This post originally appeared on Medium in February 2021.
Hopefully, if you are a writer, you are also a voracious reader. This is the most effective way to understand story and craft.
It’s also worth it for writers to consider why readers read, because then we can make decisions about who our ideal readers might be and what might draw them to our story. Are they looking to be entertained? Thrilled? Scared? Inspired? Are they looking to be informed, to learn to see things from another perspective?
Of course, there is no single answer…every reader is unique. And, unfortunately, there is no magic wand that will ensure every reader connects with your book. But we can do some things that will strengthen our story and increase the likelihood that it will.
So why do readers read stories?
They seek emotional connection.
As a reader, this is the #1 thing I am looking for. I want to connect with the characters, to see myself in the story. Emotional connection can be deep and life-changing, or it can provide levity, or it could be anything in between. It provides all of the feelings we have while reading, whether it’s joy, sadness, fear or surprise.
Many readers say they read some or all of the books they do because they simply want to be entertained. But entertainment inherently comes from an emotional connection to either the subject matter or the character. We want to feel a certain way, and so we seek out stories that will (hopefully) make us feel that way.
How can you strengthen the possibility of this emotional connection with the reader? By creating complex, three-dimensional characters and taking them on an emotional journey. While the external events of the story are important, what drives the decisions the protagonist and other characters comes from their emotional lives. They make choices because they want to feel something. Show the reader what that something is. (More on this topic here.)
They seek different perspectives.
We read to broaden our understanding of the world, even when we read fantasy and sci-fi. Whether we are reading a story set in a place we’ve never been, or being taken through a set of circumstances unlike anything we’ve personally experienced, or seeing familiar circumstances through the lens of someone very different from ourselves, reading has the ability to help us understand how individuals interact with each other, their surroundings and their circumstances.
Why does this matter to the writer? We want to be really mindful of how we are presenting the context in which our story is taking place. Similar to character development, we want to make sure that we are describing conditions that are fully defined, richly described, and acknowledged for the complexity which exists in that space. We need to make sure that we are not exploiting stereotypes or giving a flat depiction of the context of our story.
This is not to say that we should be pandering to an audience who might not understand cultural references that are used in the story. (A great resource on this topic is Matthew Salesses book, Craft in the Real World.)
But what about plot?
Of course, the events of the story matter. Unless a reader happens to particularly like stories of characters sitting and doing nothing, we need to create some events for the protagonist to experience.
But without considering the other two reasons readers read, the events we create on the page are empty. Plot is like the structure of the house. The emotional elements are what makes it a home.
Looking for help strengthening the emotional world of your story? Let’s talk through it!
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