We writers all want to hook our readers. Whether it’s the opening line of an essay or article (often called “the hook”) or the opening chapter of a novel, writing that engages readers, or makes them “care” is a combination of essential qualities that any writer can learn to use.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some essential elements needed to make readers care about a piece of writing?
Fire Up Emotions
The first task a writer must handle is to engage readers. The opening of any work must somehow trigger emotions—even if it’s only curiosity at first. To keep readers hooked, these emotions must build in the readers the same way as they do for fictional characters, or in the case of nonfiction, the anecdotes or information given. In a story, readers must care at least as much as the protagonist does, and ideally, anxiety should be heightened or kicked up a notch, in every succeeding scene. Readers who care what happens to the character will keep reading. This is one reason stories about characters who don’t care about much of anything are very difficult to pull off. If readers sense the character doesn’t really want anything or care about anything (such as novels about mid-life crises), readers will have a hard time caring about the story—even though it’s a familiar circumstance in real life. As one reader recently pointed out, writing poetry is an excellent way to distill emotion in as few words as possible. You might try writing a short poem (don’t worry about rhyming) that sums up your character’s dilemma and emotions.
Leaven with Logic
If emotions are the unpredictable part of life, logic would seem to be its mortal enemy. Yet readers crave stories with an emotional logic. This means that if an event triggers an emotion, the next event’s emotion should match what the readers know to be true of how we process our feelings and how they escalate. For example, if something happens in the story to cause the character to fly into a rage, readers want to see the logical progression of how those furious emotions grew out of earlier happenings (the character’s back story), the character’s emotional makeup and most importantly, how universally we go from mildly annoyed to full-on ballistic. If the writer omits or doesn’t help readers understand this progression, readers will be likely to judge the “rage” emotion as contrived or shallow. When you manipulate your character’s emotions, be sure to at least hint at how the character came to feel this way—and test it against the emotional logic of the culture you’re writing about.
A third way writers can make readers care is in the delivery of the emotions. If the story pauses at the wrong moment and allows the character to reflect or assess their feelings, readers will feel the inappropriateness and may stop caring. For example, if the character is being chased by bad guys, it’s not the time to have the character diffuse tension with some reverie about how he came to get on the bad guys’ side. This may seem intuitive, but I see a lot of fiction where the emotions are in there, but just in the wrong place. Save the long back story or explanations for what is called sequel—that calmer moment after action where the character and the reader can catch his/her breath. Better yet, learn to weave brief but specific words and phrases in and around the action to avoid those “cold mashed potato” flashbacks altogether. By improving how you deliver the emotion and logic necessary to making readers care and keeping them caring, you can boost your story’s power and help it become unforgettable.