A story with high stakes and deadly dangers can still bore you to tears. Equally, a character folding laundry while contemplating life’s absurdities can be deeply moving and affecting.
While there’s probably more to work with if your story is about an exploding volcano than creased shirts and an ironing board, the fact that neither subject-matter guarantees how the story will be received demonstrates that whatever it is that draws readers into a tale, it isn’t just a matter of sticking a character in a perilous situation and seeing how they cope.
So what is it that grabs a reader and keeps them engaged through many hundreds of pages?
There are two elements of a story that keeps readers reading, a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Both is ideal, although one out of two ain’t bad.
The narrative is basically what happens, and if you want to know what happens next, you’ll keep reading. Humans, in general, are curious. If you put a problem in front of them they would like to know the solution.
As long as a story is about things going wrong, needing to be fixed, obstacles that have to be overcome and enemies that require vanquishing, then the narrative will have the potential to hold the reader’s attention. Not because these things are inherently interesting or important to figure out, but simply because we have a magpie-like attraction for shiny puzzles.
But that only gets you so far. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, you can still bore the reader despite big explosions and earth-shattering events. Simply raising a lot of questions doesn’t create a cumulative effect.
A man discovers he was adopted, that aliens have infiltrated the White House and that Coca Cola are working on jet pack powered by fizzy pop. All very intriguing, but kind of random and unrelated.
For a narrative to be compelling, it isn’t just a matter of creating interesting events, it’s how they connect together. If a question provides an answer that raises another question, the cascade effect can keep a reader turning pages well into the early hours.
Rather than a man discovering he was adopted and then his mother telling him he’s an alien they found in rocket ship, the mother telling him they found him in a metal box, and then investigation of that box reveals it to be a rocket ship, which then activates and shows him the location of another alien... in the White House, provides a much greater momentum for the narrative.
It’s how you move the reader from one problem to the next without allowing a convenient place for them to stop that creates a compelling narrative.
A compelling character, on the other hand, can get away with murder (sometimes literally) just because the reader likes them so much. Often this goes beyond all reasonable expectations. If a guy takes ridiculous risks in the pursuit of a just cause, we would like him to succeed. No matter how unlikely, we want him to win.
If a crazed killer kidnaps your child then your desire to get her back, no matter what it takes, is perfectly understandable and admirable, but there’s no reason why that desire should translate into a new found ability to track down criminals and fight them into submission.
And yet we want that to happen, and are willing to make allowances in common sense and logic to see it happen.
That deep-rooted need in people to see a character go up against impossible odds and not be crushed by them is at the heart of a lot of literature. Of course, we will also accept more realistic tales where life's tragic nature wins in the end, but while contemplating our place in the universe is sobering and meaningful, it isn’t quite as satisfying as defeating an alien invasion with only an iPad mini and a bagful of determination.
What’s compelling about a character is their refusal to back down—and the more sensible it would be to give up, the more entertaining it is when they don’t. This means they need a good reason to keep going; if you witness a murder and rather than calling the police you decide to solve the crime yourself, it’s going to make the character come across as stupid more than intrepid.
But if the police don’t believe you, all evidence disappears, and the murderer comes after you, then taking the law into your own hands becomes much more plausible.
Any situation where characters finds themselves facing something we would all rather avoid, and they don’t panic, or once they stop panicking they take on the challenge, that character wins our sympathy and we want to see them get what they deserve, even though in life that rarely happens. Or maybe because of that.
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