Breakout Session 2: Engaging Your Reader – Anne Gracie

Presented by the wonderful Anne Gracie.

There must be a psychological motivation for a character to change, in order to get their happy ending

An engaged reader is intrigued by characters in a story

  •  they work to discover a character’s secrets
  • they will wonder about motivation for various acts
  • will read forward, putting clues together
  • will test a character’s motivations against what they know of real human behaviour

As a writer, don’t try to tell people what to think.  Put the action down in a lifelike way and let the reader join the the dots themselves.  Show them in a psychologically convincing way and let them work it out themselves

Engaging people in an emotional way hits at a gut level.  It is like seeing in colour for the first time after only seeing in black and white

  • characters emoting on the page is not engaging in an emotional way
  • repressing emotion, battling difficult situations, showing a bit of everyday courage and showing how hard it is – that is engaging

Marion Lennox:  ‘I don’t want my heroine to cry, I want my readers to cry’

Once there is emotional engagement, the reader cares about the characters.

  • doesn’t have to be life and death battles in order to bond (could be the broken heel of a favourite shoe)
  • play with word use – the first sentence may not be the best sentence (not everything but the important ones)
  • readers will engage not because they are curious but because they HAVE to know
  • eg  ‘Beauty’ – Robin McKinley (we know how Beauty and the Beast works out, but had to keep reading)
  • read the books you love and find how those authors made you care about someone they made up
  • try similar techniques in your own voice, be authentic
  • want to have the reader taking the journey with the characters
  • feel dread, hope, fear, surprise etc along with and for the characters
  • above all, they want to care for the characters
  • not just Romance but all popular genre fiction
  • distinction with Literary Fiction, where characters are at a distance from the reader

“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait” – Wilkie Collins
then add: -‘make them worry” – Anne Gracie

Charles Dickens:

  • master of ‘make them wait, make them worry’
  • ended each serialised chapter with a cliffhanger
  • started each chapter with a hook
  • Famous example:  Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop

How do you create reader engagement?

  1. The World:  Plunge the reader into the world of the character – smelling what they are smelling, felling what they are feeling, touching, seeing hearing what they are hearing.
  2. The character:  people want to identify with at least one main character and barrack for them.  Show characters acting, thinking, worrying, reacting, feeling.
  3. The problem:  give the character a problem, one that readers can identify with.  And then give them a choice, make it a difficult one – a choice that carries consequences that the character will have to deal with, live with.  Keep adding to the problems and each time give them tough choices.
  4. The decision to act:  the choice they make, the decision they take in the first pages of the book will begin to define them as a character.
  5. Make them ACT.  Readers don’t care about characters who don’t act, try, take risks

Mary Jo Putney says she has her characters try, fail, try again, fail better, try again .. and eventually succeed.
Each time you need to build dramatic suspense by upping the stakes.

How to create emotion:

  • plunge them into the world of the story with evocative writing and vivid sensory detail – and keep them there
  • create complex, psychologically believable characters they can care about
  • give your character a tangible and immediate goal readers can identify with
  • give your character an immediate problem, force them to make difficult choices, and then have them take action
  • create multi mimensional and complex characters with flaws
  • allow your characters to discover the characters for themselves – don’t explain them – let readers join the dots and work things out

Engaging readers on a technical level
1.  give them characters to care about / identify with / feel empathy for – appealing characters, who are complex, interesting, flawed, courageous – and who take action

a.  empathy?  how?  some suggestions:

  • some theme in a situation or doing things that readers can connect with
  • make them likable
  • generate sympathy – give them an undeserved misfortune
  • show them in a small movement of every day courage
  • show them displaying humour in the face of adversity
  • make them vulnerable in some way (though not pathetic)
  • make them gutsy, human, fallible and imperfect

Know their back-stories, their vulnerabilities, their secret fears – and then exploit them through plot.  Put your character through the wringer.

b.  What do they want?
Give them an expressed goal that really matters (in a gut way) and that we can identify with.  Beneath that outward goal, there is a deeper need, on they perhaps haven’t acknowledged – this is a good source of emotion.

c.  why can’t they have it?
make the goal seem impossible

d.  Make their lives difficult in some way – give them an undeserved misfortune, give them problems and obstacles to overcome that will challenged deeply held views of themselves

2.  ensure you have a good source of tension (ie conflict) for the overall book, and also for each chapter and scene.  Ask yourself what central question in the scene / chapter / story will make the audience want to read on

3.  Keep upping the stakes – the stakes for winning and the stakes for losing.  Keep the story moving, keep the characters acting, trying, failing etc.  Keep us in their heads so we know what’s worrying them.

4.  Create the world of the story with vivid and intense writing. a good command of detail, especially sensory detail, brings the story world to life

5.  show don’t tell – show readers a series of scenes or actions, let them decide the significance, and they’ll have a stake in the outcome.

6.  structure / pacing – use cliff-hanger endings, opening hooks, and tantalizing story / chapter / scene questions to entice readers along.  Clever foreshadowing can build tension.

7.  Point of View (POV) – being in the head of a character allows us to engage with them.  Clever use of POV adds intrigue to a story.

8.  Subtext – the meaning beneath what is said.  Clever use of subtext adds to the richness of a text.

9.  A sense of intrigue – resist the urge to explain everything.  Let your reader do some of the work.

10.  Above all, make it fun

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