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Engage Readers—Feed Them Tasty Fiction

February 1, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 1, 2016

Some element in every story should pop for the reader, whether it’s the puzzle in a mystery, the threat in suspense, the story world in science fiction, or the relationship in a romance.

Readers have to have reasons to continue to read a book past the first page or two, and you’re the one who has to give them those reasons.

One big advantage for writers is that readers come to books intending to enjoy them, intending to get lost in characters and the events overtaking them. You don’t have to do anything to prime the pump.

Yet you do need to deliver. You’ve got to give readers something more captivating than their real-world distractions.

The reader brings an appetite, but you’ve got to serve up the meal. And it should be tasty. Not too skimpy, not bland, and not overly spiced.

Readers come to your books hungry, wanting to enjoy what you serve up, but that doesn’t mean that you can slack off and serve slop.

Readers want a story that tastes good, that looks good.

Sometimes they may want a light meal, sometimes a full seven-course dinner. But they definitely want more than stale crackers and tepid water.

It’s your job to serve an appetizing meal.


When Books Don’t Satisfy

I’m currently reading a book that isn’t doing it for me. I’m more than a third of the way through, and there’s been only one major event. The rest of the time the viewpoint characters—several of them—are ruminating about how they know one another and what’s gone on in their lives over the past several months.

Every character goes someplace alone and then sits and thinks about past events.

But I’m looking for current events. And more going on than a character driving to a new town where he can plop himself in a hotel to think.

I don’t care (relatively speaking) what happened six months ago. I want current action. If those earlier events are the only exciting things to have happened to these characters in the last year, why write this book? Other books in the series covered those earlier events—readers don’t need a rehashing after the fact.

And readers definitely don’t want a dry report of what happened. Give us back story when necessary, but don’t spend the first third (or more) of a book on past events that already played out, as they happened, in other books.

I want more than a report.

Your readers are looking for more too.


What Readers Want

A cool idea alone is insufficient.

A kick-ass climax isn’t enough. Especially if your readers never get that far.

Even an award-winning opening chapter—if they gave awards for opening chapters—isn’t enough to flavor an entire novel.  The whole thing needs to be attractive to the reader.

I’ve recently read a handful of manuscript that were solid in many ways but which nevertheless failed to engage me as a reader.

Now, I don’t approach a manuscript the same way I do a published book, yet I am a reader, and I like to be engaged, just as any reader would.

The good thing about this lack of engaging elements taking place in a manuscript is that the lack of engagement can be corrected. In published books, the author doesn’t get another chance to entice and hold the reader.

That means you need to make sure that your stories will appeal to the reader before they’re published. And that means that you need to include appealing elements throughout a story, not just on the first and last pages.

When I eat chocolate chip cookies, I want chips in every bite, not just one tiny chip in the center. When I read books, I want appealing elements laced through the story.

As with a good meal that consists of a variety of dishes, a good book should contain a variety of elements—arresting events, charismatic characters, surprising dialogue. And the entire book should appeal—all the good stuff shouldn’t be piled up into one or two story moments.

My suggestion is that as you work on a second and third draft, you should look for tasty elements in every scene and chapter. If they’re missing, add them. If they’re overbalanced, redistribute them. If they’re too strong and they come across as melodrama, tone them down or balance them out with other elements.

You don’t need to worry too much about this issue when you create a first draft, but you should consider it as you rewrite and rework your scenes. When you’re searching for weaknesses in a story, this is an issue to cover.


Ways to Entice the Reader

Maybe you’re stuck, not sure what to try as an enticement for the reader. I have a couple of ideas.

~  Capture the reader with a unique opening and then use that opening to flavor other scenes and events in the story. Leapfrog from the opening to related events, linking (lightly) to remind readers of that captivating opening.

~  Use humor. Use sorrow. Use fear. Emotional scenes are great for snaring readers.

~  Use beautifully crafted prose that fits genre, plot, character, and setting. While you may not capture every reader with beautiful phrases, you’ll certainly capture many.

~  Give readers a unique focal character who doesn’t mimic hundreds of others from books, TV, or movies. Make readers pay attention because you’ve introduced a new kind of character who handles his life in ways far different from the way familiar characters do.

~  Refuse to play it safe with common plot situations or clichéd endings. Get creative.

~  Make something happen in the right-now moments of the characters’ lives and put those events on stage, front and center.

~  Be willing to try something new, even if your experiment ultimately proves unwelcome. Be not only a technician, but an inventor.

~  Twist genre expectations. Satisfy genre requirements but add your own embellishments. Make readers crave what only you bring to the genre.

~  Give readers what they want and expect while also surprising them. Readers love to be satisfied and surprised at the same time; it’s doubly satisfying, like finding both butterscotch and chocolate chips in cookies.

~  Be willing to push beyond comfortable emotional limits—yours, the characters’, and the readers’. Don’t settle for mediocre or safe.

~  Be determined to write engaging and witty (or crackling or sharp or gut-wrenching or shocking) dialogue.

~  Be willing to let characters look foolish. At the same time, be willing to let yourself look foolish for writing something outlandish or startling. It’s the unusual—in events and characters—that captures a reader’s interest. Make readers wonder where you could possibly go after that last event or scene.

~  Be willing to step on the readers’ toes, maybe get them incensed about an issue or an event you rained down on a character.


Keep in mind what readers want from stories in general. They want to be entertained. They want their interest captured. They don’t want boredom. They may want the familiar but like any of us with a favorite dish, they want it served fresh.

Give readers enough unique characters and entertaining events to keep them enthralled for 350 pages. Don’t skimp on the good stuff. Treat readers well and feed them tasty fiction.



Tags:     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Writing Tips

21 Responses to “Engage Readers—Feed Them Tasty Fiction”

  1. Celestine says:

    Ways to Entice the Reader—That’s good stuff, I must say! Well presented, well taken. Thanks

  2. Keeping the reader’s attention, in their heads and their hearts, is the absolute golden rule. And so difficult to follow sometimes. Thanks for this good explanation, I’m off to tweet.

    • Thanks for the tweet, Roz. They’re always appreciated.

      You’re right that this golden rule is difficult to follow; there’s so much else to consider as we write. But the other elements don’t matter one whit if the reader loses interest and tosses the book aside.

      Considering the reader is just as critical for our stories as are fascinating plots and captivating characters.

  3. Phil Huston says:

    I overwrite. By a lot. As in the book you were reading, but I don’t send them someplace to think, I send them places to BS with each other, barely driving the story but having a good time. Sooner or later the time comes to take a weedeater to it and I end up with four of whatever I was writing. Great advice.

    That thing about beautiful prose? Lines like that are like Sixties vinyl albums from one-hit-wonders Thirty-two minutes and ten songs of fluff waiting for the one you thought you liked. The trick in editing is to figure out where to drop the needle, and was the second song on side two really that bad?

    • Phil, as long as you take that weedeater to the manuscript eventually, whatever you write in an early draft is okay. If that’s how you work through back story and motivation, then do it. And ending up with four . . . Do you mean four stories rather than one? That’s great.

      A great comparison with the albums with one great song. I remember those albums. I admit that I was bummed whenever I “wasted” money on a full album that had only one or two great songs.

      But eventually, through playing them again and again, I almost always came to like more than the one or two songs. Not for every album. But for many.

      • Phil Huston says:

        Alas…I end up with four versions of the same thing. I could assemble even more versions of the same thing from the cut-outs folder. A 10mb Scrivener folder is an 80mb Word folder. Maybe I should outline better, or stick with one of them through thick and thin and B-side songs…Thanks for all of your always valuable and succinct information.

  4. Diana Grillo says:

    I write short stories, this was very helpful . From now on I will be more aware of the “dish” I am serving.


    • Diana, I’m glad this was helpful. For your short stories, you have even greater need to keep the story lean, to include only what is necessary. And everything that’s necessary needs to work for multiple purposes.

      In long fiction, lines here or there or even a scene can miss without causing a disaster. In short fiction, every word and line has to be right.

      Thanks for letting me know the article was a help.

  5. Logan Grey says:

    Now I’m craving chocolate chip cookies and worried that my story isn’t enticing enough! Thank you for the post. Your blogs are always very helpful.

    • Logan, I’m wanting some cookies now too. I may have to throw some together this evening.

      Don’t worry overmuch about a story not being enticing enough—just remember to check every scene for an element with some flavor to it. And make sure those elements are varied over the length of the story.

      I’m glad to hear you find the articles helpful.

  6. Mark Schultz says:

    Well said! I struggle through stories also that leave me less than filled. Sometimes the reading hat gets knocked off by so many errors in the book. I love my e-readers, because I can make notes about all the errors I find.
    Thanks again for a great post!

    • Mark, it is easy to get distracted, isn’t it? I can overlook errors, of course. But with too many, I start wondering what the next error will be rather than wondering what will happen next with the plot.

      Glad you liked the article.

  7. I enjoyed reading your blog today. As I read, I was reminded of my experience with William Faulkner’s “The Reavers.” I had seen the movie (starring Steve McQueen) and felt desirous to read the book the movie was based upon. I purchased it within a week of seeing the movie, and anxiously began reading.

    I was young at the time (about fifteen) and I’m sure that may have influenced my reaction to Mr. Faulkner’s writing style. As I read, it seemed to me that I was enduring flashback after flashback. I found it annoying. Even before completing the first chapter, I lost desire to finish the book.

    • Aaron, did you ever go back and read the book? I wonder if it would be any easier to read now.

      Story structure is so different today. For the most part, readers want to dive right into current story events. It’s a very different world, and readers have different interests. I wonder what Faulkner and Hemingway would think of today’s popular stories.

  8. Noelie says:

    Comments : the part about the typo is not to be published:
    I have read two of your articles so far and I find them very helpful and interesting. Thank you so much for provinding such important material. I’m in the process of writing my first novel, and I really loving it. I also wanted to let you know of a small typo that slipped into one of your articles – and you might like to fix it (add an “s” to manuscript) : I’ve recently read a handful of manuscript that were solid in many ways but which nevertheless failed to engage me as a reader. From your article “Engage Readers—Feed Them Tasty Fiction”. Keep up your wonderful site, I’ll be checking into it again often.
    Noelie from Namur, Belgium