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Make Readers Care

March 17, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 17, 2014

Plots that go nowhere or characters that inspire no interest are death to your stories. If nothing interesting happens in a novel, readers are likely to put it down. If characters don’t engage the readers—their minds or emotions or curiosity—you get the same result—readers tossing aside the book without reading to the end.

So the task for writers is to engage the reader and to do so as soon as possible.

The days when a book could go 50 to 75 or more pages before the story got going are well behind us. Yes, some stories and some genres allow for a more leisurely opening. But unless you’re paying them to read or they’re reading a slow-moving novel as an exercise, today’s readers simply aren’t going to give you 50 pages to entice them. They have too many other uses of their time and if you can’t catch their attention in the early pages, they’re going to be gone. And they’re going to carry their impression of your poor writing skills with them, to be brought out any time they see your name on a book jacket.

You typically only get one chance to ensnare readers and once you fail to do that, it’s likely you won’t get another chance. Not with the same story.

My advice for you today is simple—make readers care. And do it early in the story. And then do it often throughout the story.

And while you’re at it, use different techniques and characters to ensure that readers have something interesting to read as they follow your characters chapter by chapter to the story’s conclusion.

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In every story, in every scene, for every event—make readers care.

You never want a reader saying, “So what? What’s the purpose of this scene [or event]?”

Even when readers don’t understand the purpose of every bit of action or every line of dialogue, you still want them paying attention and interested. You want them involved. And they become involved when the plot and characters are involving.

You want readers engaged, caring about what happens to your characters or what happens next. You want readers sitting up and paying attention, eager to not miss one word or one little event.

Write so that readers pay attention. Make them care about what’s happening and what might happen. Make them anticipate and fear the possibilities that you’ve tantalizingly woven into your text.

Opening Pages
In your early pages, unless you’re writing a series, everything is new to the reader. You’ve got dozens of ways to interest readers who come to your novel wanting to be enticed into your fictional world. You can—

introduce an unforgettable character

establish an intriguing world

paint an irresistible tone or mood

dump readers into compelling action

Readers are predisposed to want to enjoy your novel: they’ve been intrigued by the cover or a blurb or the description of a friend; they know the genre and have expectations that your novel will conform to the genre specifics that they so love; they read the first couple of pages and got hooked; or maybe they’ve read another of your books. Whatever the reason, most readers want to love your story, want to get lost in your imaginary world with your imaginary characters and their oh-so-real dramas.

It doesn’t take much to entice the reader in the early pages. But it does take something.

Make the reader care about a character or about the story world right away. And then look for ways to continue making him care throughout the story.

First Third of the Book
Once a reader is hooked by the story’s beginning—truly hooked—you could go a little while on the interest you stirred in the early pages. But at some point you have to give the reader something new to think about.

The story’s original hook is not enough to see a reader through 400 pages of plot.

Once you’re beyond the introduction of plot, character, and setting, you’ve got to keep the reader’s interest. Writers typically do this with the introduction of new characters, challenges for the main characters, and action or events that shake up both characters and readers.

At this point in a piece of long fiction, you can send characters, plot, and readers off in a new direction, exploding the readers’ expectations and reminding readers that this is a new story and it won’t be going exactly where they expect it to go, no matter how much it fits genre conventions.

While you can’t always switch up your story as you approach the end—you’ve got to follow through with plot lines and character personalities that you’ve established throughout the novel—you can do a bit of shaking up in the first third of the story. A predictable story doesn’t engage the reader the same way an unfamiliar story does. A predictable story can be read with one eye while the other is engaged in different pursuits. A fresh story, one the reader can’t predict, keeps the reader’s focus. And his interest. And that’s what you want to draw from the reader—his unwavering attention and interest.

Use the first third of your story to—

introduce characters and their goals and motivations—this includes the antagonist and her goals and motivations

set up hurdles and challenges for the main characters

reveal some of the main characters’ strengths and weaknesses

write action events that move the story forward

deepen the quirks of your fictional world

make characters and readers feel a variety of emotions

show what’s at stake

give characters reasons to risk no matter what’s at stake

introduce a mystery or a dilemma that can’t be resolved in a single scene

induce reader anticipation

Make sure all scenes have a purpose. Actually, give scenes multiple purposes. Use layering to add different elements to a scene so it accomplishes several functions. All scenes should advance plot, reveal character, establish or change tone or mood, or raise the conflict level. If a scene achieves several of these purposes at the same time, you’ve written a strong scene. A cohesive scene.

Scenes with interrelated elements pull a story’s threads tight, making that story harder to unravel. Look for ways to purposely combine a scene’s elements so that the scene serves multiple needs.

Middle of the Book
Because so much happens in the middle chapters—and because so many of the events and dialogue include explanations and back story and perhaps flashbacks—the middle of a novel can get bogged down, trapping not only characters in scenes or settings for pages when they should be in and out in moments, but trapping and frustrating readers as well.

Don’t think that the middle chapters of a novel are restricted for established characters and their problems; you can always introduce new characters or reveal unknown traits of existing characters in the middle chapters, especially the early middle chapters.

You can add or take away characters midbook—and both are wonderful options as methods for shaking up your characters. And when characters are unsettled, you know you’ve got your readers unsettled. And when you’ve got their emotions involved, you know readers care.

For middle chapters, think change. Don’t allow the status quo to go undisturbed for long. You can get into a rhythm with your writing that makes every scene the same length, that gives every sentence the same structure or pattern. But sameness lulls—bores—the reader.

Break up patterns and rhythms.

Give readers a variety of scene and chapter lengths. Make sure different characters open or close chapters. Change the setting. Kill off a character. Reveal a secret. Change something. Change several somethings.

Introduce the unusual to recapture the reader’s attention. Make it imperative that readers pay attention.

Speed or slow the pace. Break something. Add in a betrayal.

Block the protagonist’s progress; frustrate the antagonist so he tries even harder to ruin the protagonist. Have friends of both protagonist and antagonist desert them. Embarrass characters so they must go to great lengths to save face.

Raise the stakes so that only a few characters can stay the course.

Use the middle chapters to—

reveal the true inner character of your main characters

take characters to and then beyond the point of no return

uncover elements of the fictional world/setting that help characters or hurt them

build the plot so events are timely and inevitable and causally related

show characters as vulnerable

stir anticipation for the climax and showdown

 The events and feel of the beginning of the middle will be different from the end of the middle—the closer a story gets to the climax, the faster it should move. Fast is a relative term, of course, and some stories won’t rush toward the end the way others will, but all stories should induce in the reader a sense of movement, of heading some place where something explosive will happen where events will come to a head and answers will be made known.

If readers don’t have a sense that something is going to happen, that the main character’s world isn’t at risk of unraveling, then you haven’t giving them much reason to stay with your story.

Entice them with the promise of something climactic, with the possibility of doom and a slight possibility of resounding success. But make the outcome uncertain; you do want the ending to seem inevitable once it arrives, but you don’t want it predictable. Include reasons in your middle chapters for why it’s unlikely the protagonist will succeed—his friends have deserted him; he fears his own strength but knows well his weaknesses; he’s never won against this particular opponent; what he’s trying to achieve has never been accomplished.

Those Final Chapters
Once you’ve got the reader anticipating the ending, you’ve got to deliver what you promised. And more.

The chapters that lead directly to the climax should be relentless. They should move forward, all the separate elements and pieces coming together in logical sequences that fit everything that has come before and that satisfy the reader.

The pace should definitely start to move. If the pace of your story doesn’t increase somewhere around the two-thirds mark, go back and rework your scenes from that point forward.

Increase the anticipation level in the reader. Make him wonder how you’re going to resolve the story’s major and minor problems. Move characters into place so they’re ready to play their parts.

In the final chapters, you’ve got to deliver the payoff. And it has to fit everything you’ve included up to that point. For the end chapters—

build to the climax

actually write and include a climactic scene

make the protagonist the one responsible for her story’s ending—this is not the time to introduce new characters or to have a secondary character save the day

make sure the climax takes place on stage—no summaries for the climax

resolve major issues—tie up loose ends

include a resolution—show or tell what happens to the protagonist after the final showdown with the antagonist (or with his problem)

show what it cost the protagonist to follow through with her convictions

stop the story without dragging the resolution on for pages

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Some of these suggestions will obviously fit in at more than one section of a novel. The point is, you want readers engaged. And you have to consciously give them engaging material at every stage of a story. You can lose readers at any stage, but if you’re aware of that, aware of the need to entice them all the way through the novel, it’s likely that you’ll include story elements that hold their attention.

If you make readers care about your main characters and their problems, if you make every scene relevant, every bit of dialogue purposeful, then it’s more likely the readers will follow you to the final page. And if you satisfy the reader who’s gone through the entire adventure with you and your characters with an ending that pulls together every story thread you introduced, then you’ve probably earned yourself a reader for your next book.

Give readers a reason to care. Don’t give them any reason to ask so what concerning a story event or section of dialogue or character decision. Give characters stories that challenge them and that hold the interest of the reader.

Make your stories exciting for those who live through them as well as those who read the adventures you create.

Write stories that capture and hold your readers

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

13 Responses to “Make Readers Care”

  1. Thanks for this comprehensive look at getting and keeping the reader’s attention. Plenty to chew on!

  2. Dear Beth:
    It seems that I am at the point in life that it is necessary for me to learn things that you have said during this post. I enjoyed it so much I would like for my blog readers to get this as I have. I have copied this post in two different parts and would like to post them one at the time giving you full credit for the post. If this would be okay please send me and e-mail allowing it. I don’t want to step on any toes, but when I see a gem like this I want others to read it also. My e-mail is—-jamesmcopelandnovelist@gmail.com

    Best regards,
    James M. Copeland

    • James, I don’t mind links back to my articles and I certainly don’t mind you quoting a few lines to whet your readers’ appetites, but I’d rather you didn’t actually post the articles anywhere else. It’s so easy to follow a link that there seems little reason not to encourage doing just that.

      I’m glad you found something useful here, and I hope your readers will as well.

  3. Mira Prabhu says:

    Hello Beth,

    You seem to be a master of the genre…I am saving your post to savor and use as I write my second novel. Funny how the right messages appear just when I need them — there is a higher power…and right now, in the world of writing, you are its agent. Thank you!

  4. Rosi says:

    Lots of food for thought in this very comprehensive post. I will definitely be linking back to this in my blog. Thanks for posting it.

  5. Nick LeVar says:

    I was just having a conversation about this with a writer the other day. She was adamant that it will tire the reader when we pack so much into every scene. Make the reader care, add a character want/need, add a conflict to that want/need, etc. I think it is the skilled writer who can do this in every scene, and it would behoove them to read this post!

    • Nick, I agree that every scene needs something and sometimes several somethings. Conflict is especially important.

      Some scenes and chapters don’t have to be as wild or manic or fraught with as many emotional ups and downs as the surrounding scenes and chapters—because readers and characters need breaks—but every scene has to have a purpose or two. There is no room for filler. It’s too easy to lose readers if nothing happens.

      But there are lots of ways to keep readers involved, keep the story moving, so there’s no reason to stop a story. And once the end gets close, you don’t want to slow the story at all. Readers want that push to the end, and the smart writer will see that they get it.

      Maybe if you speak with that writer again you can see what she had in mind. Slowing the pace is one thing, but stopping the story or avoiding conflict and reader emotion is quite another. Readers need something every scene in order to stay interested.

  6. What a helpful post! I have bookmarked it, as there is a lot here to think about and I want to be able to come back to it. :) Thanks so much for sharing! You provided lots of great advice!

  7. Andrew Kloak says:

    This was great to read. Very helpful. So much so that I took notes on this. I’m working on my first novel and will be complete soon. It’s only taken me 15 years and I wish I had learned these things earlier when I started writing.

    My forthcoming novel Working the Glass will be better because of these great pointers you bring out. The one that excites me the most is the one you say to introduce in the last part of the book: Showing reasons why it’s unlikely the main character will succeed. Namely he’s never won against this opponent. He’s trying to achieve what has never been accomplished before.

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