5 Reasons Why Readers Love Your Story

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photo by Flickr’s Luis de Bethencourt

When we love a story, we usually say things like: “Great premise, fabulous characters, talk about a fresh voice, and the writing? Exquisite!”

But is that really why we loved the story?

As counterintuitive as it may sound, the answer is no. Which isn’t to say that those things aren’t incredibly important, worthy and something to strive for. They are, hands down. But they’re not what grab, and hold, the reader – even though they’re exactly what your readers might rave about once they’ve finished your novel.

Truth is, you’re giving them something much more meaningful, and enduring, than that. The real reason your readers love your stories goes far deeper than their alluring surface. Stories are entertaining for one reason: so we’ll pay attention to them. It’s only once they have our undivided attention that they bestow their genuine gift – vicarious experience. Because, as I’m inordinately fond of saying, we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality.

Here are five ways your story helps your readers expand their horizons, understand the world, and know themselves a little better. These are the real reasons why readers love your story, and why (thanks to the dopamine buzz they get from it) reading a good book often feels exactly like falling in love.

Reason 1: Your story takes them on a mini-vacation, giving them a breather from the stress and strain of daily life.

Wait, you may be thinking, didn’t you just say that we don’t turn to story to escape reality? I did – because a mini vacation is a wee bit more complex than a simple escape. Getting lost in a good story is like hitting the pause button – biologically. It puts our life on hold so we can slip into the protagonist’s skin, where we experience what he goes through as he struggles with the story problem. But we bring our version of reality with us, too. So as we navigate the plot with him, we’re always tacitly comparing his reality with ours, and in the process his insights, epiphanies and breakthroughs either reinforce, challenge or slightly alter our own.

So when our mini-vacation ends and the story deposits us back in the real world, we disembark refreshed, rejuvenated and with more insight than when we boarded.

Reason 2: Your protagonist takes physical and emotional chances, allowing readers to vicariously experience risks that would normally be too scary to face.

We’re wired to avoid conflict, risk, and change – even good change. Why? Because once we feel safe with what we have, our hardwired inclination is to stick with the status quo.  This doesn’t mean we like it, mind you, but simply that it’s familiar. In other words, we know what to expect. What frightens us is the unexpected, the unknown. That’s why we stick with the devil we know. Which doesn’t stop us from longing for other devils, other options, and wondering what it would really be like to take that chance.

Enter stories. They’re about what happens when the protagonist (aka your reader’s surrogate) is forced by circumstances out of her control to take risks that she’s probably spent her entire life avoiding.

That struggle is precisely what your readers come for. They love it when your story allows them to feel what it would be like to actually go through situations that make their hearts pound and their palms sweat (you know, while they’re safely tucked in their comfy reading chair). Because as your protagonist digs deep and finds the courage to meet the challenge you’ve set up for him, your readers feel it at every turn. When the story ends, and they close the book with a wistful sigh, they carry your protagonist’s experience into the world.

Life doesn’t give us do-overs. The “do-before” of a story is the next best thing, so we’ll know what to do in real life should we ever find ourselves face to face with that devil we don’t know.

Reason 3:  Your story catapults readers straight into the one realm we have no other access to: someone else’s mind. 

In real life, our goal is to figure out what people really mean, despite what they, um, say.  When Fred purrs, “I love you” to Gloria, she’s wondering, “Really? Do you love me, or is it that I starved myself into a size four, or that you think I might be rich, or are you just trying to get lucky?” In other words, we’re always trying to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface.

Think about your own life. How often is what you say and what you’re really thinking the same thing? Which one is more interesting? More revealing?

That’s what we come to story for. The inside scoop. Stories give us a glimpse into someone’s inner life in a way that nothing else can – even people we know. Especially people we know. Why? Three reasons. First, because in real life we’re wired to want people to like us, (or at least not punch us), so we keep our most revealing thoughts to ourselves.

Second, often our most deeply held truths are . . . embarrassing. So we wouldn’t tell them to anyone, no matter what, and often we end up doing things that we’d really rather not. I know a woman who was terrified of heights but went bungee jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge on a blind date (with a guy she’d already decided she didn’t want to see again) because she was too embarrassed to tell him she was chicken.

Third, even when our friends do let it all out, especially in times of crisis, how articulate are they? Often, we clue others into our deepest wounds simply by sobbing unabashedly.

Stories, on the other hand, let us peer into someone else’s unguarded mind, and often what we see there, in all its messy, revealing, gloriously human detail, is a reflection of what’s in our own mind. “Thank god,” we think, “I’m not the only one!” That’s why stories are such a comfort. Often, we learn that the very thing we thought made us really weird is what actually makes us brave, endearing and inventive.

Reason 4: You give your readers perspective, allowing them to see the world from a point of view vastly different from their own. You open them up to new experiences, and even more life-altering, to new ways of viewing the things they’ve already experienced.

Stories allow us to experience the lives of people vastly different than us – people who we might believe we already understand, thank you very much.  Then the story puts us in their shoes, and for the first time we really feel how the world treats them, and experience the world from their perspective. Ofttimes, this shows us just how wrong we were. It can be a humbling and enlightening experience. Studies have shown that reading can rewire our brain, enlarging our ability to empathize.  Sometimes, the effect is nationwide.

For instance, do you know what is often cited as a major reason for the success of civil rights movement in the 1960s? To Kill A Mockingbird. It changed how white America viewed racism by letting them experience its inhuman injustice, as seen through the eyes of Scout, a six year old white girl.

In fact, a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated only behind the Bible in books that are “most often cited as making a difference.”

Oprah Winfrey calls it, “Our national novel.” Former first lady Laura Bush said, “It changed how people think.”

Stories let us get as close as we can get to viscerally experiencing another person’s lot in life – and that allows us to feel more connected, more part of the whole. We’re not just individuals, not just members of our own tribe. We’re part of the human tribe. Being able to feel that, if only for the time it takes to tell a story, can change us forever.

Reason 5: Okay, okay, YES, you give readers hours of just plain flat-out fun.

Sure, stories are entertaining by design so we’ll pay attention to them, and yes the entertainment is a bonus — but what a delicious, juicy, enriching, intoxicating bonus it is.  There’s nothing like curling up with a good book, or that tingly feeling of anticipation you get sitting in a theater as the lights dim and the movie begins.

Yep, a story is a better Valentine than a nice big box of chocolates. Here’s why: while both are incredibly enjoyable in the moment, the legacy of a box of chocolates is five extra pounds. The legacy of a story well told is a new slant on life. Which would you pick?

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Great post! A good book is a mini-vacation!! Places, people and someone else’s problems all wrapped up in a neat package. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than Jamaica in March.

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  2. says

    A great list! I think #4 can also nibble away at some closed minds! My favorite is #3, better to vicariously visit crazy than to take a vacation there!

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  3. Denise Willson says

    Hmm…a book or chocolate…that’s a tough call. ;)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  4. says

    Thanks, Lisa.

    I don’t know yet whether these are reasons my readers will love my book–since I’m still revising it, but they are reasons I’m enjoying writing it! I love being able to engage in an all-out (vicarious) catfight, when I personally hate conflict. I’m amazed at my protagonist’s courage and daring and foolish spontaneous decisions, at her rural gun toting upbringing. Again, not me. And, oh, to turn time back and explore a “simpler” life we so often long for–just to discover that living without plumbing, electricity, and central heat and air might not be so wonderful after all.

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  5. Charlotte Hunter says

    Taking a mental and emotional vacation, during which I experience thrills and passions that may not be present in my own life . . . any author–adult, YA, PB (yes, PB)–who can help me achieve these two things is one whom I cherish, applaud, and whose books I buy. Moreover, as a writer of thrillers and mysteries, I want to be this sort of author, which may be the most important takeaway from this excellent post.

    Many thanks, Lisa.

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  6. says

    I read this vicariously through my email.

    Lisa…splendid, once again. Another bookmark. And I actually tweeted and facebooked it, too. Don’t do that too often.

    Your articles are always spot-on when it comes to human nature. What we are really thinking. And I’m always trying to dig deeper. You’re correct in saying that’s what the reader truly desires.

    We laugh at things because they strike a chord, with many times that chord being, “I can’t believe he said that.” Yeah…but you’ve thought it a thousand times. Otherwise you wouldn’t have even gotten the joke.

    And the mere fact that you laughed tells me you wished you would have had the guts to say it. Or the quick wit. :)

    Thanks for every thought-provoking article you put out.

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  7. says

    What does a great story do, well you nailed it. To Kill A Mockingbird, nuff said? I read it again over the holidays and picked apart the whole thing cuz ya know its the best novel ever written besides Pride and Prejudice? That Scout told it like it is and isn’t, which we all needed to hear then and need to hear now. I love this post. Thanks!

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  8. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Love this post, Lisa. And I know that for me some of the stuff in these five points could also sum up a lot of the reasons why I write. My writing can take me a way to a world of my choosing, make me take risks in the skin of another character I sometimes could not in real life, and give me a perspective of the world through someone else’s eyes.

    As for the chocolate…that’s a battle and a story for another day. :)

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  9. Peggy Foster says

    Lisa I love this post. When I get through writing my novel I hope my readers will love my book for those five reasons that you have described. I will definitely be bookmarking this post.

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  10. says

    Wonderful, wise, insightful post – When I grow up, I want to write like you … lol. Seriously, I do hope that my readers will love my book for exactly these reasons, when I actually get it finished! I’m in the second revision …. Loved this, thank you, and bookmarking the post. ~ Julie :)

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  11. says

    I really appreciate your comment about how good books help us not just escape the stress and strain of our lives, but also navigate them. Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp all the subtle ways that our favorite characters change us. I think many of us process our books in the same way we process our dreams – deeply, darkly and often without even realizing it.

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  12. says

    Start blogging, they told me. I think they meant I should find a blog that speaks to me in my language, about my book. I did. Thank you, Lisa. I now appreciate the value of sharing insights with other writers who have gone down this strange and exciting road before me. I’ll use your five points as I go over my manuscript this afternoon, especially #5, recognizing that both my story and my efforts should be fun.

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  13. says

    Books are like spending time with really amazing friends. Friends who are deeply curious and willing to share what they’ve discovered about life. They take time to think about what they are going to say and it always feels worthwhile to spend time with them. I took this to be implicit in your list. #4 is what I seek and try to do with my writing with a dash of #5 on the side.

    Thank you for the lovely Valentine’s Day gift: the heartfelt effort you put into this.

    Ceejae Devine

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  14. says

    I like reason number five the best. Yes, I like writing that makes me think or gives me some insight I didn’t have before, but most of all I want to be entertained.

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  15. says

    Hi Lisa, Numbers 1 and 3 do it for me. Perhaps Number 3 is the reason novel series are popular. When the writing is so good that we find ourselves inside the characters, understanding what makes them tick and discovering characters we love (or fear), we want to follow wherever they go! From book to book to book….

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  16. says

    Just wanted to pop in and tell you what a gift you are to WU readers–your posts a monthly treat, always as inspiring as they are educational. Thank you, thank you.

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  17. says

    Wonderful post. Yes, I want to connect with characters – but I don’t want to read about them living my exact life, I can figure THAT out for myself. I have been bored to tears with “fine writing.”

    Love To Kill A Mockingbird, and find it interesting how much of an impact it had on people’s thinking.

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  18. says

    Absolutely! I’m especially aware of this as I’m judging 20 published books for a contest. If they suck me in and make me forget I’m judging, I know it’s a winner.

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  19. says

    Great post! I’m not sure how to say this the correct way. I’m a new author with only one novella to my credit. The one thing I’ve heard the most from people who read it is this: “I can’t imagine living that life, but I really enjoyed getting to read about it.”

    If that is what my words can do for a person, I’m good with it!

    Thanks so much, Lisa, for this “keeper.”

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  20. says

    I had never thought about stories making physical changes in the brain of the reader. Writing, therefore, must be very slight mind control.

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