Reader (and audience) engagement is an important aspect of writing of any kind, especially if we’re looking for commercial success.
Here are a few ways to hook readers and keep them engaged with your story.
Identity – We want to see ourselves in the characters
Humans are gene-driven, tribal animals. We want stories about people who look just like us because we think those stories will be most applicable to us. Sometimes this is biology-based. White readers often prefer white characters and black readers often prefer black characters. Men often prefer male protagonists and women often prefer female leads. This isn’t a firm rule, of course, but you’ll notice how often men like action stories with heroic male leads and that the romance genre, overwhelming dominated by female readers, has overwhelming amounts of female lead characters.
Sometimes identity is cultural. You may have noticed how many American books and movies are “Rah-Rah, go America!” Americans want to read about Americans. Japanese most definitely want to read about Japanese. We might divert ourselves with the occassinal exotic title, but we want to read about people in our own culture the most because we believe that we’ll learn things directly applicable to life in our culture. When we see character who are exactly like us, superficially or culturally, we find the story more useful. The more useful a story appears to be, the more we’ll become engaged with it.
We can see how much identity matters with all the identity politics going on in America right now. People are campaigning for more “diversity” in stories and consider it a real triumph to create any story where characters are not white, male or heterosexual. There is massive confusion over this process. On the one hand, we’re trying to do away with labels in order to promote inclusivity in a society where so many are not the same, and yet we’re also busily creating as many labels as we can so that everyone can have their own.
As an example of where identity politics has brought us today, the BBC’s review of Black Panther praised the movie at length almost entirely based on the “diversity” it brought to the world of stories. However, down at the very end of the review, here is what the reviewer thought of the actual story:
“The one genre which he doesn’t quite nail, ironically, is the superhero genre. The choppily-edited, CGI-heavy action set pieces are never very thrilling, and T’Challa is better at standing around looking noble than anything else. When a superhero has a film of his own, you expect him to have some witty lines, some ingenious plans, some breathtaking stunts – anything to inspire hero worship, or superhero worship. But the Black Panther is a blank panther. For all of the abilities he derives from his sister’s gadgets and his mentor’s herbal remedies, he is a surprisingly passive bore who is all too adept at losing fights and letting villains escape.”
Black Panther will no doubt be a massive commerical success, based in part because it’s so full of spectacle, but mostly because of “diversity”. People are probably tremendously excited to see characters in a story whose superficial physical attributes mirror their own, even at the sacrifice of what makes good story. So Black Panther will achieve high engagement. But will that diversity be enough for that story to really be remembered over the years? Will it engage an audience that doesn’t look or act exactly like the actors in it? That remains to be seen. (Which brings up an associated point: know your audience, and target them.)
In reality, it shouldn’t actually matter what a character’s skin colour or gender or sexual orientation are – at all. The ultimate place of inclusivity and acceptance a society can reach is when none of these things really matter to us. We should be able to read a story about a character and not care at all about their outer appearance. Why? Because the human experience is largely universal and the best stories reach us all. Ultimately, we’d like to get to a point where we can get just as much value out of a story no matter what the physical appearance or culture of a character.
Of course, in a society that hasn’t advanced that far yet, skin colour still makes a practical difference in some people’s lives and for others, gender does as well. (See the #MeToo campaign.) In a world where so many confused people are still figuring things out, and where we’re still basing our identity on superficial traits instead of inner values, visible identity is one of the first things readers are going to grab onto. Feeling similar in identity to the character is part of what makes us want to get engaged in their story. Because “they are just like me!”
(Personally, I’m pumped to see Black Panther. Why? Because I love superhero movies. I identify with the hero, and the values one needs to be one. For me, I don’t care what he/she looks like. Or what gender they are. Gal Gadot is incredibly inspiring as Wonder Woman.)
Relatable Experiences – My life is just like that!
Much like identity, where we want to see someone who looks like us, with relatable experiences we want to read about characters that go through the same things we do.
Most of us marry, so when we see a married couple struggling with their relationship, we think – “Me too! I’m struggling just like that!” – and read more closely. When a parent struggles with monstrous, misbehaving kids, we think – “My kids are just like that and I am just as tired and stressed!” – and become more engaged with the story.
Why does it affect us so much? Empathy. We understand what they’re going through. Why do we keep reading? To find out how other people are dealing with things. Often, we want to see worst-case scenarios, which is why stories are so full of conflict. It helps us learn what to avoid. (Gee, maybe sex with the neighbour’s hot, young daughter and her two friends isn’t so good for a marriage. Maybe giving kids everything they want in life isn’t good because it turns them into selfish, unappreciative brats.)
We dress things up in our stories with fantasy, science fiction, historical settings, and outlandish ideas to make things more fun. But underneath it all, a good story is about relatable life experience. The more we see our lives in those of the characters, the more engaged we become. Setting and genre are just clothing changes on universal stories about life.
At the heart of any story is conflict. Some of us mistakenly think of stories as just “mindless entertainment” but, in truth, stories are life lessons and imaginary experimentation. We play out scenarios in our own minds all the time, imagining what would happen at work if we actually stood up to our boss or what would happen at home if we really let out our anger and kicked our husband in the balls. We imagine what it would be like if we actually had the guts to go up to that girl we like and try to figure out what to say to get her to go out with us. We imagine what it might be like if we gave up being a stay-at-home mom and ventured back out into the workforce, maybe as a fashionist, maybe as a superhero. We imagine the consequences of change in our lives.
Stories are other people’s imagination at work, showing us things we haven’t thought of, giving us insights we’ve never gotten because we haven’t had the same experiences. And all of the scenarios we imagine require change in our lives. Change is conflict. So if a story does not have change, if it does not have conflict, it won’t engage us. We simply won’t stay with a story where the character goes about a hum-drum life and everything is just fine. It’s boring because it’s not instructive.
Manipulation is at the heart of storytelling. It always has been. It’s how we move an audience to tears or make a reader laugh out loud. It’s an inherent part of the process. So getting readers engaged is about manipulating them, their feelings and ideas. We engage by driving up action and suspense. We engage by triggering fears and insecurities. We engage by creating mysteries and conflict.
While some manipulation is good, recent decades have seen manipulation taken to its extremes. Action is one method of grabbing an audience. Think of all the action books and movies where there’s no longer any variation in pace. The action grabs you from page one (the “hook”) and it’s a non-stop thrill-ride to the end. We’re engaged, definitely. And that technique achieves a lot of commercial success. But it doesn’t necessarily make for good storytelling. There’s never a moment to feel anything but suspense, no time to take in an important insight, and, by the end, it’s often less exciting and more grueling or even boring because we’re worn out and tired of the same old thing. Varying the pace would have prevented that.
You’ll notice how many of those action stories are exciting in the moment, but forgetable as soon as we’re finished. And we rarely go back to them a second time. Worse, they’re almost never instructive. They tell us next to nothing about the human experience and have little to no impact on society. They are pure chemical manipulation of our brains for financial gain.
The hook is another element considered absoltutely essential for storytelling. Why? Because it works. If the start of the story immediately grabs us with mystery, action, conflict, we want to read more. Hooks engage readers.
Unfortunately, they are also overused. We’ve become a society in which we’re overstimulated and no longer have the patience to take our time immersing ourselves in a story. Some argue that starting slow is bad storytelling. Others argue that different stories should vary in pace and that starting slow means higher paced parts later will actually have greater impact.
Cliffhangers are another element for engaging readers and audiences. Every chapter, every tv episode, ever part one and two of a trilogy, now comes with a cliffhanger. We’re left on the edge of our seat, wondering, “What wil happen next?”. The human brain doesn’t like unfinished stories so we hunger for the next part.
Like non-stop action, it’s a cheap, over-used method simply because it’s very effective. It will engage readers. But a great storyteller will recognize that using it too often burns readers out and that, when used more judiciously, it can be more effective. Use it too much and readers will turn away in exhaustion and seek something else out.
Ease of Consumption – Easy to read = Easy to understand and enjoy
Reading is the very difficult and complex task of translating symbols on a page to images in the brain. It is this difficulty and complexity which is why books are not consumed at nearly the rate tv and film are. Think of all the people who say, “Reading is hard.” and don’t do it. To become a good reader takes practice and intellectual struggle.
One of the things which led to JK Rowling’s immense success with Harry Potter is her accesibility of language. There are some British slang and nonsense words unique to her storyworld, but on the whole, the language is easy to grasp. One might laugh (wrongly) at an adult reading a “kids book” like Harry Potter, but the fact is, she writes in a way that is easy for most people to understand and imagine. The easier it is to get into the story, the more easily we become engaged.
There are countless “literary” authors out there who write gorgeous, fanciful prose that sparkles – and require an IQ over 130 to enjoy. They win prizes and gain great critical praise from many snobbish critics for their work. But their books then sit gathering dust on shelves because most readers are busy with Steven King and Tom Clancy, James Patterson and JK Rowling. The vast majority of commerical authors employ more plain language in their books, to bring out stories in ways that allow a wide audience to become more readily engaged.
Why? It engages our empathy, and then, our engagement. The more vividly we experience what the character does, the more involved we feel.
We just have to be careful not to overdo it. Too much emotion is melodramatic and becomes less believable. Emotion should start out mild in a story and increase over time, as the stakes do.