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Entertain the Reader

June 5, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 5, 2016

I spent an hour or so earlier today working on an article about the purposes of fiction, and while I might get around to posting that at a later time, what I really want to focus on is just one of the major purposes of fiction, and that’s entertaining the reader.

No, entertainment isn’t the only purpose of fiction. But it’s an important one. In our day it may be the most important one.

We can use fiction to teach and inspire and remind and persuade, but readers come to fiction to be entertained. And that means that you have to do the entertaining.

It’s likely that you already know that you have to capture your readers in the early pages and that you have to satisfy them with the ending, but what’s vital is that you have to entertain, whatever entertain means for your genre and your particular book.

Whether you use humor or sorrow or disappointment or some combination of emotional tugs, your story will probably touch your readers’ emotions in some way. So you entertain by purposely creating emotional moments.

Your story will also likely feature characters that readers can identify with—the characters are similar to the reader or to someone the reader knows or to someone the reader would like to be. When a reader can identify with a character, the reader becomes involved. And when emotion and character are linked, the reader is hooked.

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Your story may feature a mystery or suspense or events that unroll at breakneck speed, any of which can capture and hold the reader’s attention.

Or your story may challenge the reader’s beliefs, and this can definitely keep a reader interested and entertained; readers want to know what you’ll do with their beloved beliefs and they’ll read on to find out.

A story may challenge a reader’s mind; give readers a puzzle that needs to be unknotted and they may well stick with that story through the end.

Your story may revolve around a place or event that’s meaningful to a great many people; readers will be eager to see what you do with one of their favorite places or favorite historic events.

Whatever your story is about and whatever characters and events it contains, it needs to be a story that draws the reader’s attention and keeps it.

Readers need to care about characters and what happens to them. If you tease and entice readers just right with a story problem, they’ll have to read the whole story to see how you resolve the problem. Readers have to want to read more than the first chapter—they need a reason to invest time and imagination in your story. Give them reasons to spend time with your books.

And never doubt that readers invest in stories. They give so much more than time.

They try to solve the story problem.

They spend time worrying about imaginary characters.

They pull for one character over another.

They apply lessons learned in fiction to their own lives.

They talk about stories with others who’ve read the same books, arguing about events and meaning as if their arguments carry import for the real world.

Readers come to story already prepared to invest themselves. Still, you have to provide a story strong enough to make readers care beyond the excitement inherent in the first pages of an unfamiliar story. Otherwise they don’t get out of a story all that they expect to, all that they’ve come to expect from good fiction.

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I don’t have a list of rules or suggestions for you to follow. Not today. I do have a reminder: make your fiction interesting. Don’t be so concerned with grammar and rules that you don’t write a rollicking farce or a layered fantasy or a head-scratching mystery. Don’t be so concerned with the rules of publishing that you shortchange the story itself.

There are times when you’ll need to focus on grammar and rules and publicity and on securing an agent, but there are also times when you’ll need to focus on storytelling; you can’t forgo telling a good story.

No matter what you’re working on right now or what stage the project is in, remind yourself that you’re a storyteller. Remind yourself that you’re sharing your story with someone whose attention you must keep. Remind yourself to make the characters, story world, and events fascinating and engaging.

If your rewrites and self-edits focus on rules to the exclusion of story, you’re missing a major component of writing. If the story itself—the events, the characters involved in those events, and the reasons behind those events—is weak and uninvolving, then you need to work on storytelling. If the story is flat, give it some life.

Write well, yes. But write a good story too. Make readers want to turn pages. Make them need to know what’s going to happen because they care about your characters and the adventure you’ve planned for those characters. Make readers care.

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7 Responses to “Entertain the Reader”

  1. MG says:

    Whenever I read one of your posts, I feel like I am in the graduate school of writing. Thank you!

  2. faith says:

    Thanks so much for your inputs.this has helped me more than you know.I love writing I only went to 3grade so my grammar needs work.I wrote a fairy tale called the enchanted forest.. it was more than paper and pen it became very real to me.I shaped and nurture each animal into there own unique personality like Penelope the unicorn and bobbybear. I ended up writing 3 separate books part2 etc I got so into the characters that I was laughing one min feeling sad when mariah felt I couldn’t wait to get back to writing that’s the first thing I did when I woke up it change when grammar became the main focus all the magic I felt with my animal family wizard dispeard it wasn’t same.now I realize why thank you I’m going to start writing again

  3. Darien says:

    Hi Beth,

    I’ve been working on a sequel, and I’ve got the story complete with a light on details style. I love to look at your blogs and then go in to flesh out the story.

    I’m wondering if you have any advice for how to satisfy readers when you’re ending with a cliff-hanger. The Girl who Played with Fire is an example. It read as though the author had one one continuous book but cut it in half. When I read it, I didn’t mind because book three was available, so I just got it and finished.

    I do intend to do something similar. One character has a very strong arc throughout the story and it does reach a satisfying level. There were also crimes that were resolved to a certain degree, but the bad guy is still on the lam. The twist at the end also reveals a conspiracy that will fuel the 3rd book.

    Anyway, I wondered if you had any thoughts on having readers satisfied and not aggravating them.

    Thanks as always!

    Darien

    • Darien, it sounds as if you’ve been hard at work.

      Not ending a story can be tricky, as you’ve probably guessed. There is, however, a difference between a book that ends on a cliffhanger and one that leaves some threads unresolved, to be addressed in subsequent books.

      Important for both kinds of books is letting readers know ahead of time that the story doesn’t end with the final page of the book. Most readers hate for a novel-length story to stop without actually solving the story problem.

      Let readers know that a book series is not only a series but a serial, a series of continuing stories released one at a time and that do not conclude until the final volume.

      Many series books resolve smaller issues in each book, leaving dealing with the big issue (or big bad guy) until the final book. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are examples of such series. Because so much is covered in each book and there is a resolution of each book’s story problem, readers are satisfied and can wait to see how the big problem is resolved.

      For true serials, readers can choose to read them if they like serials and don’t mind not having an ending after 350 pages. But readers have got to know up front. And as you mentioned, releasing a second or third book almost right away is helpful too.

      Readers don’t seem to mind serials in short fiction, but I’m guessing that most still expect a novel-length book to resolve all the story issues in that book. They want a resolution.

      It’s not that you can’t try it, but you might want to investigate a bit, see how serials are selling. You may also want to see if any writers suggest a marketing strategy for a serial series.

  4. Darien says:

    Thanks so much, Beth!

    I have had those voices take over in my head, lol! I never knew what a multiple personality I was.

    As soon as I posted the comment, I was reeling with considerations. I did have an epiphany though, and I think I can do it with less cliff hanging, more satisfaction, and still enough unresolved to carry into book three.

    I’m so lucky one of my Beta’s has been willing to read a first draft . . . she loves the peppy pace, but alas, I know it needs more! I’ll be giving her the ending soon, so I’ll at least get some feedback. : )

    Thanks as always for you advice!

    Darien

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