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December 13, 2021
By Kim Catanzarite
Win readers with the right storytelling ingredients.

Many years ago, I participated in a summer workshop with Amy Hempel, master of the short story. I remember very clearly the day she told our group of newbie writers that wherever the reader was in the text (whether novel, short fiction, essay, creative nonfiction, or poetry) was the most important part. Whatever page they were on—whether it was the first, one in the middle, or the last—whatever paragraph, whatever word or sentence, that was the most important thing. Right there. Because, if readers don’t like where they are, they are going to put the book down. They’re going to get on their phone and start scrolling. It’s your job to give them a good reason not to. They can scroll any old time. Right now, they need to continue reading your book.

Wherever you are cannot simply be a bridge from here to there. It must be significant, a present moment that deserves to be present.

How does one keep readers engaged? There are many ways:

  1. Strong writing. Work on your craft. Dedicate yourself to being better, whatever that means to you.
  2. Interesting characters. Give readers people they want to follow and learn about. Show them different walks of life. Show them what it’s like to be in that person’s head.
  3. The right amount of setting for your book (not too much, not too little). Give them the pertinent details that inspire their imagination to fill in the blanks. Provide the few things that draw a picture in their mind.
  4. A plot that elicits emotion. Your readers must be emotionally engaged; they must feel what your protagonist is feeling.
  5. Unsatisfied characters. They can’t be content, or at least not for long. They argue or they are scared. They want something to happen—or not to happen. Tension must be present in some way in every scene (and there must be a reason for every scene).
  6. Lively dialogue. Not the boring stuff of everyday life, but a more concise replica.
  7. Story structure that propels the story forward. Structure is the framework that you hang the story on. It should bring the plot together in the way that you desire
  8. A believable ending that leaves readers satisfied, even if it is not happy. “Is that all?” you say with a sarcastic gleam in your eye.

No, actually, there’s plenty more, but it’s a good start. We don’t want to get bogged down in trying to do everything at once. Go down the list and consider what you do well and what you need to improve on. Then, when you revise your manuscript, keep an eye out for your weaknesses, whether the culprit is dull dialogue, run-of-the-mill characters, or something else. After each scene, ask yourself if you have moved the story forward. Will readers wonder what’s going to happen next? You want them to wonder!

Every part of the piece of writing is the most important part. This is why writing a story or novel or nonfiction book is so hard. You must keep the reader content from the first word through to the last. You must start with a great first sentence that leads to an intriguing hook that persuades readers to follow you down the path of the story. Then you must prevent them from getting bogged down in the murky middle and find a way to fly them through to a satisfying end.

After that, simply thank them for reading your book and ask them to join you on your next writing adventure. If you’ve done your job well, they’ll be happy to oblige.

Kim Catanzarite is a freelance writer and editor who teaches copyediting courses for Writer’s Digest University. She’s also the author of the sci-fi thriller They Will Be Coming for Us.