The success of your story depends on your readers identifying so strongly with the characters and events that they care about what happens next. If they don’t care, they’ll stop turning the pages and, in the case of an ebook, they won’t want to hit the buy button after they’ve finished the sample.
To work out how to make your readers care about your stories, start by thinking what holds your attention. And to help you do that, take a look at this piece of writing.
A man lay behind the hedge holding a rifle. He took aim at another man walking towards him and fired.
This should be a dramatic scene with lots at stake because someone might die. But do you care about it. I know I don’t. I feel distanced from what’s happening because I don’t know anything about the people involved. Who are they? Why are they there? Which one should I be supporting?
So let’s look at the same scene again with the addition of a few extra facts.
35 year old David Whittaker, divorced and childless, lay behind the hedge. John Smith, 6 foot 2 with blonde hair, walked towards him. David took aim and fired.
That still doesn’t work for me and I’m guessing it doesn’t grab your attention either. So it wasn’t names that were missing nor basic facts like age and marital status. Readers are far more interested in how characters think and feel.
An effective way give them that information is to switch the viewpoint. At the moment, this scene is written dispassionately as if the author is watching the scene from a distance, and the effect is to put the reader there too – far away from the action without the closeness to either character that might make them care. So let’s get inside the head of one of the characters and watch the scene through their eyes to the accompaniment of their thoughts. This close third person viewpoint puts the reader right at the heart of the action.
Whittaker’s heart beat faster as he pushed the barrel of the rifle through the hedge. It was the familiar excitement he always felt before a kill. Any minute now he’d have the satisfaction of sending a bullet smashing into flesh and bone. What could be better than that? He looked at the people in the park and selected today’s target – a man walking unknowingly towards certain death. Then he took aim and fired.
That’s better. Now I care. One short paragraph has made me loathe Whittaker and it will have the same effect on most readers. As a result, they may keep reading to find out if he’s stopped or they may feel so uncomfortable being inside a serial killer’s head that they won’t read on at all.
Let’s try again and see if we can make the reader care in a different way.
Whittaker lay behind the hedge and glanced at the picture he’d propped against his rifle. There was no doubt about it. The man walking towards him was definitely John Smith. Married with two children, his file had said. That was a pity. The kids would cry, like all those other children Whittaker had left weeping over the years. But right now that wasn’t his problem. The chief decided who lived and died, not him. He just did what he was told and John Smith should have been more careful who he angered. With a sigh, Whittaker pushed the rifle between the leaves, took aim and fired.
This time, I expert you have mixed feelings about Whittaker. He’s another violent man, but this time he’s a hired killer rather than a madman. He also has a glimmer of conscience about what he’s about to do – a glimmer that could be snuffed out by the evil he is about to commit or build to an emotional crisis that leads him to total redemption. That’s a fascinating possibility that readers will care about enough to keep turning the pages if you craft the story skillfully enough.
Now let’s have one last try.
Whittaker lay behind the hedge, gripping the rifle so hard that his knuckles were white. Could he really do this? Could he take a life? Words drummed into him at school ran round and round his head. “Thou shalt not kill.” That was easy to believe when the world was safe. But did it still apply now he was the only person lying between a group of terrified children and a savage killer. He glanced at the huddled figures behind him, their frightened eyes watching him with fierce intensity. They trusted him. He was their only hope. Whittaker swallowed hard and pointed the rifle at the man walking towards him. Then he took aim and fired.
This time readers know exactly who they should be rooting for. Whittaker is the brave but inexperienced defender of innocents. Did he hit his target? Will the children escape? They’ll have to keep reading to find out.
Before I wrote this blog, I tested all these scenes on a group of local writers and the result was unanimous. The last version was the one they cared about most. They identified strongly with Whittaker’s situation, and they wanted to know whether he would succeed in saving the children. If I had written the rest of the story, they would have definitely wanted to read it.
It’s that desire to know what happens next that holds your readers’ attention. If you let them feel the emotions of your characters and understand their motivation, the characters will come alive in your readers’ heads and they will care enough about your story to keep turning the pages.