Monday, October 21, 2013

Hearts and Minds: How to Connect Your Readers to Your Story

One of my beta readers ended her analysis of my new novel with the following statement:

"I didn't really feel an emotional connection to the characters. I kept reading mostly because I really wanted to know what happened next."

While this isn't the most ideal situation, it does highlight something that writers should be aware of as they build their narrative. There are two ways for readers to connect with your story, one is intellectual the other is emotional.

Mental Connection and the Spoiler Alert

When you hook a reader's mind, they become invested in the outcome of your story. They want an answer to the universal question "How does this story end?" In the best case scenario, the events of your story are magnetic and hypnotic.  Readers keep turning the pages long past their bedtime because they want to know what happens next.

The best way to understand this is to look at the concept of spoilers. The popularity of many books, movies and TV shows hinge on the mystery of the outcome. Some people feel their story experience is ruined if they find out the ending of the story before they see it unfold. In 2013, this can lead to extreme behavior as people avoid their social media, entertainment news and their real world friends to preserve the unknown quality of the story.

Emotional Connection and the Titanic Effect

There are some stories that don't need a mysterious or shocking ending. They are popular in spite of, or perhaps because, we know how the story will end. Stories that transfer the pleasure or pain of the characters to the reader have emotional resonance rather than mystery.  A high level of both empathy (where the reader relates to who the character is and what they want) and sympathy (the reader wants the character to achieve their goals) creates that emotional bond that people return to over and over again.

Films often capture this idea best, and Titanic is the ultimate example. (Spoiler Alert!) Everyone who ever went to see that movie knows the boat sinks at the end. When the movie starts, you already know who lives and who dies. But people went to see the movie anyway. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it multiple times. It is one of the highest grossing films ever and it is based on an inherent spoiler. Holiday movies like a Christmas Story and classics like Casablanca tug on the emotions, but none of them have the effect of the sinking ship.

The Best of Both Worlds

Of course, as writers we would love to capture the hearts and minds of our readers at the same time. We want to create the mental curiosity that makes them blast through the book in one night and the emotional link that drives them to tell their friends far and wide about your genius. (See On Champions, Tastemakers and True Fans). The problem is that I don't have some kind of formula for doing that. My best guess is that creating a relatable protagonist in search of universal goals is the best way to capture heats. Putting that character in a complex conflict that creates true dilemma is the path that can capture minds. The art lies in weaving both together seamlessly, without cliché or a heavy hand. I'm still working on that part. Sometimes I hit the head, sometimes I hit the heart. Hopefully at some point I’ll hit the bull’s eye.

So what do you think? Is there another way to maintain a reader's connection to your book? How do you keep the pages turning and readers rooting for your characters? Feel free to share your comments below.

Have fun

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  1. Great post. We all strive for connecting to the hearts and minds of our readers. I'd add only one piece advice to your post - the best way to know your characters is to spend 20 or so drafts perfecting you book. I like to compare writing to the aging of a bottle of wine - time spent rewriting is like time spent in the oak.

    1. I admire your perseverance Bryan, but I don't have the intelligence or the stamina to write twenty drafts of my novels. I do spend time with my characters during the pre-production, production and post production phases of my book. And I recognize that all my characters are basically an aspect of me, but my publishing plan calls for six novels in four years. I could never achieve that output and work a day job if I re-wrote my books 20+ times.

      Thanks again for the input. Please feel free to comment again.

      Have fun.

  2. I also think good writing attracts readers - good original prose and a good story.
    Best wishes