If you want to make readers feel something, whether it’s admiration for your writing or empathy for your characters, there are some simple tricks that will help get the job done. These techniques may be old hat if you’ve been around long enough as a writer, but they’re still incredibly effective at pulling people into stories and connecting them emotionally with what they read.
Engaging the reader is the first step to creating a good story. A well-written novel, poem, or essay is going to be more memorable than one that’s poorly written and not engaging.
You can engage your readers in a few different ways:
- By making them feel like they’re part of the story by using the first person point of view. For example: “I was running as fast as I could down the sidewalk toward my house.”
- By keeping their attention through suspense or intrigue—by posing questions that aren’t answered until later in the text (or perhaps never). For example: “What had happened? Was he still alive?”
- By creating relatable characters who have traits that you want your readers to emulate (i.e., making them want to be like these people). For example: “I felt bad for him because he looked lonely.”
Here are some techniques that will engage your reader and make them feel connected to your work.
Hook your reader with a killer first paragraph
To engage a reader and make them want to keep reading, you need to hook them right away. In the first paragraph of your story, you have to grab their attention by setting up what’s at stake for your protagonist and making it clear that this is something that matters. You can also play with mystery by having some unanswered questions or plot twists in this first paragraph; this will make readers curious enough to keep reading.
If you’re writing fiction, another way of getting your reader hooked is by addressing them directly—by saying “you.” This makes the story more personal and relatable for your reader, because they feel like they are a part of what’s happening in the story. It’s also a good idea not only because it will help keep readers engaged but also because it helps create an intimate relationship between author and reader (which can be very useful when trying out different writing techniques).
Jolt the reader out of their comfort zone
But what does this mean? How do you jolt the reader out of their comfort zone?
Jolting events are sudden, unexpected events that disrupt the flow of a story. They can be positive or negative, physical or emotional—any event that catches us off guard and makes us feel something different than we expected.
Here’s an example: “As he walked down a cramped alleyway in London’s East End, Jack felt an uneasy sense of déjà vu as he passed by several pubs on his way to meet his partner at their favorite pub for drinks. He had been here before but couldn’t recall why—until he saw it: The sign outside the pub read “The Black Cat Inn,” reminding him where they had met before. “This is where Angelina found me drinking when she left me,” Jack thought as he pushed open the door and entered into its dark interior.”
Make it clear what tension is at stake in the story
The best books are filled with tension, which keeps readers turning the pages. A good way to create tension is to make it clear what tension is at stake in your story.
For example, if a character’s life is in danger or if they are faced with a moral dilemma or an unfamiliar situation, you can create tension by showing how that threat affects them and others around them.
Pose intriguing questions
You can use questions to keep the reader engaged and to create tension, urgency, mystery, wonder or awe. You can also use them to demonstrate your writing skills. The possibilities are endless!
The most common type of question is what we call a “wh” question: who, what, when, where and why. These are good for creating tension because they require an answer from the reader—they want to know more!
Use striking phrases and surprising facts to demonstrate the stakes at play
When you want to engage your reader, the first step is capturing their attention with a striking phrase or surprising fact. These can be used separately or together.
- A striking phrase: Often, a short passage that captures the reader’s attention can be extremely effective at drawing them into your story. In “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, Nick Carraway describes his cousin Daisy as having “the face of an angel come to earth, just as my heart was ready to burst with its burden of beauty.” The description is so vivid and evocative that we cannot help but be drawn in by it; we feel like we too have seen Daisy’s face—and perhaps empathize with Nick’s feelings about her beauty as well.
- A surprising fact: Another way of engaging readers is by surprising them with facts they didn’t know before reading the story (or after finishing it). In his essay “On Bullfighting” Ernest Hemingway tells us what he learned from being present at one bullfight in Spain: “All they want is something new so they will not forget it.” This may seem obvious now that he has told us this fact about bullfighting fans’ desires; however, before reading this piece I would not have considered this aspect of the sport at all!
Make it clear why your story matters and why people should care
You need to make it clear what your story is about, why it matters, and why people should care.
If you don’t do this, your readers will be confused and lost in a sea of words. They won’t know what the relevance or significance of your story is, or if there even is one.
This can be done by adding a hook at the beginning of each chapter that gives them an idea of what they will find out in that chapter, who it involves, and why their lives would be better off if they knew more about this particular topic.
Appeal to emotions, but don’t manipulate them
Emotional language and imagery can be powerful tools in your writer’s toolbox. The right words can evoke emotions in readers that resonate with the tone of your work.
Emotional triggers include words like “fear”, “anger”, and “pity”.
Analogies are another way to stimulate an emotional response from readers: for example, comparing a situation to something familiar or tangible can help readers relate more deeply to it.
Introduce characters that are easy to care about (or hate!)
Introduce your main character in the first chapter.
I can’t stress this enough. Readers have a limited amount of time and attention, so you need to grab their interest as quickly as possible. You do that by introducing your main character. It’s okay if he or she isn’t the most interesting person in the world at first glance—they will grow over time! But make sure that when they’re introduced, the reader is curious about them and wants to learn more about them. Make sure he or she has some sort of conflict right away: either an inner struggle or an external one (or both).
Keep it simple; don’t go overboard on backstory! And make sure the main character is someone who might fail. If a reader doesn’t know what happens next, they’ll keep reading!
Frame your story around a character who is easy for readers to identify with or relate to
The purpose of the main character is to serve as a doorway for the reader into your story. As such, you need to ensure that your main character is relatable and easy for readers to identify with or relate to. A good rule of thumb is that he or she should not be too perfect or too flawed (if at all). Instead, try creating a character with a flaw that many people can identify with but also possesses some sort of strength. For example, if you’re writing about someone who has trouble making friends because he’s awkward around other people, consider whether there are times when this problem isn’t an issue—and write about those moments instead! This way it won’t feel like such an overwhelming roadblock throughout the entire novel.
Write dialogue that feels natural, not forced or contrived
The goal of dialogue is to make it feel as natural and realistic as possible. That means staying away from the following:
- Long, rambling speeches. People don’t talk like that in real life—so why should they when you write them? Dialogue should be snappy and direct; use short sentences, and make sure there isn’t too much exposition in the dialogues themselves (see below).
- Noisy narrative tags (“she said”). We don’t need an extra line before every line of dialogue to tell us who is speaking; if we read a sentence out loud to ourselves after reading each line, we’ll hear who’s talking and will be able to figure out who said what based on context clues. If you find yourself needing additional information about how two characters are interacting—and especially if it seems unnatural for them not to know each other already—try adding some backstory through exposition instead of cluttering up your conversations with repetitive “he said” or “she asked.”
If you’re having trouble figuring out how to engage your reader, don’t worry. We all do. But you can use these techniques to start laying the groundwork for a more compelling story—and even if they don’t work so well at first, keep trying! You never know when one approach might click with your audience better than another, so it’s worth experimenting as much as possible before deciding on a definite course of action. The best thing about these techniques is that they don’t require any special talent or training; anyone can learn them with practice and patience over time.