How to Make Readers Invest in Your Story
Sat Jul 21 2018
Some stories suck you right in. You can't help but feel connected to the characters and their fates. You can't help but anticipate what might happen next and wonder whether your guesses are correct.
Other stories plod along, leaving you feeling like you just can't bring yourself to care about it at all.
What's the difference? What does the engaging story do that the lackluster one fails to do?
Let's look at some quick examples that illustrate the difference. Think about which one makes you feel more invested as you read it.
Alex shoved the nozzle into his pickup's gas tank and started pumping. His eyes darted over to the minimart. I shouldn't, he reminded himself. Two gallons. Three. He watched the numbers spin upward, resolutely not looking at the minimart. But it was no good. He knew it was there, and what was inside. Four gallons. Five.
He turned. She'll kill me.
The sliding doors opened, admitting him to the cool, air-conditioned space. He stepped briskly up to the counter. The cashier smiled at him. "How can I help you?"
"A pack of Pall-Malls," he said. "Menthols, please."
Katie was waiting for the college acceptance letter--or rejection--that would decide her future. She sorted through the mail, hurriedly scanning the envelopes to see if the Iowa State admissions department had made its decision. She stopped. There it was, the school logo printed in the corner next to the return address.
She stared at it nervously, worried about opening it because if she didn't get in, she was screwed. This was her safety school. Her last chance. No backup plan if she didn't make the cut.
But she knew she couldn't put it off forever. No amount of procrastination would change the contents of the envelope. She tore it open and slipped out the single sheet of paper inside. It was bad news. She hadn't gotten in.
"Crap." She felt dejected about not getting in. I guess I'll go see about a job at McDonalds.
Teasers vs. Spoilers
My guess is you preferred the first vignette, and "teasers vs. spoilers" encapsulates the reason why.
The first one raises lots of questions that it purposefully doesn't answer. When Alex thinks "I shouldn't," he leaves the reader wondering shouldn't what? Something to do with the minimart, clearly enough, but what? The way he tries to ignore it but can't stop thinking about it leaves readers even more wondering what's in there has him so vexed.
The gallons pass, he cracks, thinking "she'll kill me." But who's she? A girlfriend? Wife? Mother? The vignette stubbornly doesn't tell you.
Once inside, rather than walking around to find whatever he's after, he goes straight to the counter. This also makes you wonder why, but narrows your range of possibilities. What can you only get at the counter? Again, no answers are given.
Only when he makes his request can you, the reader, put all the pieces together into a satisfying resolution: he's a smoker who is giving into temptation. Further, he has probably promised "she" that he won't smoke anymore, so he's also in the process of breaking a promise.
The second vignette does the opposite. There's nothing you might have wondered about that the vignette does not spell out for you, and at the soonest opportunity. Right up front it establishes the situation and the stakes, and makes sure the reader has no ambiguity at all about what Katie is hoping to find.
Once she has the letter in hand, the vignette spells out her emotions and the reasons for them by further elaborating the situation and the stakes.
After opening the envelope, the vignette tells you the results immediately, and again spells out Katie's reaction to them.
The second vignette offers no mystery. It leaves you, the reader, with nothing to wonder about along the way. It doesn't make you speculate about anything, giving you little reason to read further to see if your speculations were right. Piece by piece, it spoon-feeds you the story.
Mystery creates investment
That's the difference: The first vignette gives you mystery while the second only offers spoon-feeding.
Yes, the mysteries in Alex's vignette are small ones and the solutions come quickly, but that's not the point. The point is that a mystery, however small, forces the reader to invest in the story.
They can't help it. They will wonder what's in the minimart that Alex shouldn't do, or eat, or buy. They will invest some quantity of mental effort in wondering about it while the next few sentences build up to the solution.
If you can make readers put in just that small amount of mental effort, then you've got them. That's their ante into the game. They can't get that effort back. It is spent. Now they're in. Hooked.
After paying in the currency of effort, they will care about the result.
By giving them a mystery, you've made them ante up. Now, the only way they can win the pot and recoup their ante is to keep reading until they find the solution to the mystery.
This dynamic between investment and payoff is how you create an interaction between the reader and the story. Making readers invest their effort in deriving meaning from the events is how you make them care about the outcomes.