Monday, January 08, 2018

4 Reasons Readers Stopped Caring About Your Story

making readers care, hooks
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s one of the biggest dreads writers have—will people care about my story? We worry when we write it, we fret as we hand it off to our critique partners, we pace as our beta readers review it, and then we frantically check for reviews after we publish it.

It’s nerve wracking.

It’s even worse when that feedback comes in and verifies that, yes, something isn’t working. And the most depressing of all? Is when that feedback can’t tell us what’s wrong or how to fix it.

If you ever find yourself in this situation—either as the writer or the critiquer of such a manuscript—here are four reasons readers commonly stop reading a novel.

1. They didn’t like reading about the protagonist(s).

Readers read to see the protagonist(s) deal with a situation the author has created for them, so wanting to read about that protagonist is critical. If there’s nothing compelling or intriguing about the main character, the story is just watching some random person do stuff.

Notice “like” doesn’t equal “likable.” Plenty of unlikable or bizarre characters hold reader attention and interest every year. They’re fascinating, or or interesting, or entertaining to follow. Likable characters don’t have to be good people, they just have to posses traits that draw readers in. Such as:
  • A compelling personality
  • A fascinating occupation
  • A sense of humor
  • An interesting dilemma

Readers love Jennifer Crusie’s heroines because they’re quirky and fun. Jack Reacher is beloved because he’s competent and dangerous. Miss Marple is charming and smart, while Sherlock Holmes is a raging jerk, but a genius. These characters have vastly different personalities, but they all share one thing—readers love reading about what they do.

(Here’s more on making readers fall in love with your characters)

2. They stopped caring about the problem.

The myth is that every story has to have a unique and mind-bending premise behind it, but that’s not true. The simplest stories can grab readers just as well as the wild over-the-top ones. A story problem readers care about is one that piques their interest and resonates with them on some level—emotionally, intellectually, or thematically.

Readers need to relate to and connect with the novel’s problem in some fashion. The more interesting the problem, the more it’ll hook readers all on its own. Story problems readers care about typically have:
  • An uncertainty of resolution
  • Stakes the reader will care about
  • Ethical or moral dilemmas
  • Emotional resonance
  • Relatable issues

Oddly enough, the stronger the character, the weaker the novel’s problem can be and still work. I believe this is why so many TV dramas can run for years and viewers still love them. It’s not about the basic story (we all know how that is going to play out), it’s about watching the interplay between the cast.

But if the characters are ho-hum and the novel’s problem isn’t compelling? Readers stop reading.

(Here’s more on hooking readers brains and hearts)

3. Nothing interesting happens.

No matter how compelling the core problem of the story is, if nothing is happening on a scene-by-scene basis the reader will get bored. “Happening” doesn’t mean mega-action, though, it just means events that make the readers curious to see how it will unfold or resolve.

The sneaky trap in “interesting” is that it’s not always obvious when it’s boring. A well-written scene with plenty of action can be more yawn-worthy than a first-draft scene between two characters at a kitchen table—if readers have no interest in how that action scene plays out, but do care about what’s being said at that table.

In stories where nothing happens, there are:
  • No story questions the readers wants to see answered or unanswered questions to tease them
  • No secrets or clues suggesting more here than meets the eye
  • No banter or interaction between characters
  • No revelations of new information about the characters, problem, or world

Basically, it’s when there’s nothing the reader doesn’t already know in the scene. Things “happen” when readers learn something new by the end of a scene.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions)

4. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Since the story’s problem is part of the cover copy, readers typically start off hooked—otherwise they would not have decided to read that book. The trouble begins when the story fails to deliver on that original promise. Such as:
  • No sense of the protagonist trying to accomplish a task
  • All the scenes read like filler delaying the main problem
  • Too much backstory or infodump explaining why the main problem matters
  • Too many characters or subplots running off to focus on other things
  • A protagonist who doesn’t try to move the plot, things just happen to them
  • No sense of escalating stakes or trouble

A lot of stalled stories occur for two common reasons: when the protagonist has no solid reason to solve the story’s problem but does it anyway, and when the entire story is to explain a cool premise or idea. The story doesn’t go anywhere because there is no actual story yet. There’s no protagonist with a problem to solve or else, so there’s no series of goals, conflicts, and stakes, and without those, there’s no plot.

(Here’s more on the problems with a premise novel)

As a writer, it’s disheartening to have a well-written novel that readers stop reading before the end. A bad novel we could understand, but when everything seems like it should be working and it’s not? That’s a frustrating place to be.

It helps to remember that readers need to care about the story and want to see it resolved to keep reading. It’s easy for us to want to describe the story and explain why it’s cool (we love it after all), and that’s the opposite of why readers read.

If you want readers to keep reading:
  • Pose an interesting story question
  • Give them characters they want to read about
  • Keep revealing interesting information
  • Make sure the story is advancing toward a resolution

It sounds simple, but we all know it’s harder than it looks, otherwise we’d all have bestsellers. But it’s a solid guide for giving your story the best chance to hook readers and keep them to the end of the tale.

Are you hitting these four points in your current manuscript? Are you missing any? 

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. I hit the "it wasn't going anywhere" and had to do a total re-write. LOL. But I'm glad I spotted it. Now I'm trying to fix it.

    1. We've all been there :) At least you caught it! Good luck on round two.

  2. I am rewriting a novel that I wrote two years ago. The problem was not the story. My writer's group loved the idea. The problem was the protagonist. He did not have a compelling personality, or a fascinating occupation or a sense of humor and so on and so no.

    I knew when I presented the story something was wrong with him. Looking back I'm glad I listened to my group when they pointed it out.

    I am now in the works of recreating him. Your pointers will help a lot. Thank you!!!

    1. Most welcome! Glad you found the problem finally :)