The Craft Behind Engaging Fiction

It’s not usually one of those things we pay too much mind to during a first draft. Maybe it’s not even the focus of your second draft. Perhaps you’re the writer that settles every time for having merely “interesting” content. Well, it’s time to take your fiction to the next level. Three-dimensional stories are not only interesting, they engage your audience.

The key to engaging the reader is to: a) make them think and question; b) inspire an urge in them to respond to the reading; c) take readers on the same old journey in a brand new direction; and d) raise the (emotional) stakes.

A lot of people read books, but not all people experience them. An experience in reality is formed by use of the senses to participate in a series of actions that make up an event. However, a reading experience is one that calls for the reader’s psychological investment and participation in the hero(ine)’s journey – one that encourages a response to the reading. When fiction evokes an emotional response from its readers, it is engaging.

A truly engaging narrative will pose questions that the fiction, through the puppeteering of characters, seeks to answer. The questions may be the determining factors of the theme, too. If addressed consistently and in various ways through the presentation of a deeper insight into characters’ experiences, the questions the author poses will engage the reader’s mind and permeate their thoughts. Pose a good question, and try to aim for one that has no one right answer. It’ll haunt readers in the form of an afterthought.

Encouraging afterthoughts is a powerful tool for keeping readers hooked onto a story – whether they’re in the middle of one or a week after they finished it. Inspiring a response, however, is the next level of engagement. It implies that the reader is invested in the subject matter, journey, or theme of a story.

It can come in many forms. Think about how we watch/read/listen to the news. We hear something news-worthy, usually something negative, then we tell someone else about it (because how can you not, right?), and soon after, we’ve gone off on a tangent about how messed up the world is.

Now apply that process to engaging fiction. Think along the lines of talking to your friends and family about that one, crazy book you couldn’t put down, and going off on a tangent about something that happened in the story. Maybe it struck an emotional chord—doesn’t matter which emotion—and you just have to talk about it to someone in your vicinity or on social media. You have a pressing need to respond to the reading by discussing it. That’s the investment you, the author, want to inspire from the reader.

You’ve been the reader before, you know how it goes. Make sure there is deeper meaning and conflict, but also a sense of tension caused by some controversiality, in your fiction. Take this advice with a grain of salt (if your particular story doesn’t call for something so seemingly serious), but do take it. Give your fiction a news-worthy, dramatic kick, but don’t exaggerate things. Exaggeration kills engagement; unless we’re talking about reality shows or weddings.

Speaking of news-worthy drama, it’s worth mentioning that doing the same ole overdone plot in an ever-so-slightly different manner is not going to garner anyone’s investment, whatsoever. What is going to involve readers in your fiction is the same ole washed up story done in a wildly different way than they’re used to seeing it done – hence making it a brand new story, with a new perspective on universal themes. Change the setting to one that affects the characters’ circumstances or lifestyle; remove all stereotypes; add nuances, or layers, to characters; and give them a unique struggle that’s worth fighting for. Readers fall for that stuff all the time. You and I would know.

And don’t forget that when you raise the stakes for survival and peace, also raise the hero(ine)’s emotional stakes. There’s an existential, external goal, but there’s also always a more personal, internal goal in every story, too.

Katniss didn’t want to win the Hunger Games simply because she wanted to survive. She wanted to survive because she needed to see her sister again; she had to protect her from the cruel world. After all, it was in her place that Katniss fought to the death. As the head of household (don’t look at me funny, it’s tax season in America), she had a responsibility toward her family – to provide for them and protect them from danger. The emotional stakes are high for her because if she doesn’t survive the Games, her sister would be left all alone with a deadbeat mother, and no one to care and provide for her. Katniss’s life would have been lost for no reason.

Point? Up the ante, raise the stakes. It creates edge-of-your-seat tension that lives inside the dedicated readers’ veins.

Do these things the next time you write fiction or finish a draft. Then, if you have beta readers, note whether they were eager or neutral to respond to your work. If they were eager, you’re doin’ great! If not, you know what to do, my friends.

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