The Perfect Story: Engrossing the Reader

It almost would seem to go without saying that a perfect story would be engrossing.  Yet I find that rather than just enumerate the virtue, I need to explain a little about how that is done.

Have you ever read a story that you just could not put down?  Have you ever read a story that transported you so completely that you forgot not only what time it was but where you were?  Have you ever read a story that became so intense that you suddenly found your heart pounding so hard that you had to put it down, or you found yourself laughing or weeping, only to look up and realize that you were in an airport?  Those are all the hallmarks of an engrossing story.

In order to engross a reader a writer need to do several things, in the following order:

  • First you need to hook the reader, often from the very first line.  This can be done in several ways.  One frequent method is to simply promise the reader a great story.  This might be done either directly or by opening with a particularly strong line.  You might create a strong sense of expectation through the use of foreshadowing, or you might promise to resolve a mystery.  I sometimes think that I should write a book just on how to hook a reader.  Ideally, your story will have several hooks in its opening page, and perhaps dozens of others inserted throughout the story.  These hooks are normally placed in such a way that they don’t call attention to themselves.  The reader should simply find himself being led into the story subconsciously.


  • In the second step, the reader must be transported physically into the story.  You as a writer need to provide enough physical details in order to create the illusion that the reader has moved into another time and place.  This means that you must provide the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations to create the illusion of reality.


  • The reader must also be transported mentally into the story.  This means that you as a writer must seize control of the reader’s conscious thoughts.  This is done simply by engaging the reader’s logical mind.  Often this can be done in the very first line of a story by posing a question that your character must answer.  This question might be posed in dialog, or it might be inserted more subtly through a characters actions or observations.


  • The reader must be transported emotionally into a story.  There are a couple of techniques for doing this.  One common method is to use tone—selecting the proper choice of word and poetic elements—to help create the desired emotion.  Yet selecting just the proper images for a character to observe or just the proper thoughts to narrate will also help create your tone.  Perhaps the single most important way to transport the reader into your tale is to create scenes that arouse powerful emotions.  Such scenes (called “objective correlatives”) are the most powerful vehicle for controlling the reader’s emotions.


  • You would think that once you’ve seized the reader’s imagination so that he feels transported physically and then taken control of his thoughts and emotions that your work is done.  The reader will be thoroughly captivated.  But that’s not true.  Now you have to keep control of the reader through the end of the story.  The reader shouldn’t notice if the school bell has rung and it is time to leave the classroom.  She shouldn’t have time to wonder if anyone has texted her, or if her favorite television show is on.  A reader shouldn’t think about food, or notice that her bladder is full.  In short, you need to focus on keeping the reader willingly engaged in your story.  This is done primarily by selecting the proper conflicts to focus on in the story.  The conflicts need to be powerful enough to keep the reader’s attention; they must also be universal enough so that the reader can easily put himself or herself into the tale.  In other words, you need to be writing about the big things in life—the struggle to find love, or to escape from or deal with death.  There are hundreds of experiences that each of us shares in life, everything from recalling the joy of snuggling in the lap of a parent to the fears of being bullied at school, and so on.  So long as you explore shared experiences and concerns, your reader will remain engrossed.  But if you stray from those, if you get too far out of line for too long, the reader will feel that your story is irrelevant to him ,and he’ll begin to find himself losing interest.

So a perfect story will engross a reader, so thoroughly entertaining the mind, the emotions, and the senses that your reader loses contact with the real world and is thus transported fully into the author’s fictive universe.  Entertaining a reader this way is so difficult that often when you look at a tale that seems rather simple, one whose language doesn’t dazzle, one does not recognize that creating an engrossing story requires a certain kind of genius.

Hence, simple storytellers like John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and Stephenie Meyers are often derided by other writers even as millions of fans stampede to the stores in order to buy their latest releases.  If you see an author selling well, you as a writing student really owe it to yourself to figure out why.  Chalking it all up to “dumb luck” might seem like the easy answer, but it’s never the right answer.  Ultimately, whether the author’s fans are driving him or her to stardom, or various powers within the publishing industry—such as critics, publishers, or the buzz among booksellers—the author’s popularity is always pushed because someone, somewhere, sees something special within the author.


Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop–Only a Few Spots Left
My workshop in Phoenix is coming up next month, and I have room for a few more students, so if you are interested in coming, let me know. It’s February 20th – 24th. Here is a class description:

In this workshop we will work heavily on imbuing your prose with the richness and details that bring a story to life. The goal is to teach you how to fully transport readers as you take them on a journey that captivates their hearts and minds. David Farland will teach you how to totally transport your readers so that they become so immersed in your story, they forget where they are–they forget they are reading at all.

This workshop is similar to the Writing Mastery workshop, but will be more exercise-oriented, with in-class practices. Writing Enchanting Prose is more in-depth than any of David’s past prose workshops.


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