Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
About a month ago, one of our regular commenters, Andrew Budek-Schmeisser, pondered why readers buy a particular author’s books (beyond name recognition).
Here were some examples Andrew gave, along with his opinions of the books:
* Richard Bach’s readers are largely people who like him and his philosophy. Storytelling isn’t his forte, and neither is characterization, but he has the knack to give readers a feeling of “the possible.”
* Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series had cute, engaging stories featuring cats that helped their owner solve mysteries. The writing was indifferent, the characters not terribly three-dimensional, but the premise brought people back. They wanted to see what the cats would do next, I guess.
* Tom Clancy appealed to the Walter Mitty in everyone, with “ordinary” characters forced by circumstance into extraordinary situations.
Most of us choose to read books that satisfy us in some way–whether because we feel good while we’re reading; we feel fascinated by detail we never knew; we are inspired to be better; we want a good cry; we want our brains tickled by a mystery, etc.
I recently read the narrative nonfiction Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. It ranks as one of my top favorite books in 2015. Why? Because I knew, even as each passenger boarded the ship in New York harbor, that the majority of them would never reach their destination of Liverpool. As Larson takes us through the days on board and we meet various passengers, we have foreknowledge; we also are given the view of what happened from the submarine that launched the torpedo that brought the great ship down; we visit the governmental centers in Britain and the US, watching as the world leaders respond to Germany’s threats to sink the ship. Each setting has its own set of dramas playing out.
I found it to be captivating, and I wasn’t alone, considering the book remains on The New York Times best-seller list and reached #1.
The Time’s reviewer also saw the emotional impact of the book:
“Larson is an old hand at treating nonfiction like high drama…He knows how to pick details that have maximum soapy potential and then churn them down until they foam [and] has an eye for haunting, unexploited detail.”
NPR’s review stated:
“…Larson brings the past stingingly alive…He draws upon telegrams, war logs, love letters, and survivor depositions to provide the intriguing details, things I didn’t know I wanted to know…Thrilling, dramatic and powerful.”
And the Washington Post:
“Larson’s account [of the Lusitania‘s sinking] is the most lucid and suspenseful yet written, and he finds genuine emotional power in the unlucky confluences of forces, ‘large and achingly small,’ that set the stage for the ship’s agonizing final moments.”
Note all the emotive words used in these reviews. They showcase how, as readers, we long for an emotional connection to what we’re reading. And it’s up to the writer to evoke that response in us.
I also recently read a novel that I felt emotionally distant from. The story was good, the characters diverse and interesting, but underneath good mechanics, for me, the book didn’t emotionally connect me with the characters and events.
Even if you’re writing Christian Living or self-help, you must find the emotional connection between your words and the reader. Mark Batterson did that splendidly in The Circle Maker. For example, the opening story that sets up the book’s premise is brimming with emotive connections.
How do you write in a way that gives readers reasons to attach themselves to your book?
- Feel what you’re writing about. If you aren’t filled with sadness when a story’s character dies or when you write about some betrayal in your nonfiction book, then how is the reader supposed to feel sad?
- Don’t let your characters overplay their hands. I believe it was Flannery O’Connor who once opined that, if your character experiences immense grief over some loss but does not cry, the reader will cry for her. I that that, if you portray a novel’s protagonist as sobbing enough to drown the world, the reader sees the sadness but doesn’t necessarily take it on for him or herself.
- Ask critiquers/readers for specific words to describe how your material made them feel. If they struggle to find descriptors, you know you’re in trouble. As they choose words, create a list. It directs you on where you succeeded. You might be surprised–or dismayed at what you’re told.
Note: I’m not suggesting you load your manuscript with highly volatile, dramatic moments. Dead Wake has lots of detail that gives the reader space to take a breath before diving back into drama. Reading should give us an emotional roller coaster to ride. Ultimately, we’re in for the thrill of it. That’s primarily what readers want–along with other motivations for reading, of course.
What do you want readers to feel when they read your latest work? What words do you hear critiquers or readers use to describe material you’ve written?
What do readers look for in a good book more than anything else? Click to tweet.
How do you convince readers to become fans? Click to tweet.
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