Draw Your Reader into the Story

Good writing captures the imagination of the readers, grabs and holds their attention, compelling them to keep reading. It creates interest, makes them care about the story, the people, the problem. Its impact is so deep they simply don’t have the option of putting down the book, the article, or the essay. They must keep reading. They have to find out what happens next. They want to know the outcome. They are hooked.

The same is true of any form of communication: television commercials, sitcoms, and movies; micro fiction, short stories, and novels; essays and narrative nonfiction; poetry and songs; speeches and sermons. When done well, it latches onto something inside the mind or the soul of the hearer, viewer, or reader.

This happened to me the first time I read Longfellow’s Evangeline. My wife had recommended it, so I picked it up at a used bookstore and sat down on the sofa to read on my day off. From the opening page, I was hooked.

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman? List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.

Business communications consultant Milo Frank says “The attention span of the average individual is 30 seconds. Let me give you an example. Look around the room and concentrate on a lamp. You’ll find your mind goes to something else within 30 seconds. If the lamp could move or talk, or go on and off by itself, it would recapture your attention for another 30 seconds. But without motion or change, it cannot hold you.” This is why in his chapter titled “The Lead and the Ending,” William Zinsser writes:

The most importance sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

If this is true, writers who want their stuff to be read will use a variety of means to hook and maintain the reader’s attention throughout the work, not only at the beginning. Because the mind can only focus for thirty seconds, every word, every sentence, and every paragraph has to effectively reengage your readers, reconnecting them to the story for another thirty seconds. There has to be movement, change, something of interest. Even in non-fiction.

Tug at the Soul

As a child, I loved stories. I still do! And I loved people who told good stories. My uncle was fabulous. My brother was into ghost stories.

But my sister bested them all, because not only did she tell wonderful stories, she then organized us, gave us our parts, created the scene, and showed us how to bring the story to life. I don’t know how many plays she created, directed, and had us perform. Her favorite names were Laura and Perry, so of course, she was always Laura and I was always Perry.

In the school library, I discovered more stories. My favorites were about animals. I must have read every book that featured horses and dogs—especially wolves. For some reason, these stories captured my imagination, took me to other places, and left me with a feeling of . . . a feeling of . . .

What if I was there? What if that happened to me? What would I do in that situation? The stories left me with the same feeling the people in the story had. And sometimes I experienced what the horse or the dog was feeling.

That’s what you want to do in your story. You have to find a way to reach into your readers’ emotion, tug at the soul, and carry them into the world you created. Do that, and you change people. Do that, and you’ll have a winner on your hands.

What Matters Most

I’m reading a novel that was published by one of the big New York publishing houses, and have discovered quite a few errors: incorrect word usage, typo, grammar, punctuation. I chuckled to myself, “You mean those big publishers are human too?”

And that’s exactly what it means. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and that’s OK.

If you self-publish your book, only to find out that there are a few errors, it’s OK. You or your editor/formatter can make the corrections any time. That’s one of the benefits of self-publishing.

On the other hand, there are more important aspects of a book than perfect spelling, word choice, and grammar. Jeff Gerke, in the introduction to his book The Irresistible Novel, says what really matters is NOT that a book is without errors. The important thing is the story itself. Is it compelling? Does it grab you? Is the reader captivated and transported into the world of the story?

As an author, you need to free yourself from worrying about the technical elements during the writing process. Liberate yourself so you can focus on the story, the characters, the plot, the world you’re building. If you are successful with the story itself, it doesn’t matter if there are a few typos in the printed book. Because what readers are looking for is a fantastic book they can get lost in.

The novel I’m reading is really good. I can hardly wait to see what happens next. Even if there’s a mistake the editor missed.

The Vanishing Half: Book Review

The Vanishing Half, by  Brit Bennett, deserves the attention it’s received as a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award. The novel begins by introducing Desiree Vignes a girl who had left home with her twin sister fourteen years ago in 1954. She is now back, with her daughter in tow. They arrive in Mallard, a town where “Alphonse Decuir in 1848 . . . stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negros. A third place.”

The story itself becomes “a third place” where characters who are outsiders to the white, straight, attractive majority around them look for acceptance. Some characters like Jude, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, find that acceptance, even if temporarily, through connections with others who willingly embrace them for who they are. However, other characters, such as Stella, Desiree’s twin who passes as White, are accepted only if they maintain the façade of what they want others to perceive them to be. Bennett accomplishes a difficult task by fleshing out other options about her characters’ identities and whether they will be accepted in the community.  What begins as an exploration of race,  finishes as a larger consideration of identity and what role personal choice has in the creation of who we are.

Through the narrative voices of Desiree and other characters connected to her, the novel explores the complexities of identity—How does a person “become”? Is it through our genetics that race and gender arise? If “nature” is overpowered by “nurture,” are we largely products of our environment? What role does an individual play in deciding their own identity, one that may be contrary to their upbringing? These are heady questions, yet the author controls the narrative so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the existential questions that arise.