Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How to Get Readers to Turn the Page

I’ve known three priests who have had nervous breakdowns. One showed me the men in cassocks were fallible. One was a living lesson in dignity balanced by empathy. One turned me into a writer.

The last is relevant here. He showed me I was good enough. He measured out crucial tips at a rate that allowed me to master them. And he taught me that the one thing a writer could not do was bore the reader.

Keeping readers engaged is harder than ever. Between on-click-away distraction and shrinking attention spans, it feels impossible at times. This is especially true if your storytelling is stripped down to text, unsupported by CGI monsters or immersive technologies like virtual reality. The toolbox has expanded in terms of whose stories can be told and how explicit these stories can be, but approaches to hook, surprise, worry, provoke, and build anticipation haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

Tool What can go wrong One way to master

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz played on TV one a year. Without fail, when Dorothy opened the door of her black and white world to reveal Munchkin Land, the network would cut to commercial. They got away with it for a lot of reasons:

We knew and cared about Dorothy. She had spunk, standing up to Miss Gulch (whom her Aunt and Uncle bowed down to). She had been wronged. (There was no good reason to take her dog away.) Oh, and she could sing. Her well-being (harm or her heart’s desire) mattered to us.

The palette included real danger. Ferocious pigs, a tornado, and a witch who cackled at he as she flew by the uprooted homestead let us knew this could be life or death. The stakes were high.

Special places had been foreshadowed. Professor Marvel talked about his fantastic travels. Dorothy sang about a place over the rainbow. And we had a glimpse (in full color!). This created positive anticipation, attracting us to visit Oz.

The glimpse of Oz promised novelty, too. It made us curious. Certainly, we’d see a place and experience situations we never would meet in our mundane world (already established and exaggerated in the story’s version of Kansas).

Character, danger, stakes, anticipation, and curiosity will keep you watching dancing cigarette packs and teens singing about cola for five minutes. These are all emotional, not just intellectual. There can be visceral reasons to stay put (depending on the audience) and this can include images that promise horror or sex. Questions can be highly intellectual. Clarke’s science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama is left-brain dominant aimed at understanding the what and the who of an alien artifact. Many mysteries lean heavily on gathering evidence to assemble a puzzle, often relying on questions and reveals power the story engine.

You can probably come up with a few more reasons for readers to keep turning the pages. Mastering these in particular (like planting clues or raising questions) and globally (like managing pacing, alternating viewpoint) is a lifetime job. I think, now more than ever, dedicating time and effort to observing, understanding, and practicing techniques of engagement makes the difference between creating stories people stay with and are moved by and creating stories that are good ideas, but are neglected by their audiences.

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