Friday, January 12, 2018

So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Give readers a reason to care and they'll read on. Problem is, sometimes you can have all the right pieces of good storytelling in place and the reader still doesn't care, but you're not sure why. This often equates to the dreaded "it was well written, but it just didn't grab me" type comments and rejections.

So how do you get those pesky readers to care in the first place?

Four things.

1. Stakes 

"Go to bed" doesn't get much of a response. "Go to bed or else" does, because the "or else" could be something bad. The fear of that something bad forces a reaction. When the reaction you want is fear and worry (which leads to caring), you have to dangle something bad as a threat.

Let's say you have a scene where Joey is sitting at the dinner table, and his babysitter is forcing him to eat his broccoli. He refuses, she insists. This is going to get ugly and one person is going to end the night unhappy. Even though they both have strong goals to drive the scene, do you care if Joey eats his vegetables? Probably not. It doesn't matter if he does. Nothing will happen to him if he doesn't.

But let's say Joey is highly allergic to broccoli. He tells the babysitter, but she doesn't believe him. Joey knows if he eats that broccoli, he's going to wind up in the hospital. Heck, maybe he has some weird anaphylactic reaction and it could even kill him. 

And the babysitter is not above holding him down and shoving it down his throat. She's a lot bigger than poor little Joey, and she's known throughout the neighborhood for being the meanest babysitter in town. The chances of Joey avoiding that broccoli are slim. 

Curious what happens now? Probably, because the stakes are much higher now. Eating his vegetables has real consequences that matter on a large scale.

Not everything has to be life or death stakes, but if the outcome doesn't matter to the person it's happening to, why should it matter to anyone else? But if the outcome has dire consequences, we'll read on to see what happens.

To care, we have to worry about (or wonder) how things will turn out. 

To worry, the outcome has to matter in ways that will strongly affect someone -- preferably the protagonist or someone important to the protagonist.

Common Caring Failures: Low stakes dressed up to appear high. The protagonist feels it's life and death, but it really isn't, and the stakes end up looking melodramatic. Another one is having the stakes too high. Saving the universe is so huge that it becomes impersonal. It's hard to care about billions. It's too abstract.

(Here's more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

2. Likable Characters

Even the highest stakes won't matter if readers don't like your character. The worry comes from them not wanting to see bad things happen to this person (even though we love it when bad things do happen to them). Readers like to see the struggle, to know the win was earned. And they want to know the person winning is worthy of the victory.

This also has a flip side. If readers don't like a character but are intrigued by them, they'll read to see what they do or if they get their just desserts. This is a lot more challenging however.

Common Caring Failures: Perfect characters who have no flaws and do everything right. Overly flawed characters who do everything wrong. Characters that have no redeeming qualities at all.

So now we have someone we like, who faces something bad happening to them if they fail. But you also need...

(Here's more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive )

3. An Interesting Situation

The nicest guy in the worst trouble won't hold attention long if the problem is boring. What's worse, readers are inundated with so many stories every day, that even exciting problems can be boring if readers have read/seen/heard of them too many times. They can predict how the story will play out.

Common Caring Failures: Offering the same old same old. While you can make an old idea fresh, similar ideas done in similar ways rarely hold attention. Another common failure are situations that the writer find really cool, but their characters are just there to act out that cool idea. There's no story.

Create a situation readers haven't seen before (or a new twist on things they have), give them a character they like, and give them terrible consequences if they fail, and you'll have readers caring about what happens next. That is, as long as...

(Here's more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

4. The Protagonist Cares

This is where a lot of "why should I care?" stories fail. They have the first three down, but their protagonist never worries that much, or stresses over the situation. Readers get their clues from the protagonist, and if that protagonist isn't that worried about something, readers won't be either. 

But if the protagonist is all wigged out, the reader will be too -- even if they know the situation isn't as dire as the protagonist thinks. The worry -- the caring -- comes from knowing the protagonist is worried and not knowing what they might do about it.

A protagonist who always wins, never struggles, knows he'll come out on top no matter what he faces, is about as boring as you can get. There's a reason they gave Superman Kryptonite. It's not really about watching someone win. It's more about watching them trying not to lose.

Common Caring Failures: Forgetting the emotional component to a story. Stories are more than just what happens, they're about how people deal with it.

(Here's more on Whose Story is It?)

To get readers to care, give them things to care about.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. I'm really worried about poor Joey...

  2. Love this post. Excellent points.

  3. And yeah, Wen's right! What happened to little Joey??

  4. Great points. And ones that we should definitely consider at the beginning when we are developing our story ideas.

  5. Great post, I'm learning a lot.

  6. This was great! I learnt something, which is great after reading 60 posts where I didn't lol.

  7. As always, just what I need! Thanks.

  8. Thanks all! I might have to put Joey in a future post just to see how it all turns out...

  9. Love the emphasis on balance in this post: nice but not too nice, high stakes but not too high. Thanks, Janice!

  10. I'm going to have nightmares about poor Joey, and possibly need to buy a nanny-cam, but great post!

  11. This is surely one of the questions that I fear and dread the most.

    It's a fair question, and yet the answer can be hard to come to, and downright depressing when your answer doesn't measure up in the eyes of those swap stories with.

    As much as I loathe writing query letters, trying to answer this question is even higher up on my list of pet peeves.

  12. Stephanie: Anytime. The adage hold true: All things in moderation.

    Jennifer: LOL, who knew Joey would have such a following?

    Taurean: It can be rough. There might be lots of reasons for the author to care, but that doesn't always transfer to the reader. Quite often because the things the author finds care-worthy don't always make it to the page. It's in their heads, but the reader doesn't get to see the characters or story the same way.

  13. Interesting posts about the basics of how to attract the readers to the story.

  14. Janice, thought about this when I started to write the story in the third person limited.Happy to know I got the "first three down." Working on the protagonist stressing over the situation. The stakes involve other characters and she takes on the challenge to make the situation right. Thanks for making me think about this and make sure I get the "emotional worry" in there. Christine

    1. Most welcome! Always makes me happy when an archive post is just what someone needed :)