I have a ton of books I want to read. When I was a teenager, I would obsessively read everything by a favourite author. Nowadays I recognise it’s just not possible to read everything. There is not enough time.
Knowing this, what is it that we want for our readers?
Our readers are strangers, yet for a brief moment, they are also our friends. In many cases, they will come to know us better than we know ourselves.
So what do our readers expect from us?
They want to be entertained, to be immersed. They want to be drawn in with anticipation. They will follow you where ever you go. Your job is to do everything you can to help.
They are predisposed to trust you. You don’t have to tell them everything. Curb your temptation to over-narrate, over-describe, over-interpret, and over-signify.
Trusting the reader lets you share the burden of comprehension. This is part of the constant negotiation between you will have with your readers.
Find the resonance
So what happens when someone reads your words? Neurons fire in their brains. Some people call these mirror neurons. These are the neurons that help us to empathise. They fire when we see, hear or read something. For instance, we wince when we see someone stump their toe. Motor neurons are part of what neuroscientist call the “resonance circuit.” When you create resonance in your reader, you allow them to adopt the story as their own. In other words, our words light up our readers imaginations.
You can’t trust the reader without trusting yourself. Writing works best when you are conﬁdent about what you write.
When in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. But never assume that the reader is stupid. In other words, don’t overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate what the reader understands.
She may not know it herself, but your reader will want the answers to three questions:
What is happening?
So don’t disappoint her. Deliver the goods.
Why buy and read your book when there are so many others on the shelves.
Buying a book is a contract between the writer and the reader. The reader expects to be entertained, to be informed. Your book is a proposal to the reader. You ask “Does this mean something to you? I find this interesting, and I hope that maybe you will too.” And often the answer is ‘No’ and if that happens, and they don’t buy your book, then maybe you are alone with your obsession.
What readers want
They want to be immersed in new worlds. They enjoy the rhythm and vividness of words. Problems and conflicts also grab their attention. The more difficult the problem, the greater the hold the story has over them.
Who are you writing for?
Are you writing for everyone? Half your audience are men, and the other half are women. Isn’t that too general? Too vague. The whole world reading your book. Is it believable?
Pick one person you know and write for them. When we were at school, we wrote for teachers who marked our work. Who was your favourite teacher? Or write wholly for an imaginary friend with similar tastes.
You, the writer are the director
You are the director, not an actor in your story. Keep your story visible on stage and yourself quiet. You are the conduit through which the story is told. People aren’t buying you; they’re buying the story. You want your story to become their story.
There is only one sin
There are no rules out there, but there are sins, and the cardinal sin is boredom. Robert McKee
The only time the reader felt obligated to read was at school. In their free time, they read what they want.
Authority rests with the reader. They have total control over your story. They control when they start to read and when they stop. You cannot force them to do anything. This is their choice, and they exercise their authority when they put a book down.
Why did they stop reading? Possibly we grew enchanted with our powers of description and failed to keep the ball rolling. Characterisation, theme, mood; none of these stand for anything if the story is dull. If the story grabs the reader, all else can be forgiven.
How to keep their attention
- Make things clear, don’t over explain. Let the reader work things out for themselves. Explaining can reduce the idea and make it smaller.
- Make the character somehow out of the ordinary. She may wear the mask of the common woman, but underneath this mask lies a true hero.
- As long as the character wants something, the reader will want it too. As long as the character is attempting to get something, the reader will wonder whether or not he’s going to succeed. Few things are more intriguing than the desire to succeed against impossible odds.