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I’m currently reading Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story and it is SUCH a helpful book. She talks about how our brains are wired for, you guessed it, story. We are neurologically wired to tune into stories as a main source for information. With that, the book teaches you how to engage your reader and keep them engaged. If you haven’t read it, I totally recommend buying it. I tried to read the library’s copy, but I wanted to underline everything she was saying. So I bought it. It’s a good one to own so you can mark it and write notes in margins. This will help you apply what you learn! I just started reading it, but I already feel like I’ve learned so much. Lisa Cron is a wealth of knowledge for how to engage your reader and keep them hooked.
Keeping your reader engaged is a crucial aspect of a successful story. Some argue that it’s even more important than writing well. Who cares how beautiful your prose is if you can’t keep the reader interested in the story? Engaging content keeps readers engaged much longer than engaging writing. So, let’s talk about how to engage your reader with 5 simple tips I’ll call engagement strategies.
5 Proven Ways to Engage your Reader (and Keep Them Reading to the End)
Engage Your Reader with a Problem to be Solved
The first engagement strategy is to write a story that has a problem to be solved. Every good story needs conflict. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s worth emphasizing. The protagonist of your story has to have a problem they want solved. A goal they are trying to reach. But it can’t be just any problem or goal. It has to be something that will interest the reader. A problem or goal worthy of your reader sacrificing a few hours of their busy schedule.
Let’s use a silly example. A story about a man trying to decide if he should buy a used car or a brand new Tesla isn’t going to be very interesting. The reader likely won’t care which car he ends up buying. For the most part, cars are pretty similar. Price range and features vary, but any working car can get you from point A to point B.
But what if he has to decide if he wants to buy a Tesla or pay for medical treatments that may or may not help. Whoa, now the reader is more likely to care about the outcome. He’s terminally ill. So does he spend his days joyriding in his new Tesla or does he try and extend his lifespan with no guarantee of success?
Not only does the problem have to be interesting, but the reader has to know what the issue is. If you jump into a problem but don’t define it the reader may be intrigued but confused. And a confused reader is not a lasting reader. Although it can be tempting to think of starting your story with vague details to entice the reader, but it will backfire. It will likely confuse and frustrate the reader more than it will make them curious to figure out what is going on. It is much better to let the reader know exactly what is happening but make them wonder what led the character to this problem and what they will do/become because of it. Not knowing the solution to the problem will engage the readers more than not knowing the problem.
To create engaging writing, the problem to be solved must immediately be clear, and the reader has to care about its solution.
Engage Your Reader with a Plot Twist
The second engagement strategy is to create a plot twist. There is a pretty easy way to do this. Ask yourself what the reader is likely to expect next. Then do anything else but what is expected. Do the last thing your reader is going to expect (while still being plausible to your story) and you’ll have a plot twist to keep your reader engaged.
If you think about the books and movies you’ve read, I bet the ones that stand out were the ones you weren’t able to predict. I mean, if you can predict the whole storyline, why waste your time reading it? You already know what is going to happen. A plot twist can keep the story fresh and keep your reader engaged.
I recently read a YA Romance involving a long road trip. As they traveled, unexpected things kept happening that brought conflict, character development, and life to the story. They found and rescued a 3-legged dog, got pulled over, etc. It wasn’t just a straight drive to their destination. But the plot twists were so unique and unexpected I never knew what would happen next.
Engage Your Reader with Unanswered Questions
The third engagement strategy is to engage the reader with unanswered questions. Remember our first point; you don’t want to confuse the reader. But it’s okay for them to be curious about how something came to be or how the characters are going to respond. Will they overcome the problem or not?
It’s okay to keep them slightly in the dark. Don’t give them all the answers. One of my favorite books that does this is Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis. The Amazon review simply says that a family tragedy has occurred and readers will eventually discover what tore the family apart and what it will take to put it back together. The reader is never confused, but always curious by the unanswered questions. The problem to be solved (a broken family) is very clear. What isn’t certain is how the family fell apart, what they’ll do as a result of their tragedy, and whether or not they’ll overcome it.
Not every engaging story leaves such big questions unanswered, but it is definitely a useful strategy to engage your reader. If you like this style of writing, I totally recommend buying Everything is Fine to see how it’s done. Or just because it’s a really good book. 😉
Engage Your Reader with Focus
The fourth engagement strategy is to stay focused. EVERYTHING needs to relate to your protagonist and the problem to be solved. Every detail should keep the protagonist from getting their goal, help them get their goal, or keep the reader wondering if the protagonist will reach their goal. If it doesn’t relate, it’s a darling and you need to kill it. 😉 If a scene or sentence doesn’t relate to your protagonist and their problem to be solved, you aren’t focused and your reader could lose interest.
Engage Your Reader with Appropriate Difficulty
The final engagement strategy is to engage your reader with the appropriate difficulty. Make sure your word choice and pacing is appropriate for your intended audience. To do this, it’s important to understand your audience. Because I like interesting facts, it is also worth noting that when someone is reading out loud to us, we are more likely to accept books that are more difficult and challenging. Books with bigger words. But when we are reading by ourselves, simply for pleasure, we want to escape into the book and not have to worry about coming across words we don’t know. That may be helpful to keep in mind as you focus on word choice and pacing for your story.
How do you engage your reader and keep them reading until the last page?