying to keep your protagonist from succeeding. Add some dramatic devices to the story – conflict, raised stakes, deadlines, plot twists, hidden agendas, etc. – and you will be able to keep the reader reading.
Inspiration and Motivation
What inspires and motivates your protagonist? What keeps them going? Readers love books that pit the protagonist against insurmountable odds. Take The Martian by Andy Weir (the book the movie of the same name was based on). Here is the story of an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and how he rises to the challenge of staying alive until his shipmates can rescue him. Readers are inspired and motivated by this kind of engagement, and sometimes follow the examples of the characters in their own lives.
A Sense of Wonder and Beauty
This is world-building and character development 101. Readers love worlds and characters that are rich in description. Even worlds that are described as being ugly bring something wonderful to a story. Think Dune and Lord of the Rings. They are filled with engaging characters and scenery that spark the imagination. Bring the reader into your world and they won’t want to leave.
Romance, horror, thriller, and action novels sell well because the authors have learned how to tap into not only their character’s feelings but also that of the reader. Explore ways to convey things like happiness, unconditional love, rage, purpose, and more in your novels. Use your writing to really communicate feelings that we all share.
Why do people read horror or thriller novels? Because they evoke an emotional thrill within us. They allow the reader to experience a negative emotion, such as fear, without being in danger. It’s the same type of adrenaline rush you get when riding a roller coaster. Use antagonistic dialogue and action to help bring this thrill to your story.
Excitement is the opposite of the emotional thrill. It is the positive side of the action and dialogue. It allows us to go on the adventure with our protagonist without ever leaving the comfort of our own hope. Think of how excited Bilbo Baggins was to go on the adventure with Thorin and company. Now bring that excitement to your book and pull your reader in.
Ever finish a book and suddenly feel bereft because there is nothing left to read? You kind of just wander around aimlessly because of how much you enjoyed the book. This is the investment your readers are looking for. You can bring them this kind of satisfaction by making sure your story delivers a resolution worthy of your protagonist. For example, in my novel The Loch, I give my readers satisfaction by making sure Maggie and Crispin get their happily ever after (I’m not telling you how. You must read it to find out!). A lot of people who read the book were glad I ended it the way I did.
Keep your engagers balanced and your readers invested
No matter which engagers you use in your novel, make sure empathy is there. It is the most important and establishes the bond between your reader and your protagonist right away. From there, use the other eight as needed. Too few will make your story boring. Too many will stress out the reader. If you find you need more, or less, after you finish your draft, you can edit your novel and adjust accordingly.
By getting your reader invested from the first word and using engagers to keep them reading until the end, you will find that both you and your reader, are satisfied.
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