There are umpteen tricks and ways available to writers to engage the reader from the first page of the book, to the very last. That’s because there’s a vast arsenal of literary devices, tricks and strategies at the writer’s fingertips, but how a writer uses them is the real key to engaging the reader, and keeping them engaged.
A book that works is a book that speaks to the reader, one that involves them on a psychological and emotional level, one that creates immediacy and empathy and makes the reader want to care enough about the characters that they feel almost real.
Engaging the reader isn’t about standing on the sidelines and simply narrating or reporting that this or that happened. It’s about pouring your heart and soul into every word – that’s what draws the reader, that’s what fires their imagination and helps them identify with the characters and the story.
Engaging the reader is all about involvement.
So, what are the magic ways – those tricks, strategies and literary devices – that keep the reader so engrossed? There are countless ways, but the main ones writers need to focus on are the most simple of elements, thus:
Hook the reader from the outset with an intriguing premise. The first line of your first paragraph of your first chapter is the delicate precipice from which everything balances. Get that right and half the battle is won. Hook your reader with the promise of an amazing story – let those first few lines grab them by the scruff of the neck and never let go.
Be vivid, colourful, gritty, raw, real...whatever your style, whatever your voice; grab the reader’s attention. Make that opening count.
Start the story at the most vital point. Don’t start the story with a boring three page backstory. Don’t start it in the run up to the moment your character is involved with the story. Instead start it at that crucial moment, start it with a bang, start it at the moment your hero’s life falls into the toilet, start it at the point your heroine might die; start with danger or excitement or tension or conflict. Or all of them.
A tight plot without flaws is better than a poor plot riddled with faults. We all know how important it is to have a fully realised and well thought out plot, but it’s even more important that it is reader-proof. In other words, a reader will spot a plot hole – no matter how small – and that can have an effect of the reader’s enjoyment of the story. If you want to engage the reader, make sure that the plot is fault free and watertight.
Other clever strategies include intriguing and captivating subplots. Related to the main plot, sub plots are smaller story threads that run parallel to the main story and involve other characters. Subplots create intrigue and suspense and raise questions that the readers just love to answer. This is the epitome of reader involvement.
Create conflict and emotion if you want to involve the reader. No book can exist without these. Real lives are full of conflict and tension, so creating these elements is one of the easiest ways to engage the reader and ensure they identify with the characters and their ongoing struggles to reach their goal.
Nothing grabs the reader more than emotion – it’s the one real thing that they will absolutely identify with. Everyone has emotions, everyone has feelings and everyone will have gone through similar emotions to your characters – grief, sadness, loneliness, joy, fear, anxiety and so on. If there is little emotion in your story, then you won’t engage the reader on any level.
There are similar elements to conflict and emotion, and that is to create tension, atmosphere and mood in all the right places. These elements keep the reader on the edge of their seats with intrigue, trepidation or dread. What might happen next? What could possibly go wrong? What lies in the darkness ahead? How will the characters get out of the situation?
These things cause the reader to react with certain emotions, and that means they’ve become involved. And that’s the whole point.
What about the actual stuff that is the story, the description, the narrative and the dialogue? A balance of all three is a good way to involve the reader; it means you can’t go far wrong. In other words, don’t overdo it on description and leave dialogue languishing. Or don’t write too much narrative and leave the description wanting. Look for a balance of all three.
Dynamic description should always show rather than tell. Narrative sections should be brief and informative without turning into info dumps. Dialogue should inform and move the story forward.
Equal amounts of all three elements make the book a much better read.
There are so many ways to get the reader involved in the story, so in part 2, we’ll look at more literary devices, elements and ways to engage the reader and keep them engaged.
Next week: How to Engage the Reader – Part 2