Probably like most authors, I read as often and as much as I possibly can, but lately I’ve been noticing something about my reading habits: For every book I finish, there are probably five or maybe even more where I download the free sample onto my e-reader, read anywhere from the first page to the entire sample . . . and then set aside, without the slightest desire to read the entire book. Of course, that’s probably not so unusual, really. That’s the entire point of the sample feature after all, so that you as a reader can get a sense of whether or not a book is for you. But it’s gotten me thinking about what exactly it is about the books that I have no desire to read further that leads me to put them down? What is it about them that didn’t hook me as a reader?
I’m not, by the way, talking about issues where a book is rife with editorial mistakes, amateur writing, wooden dialogue, etc. I’ve read the samples of plenty of books that were well edited, had fluent, above-average writing, and even opened with what should have been an exciting “hook” in terms of a plot that jumped straight into fast-paced action. And yet I still didn’t click the ‘buy’ button at the end of the sample. Of course, everyone’s mileage varies, and the books that didn’t work for me may well be another reader’s favorite read of the year. But in trying to analyze what determines whether a book is a must-read or a did-not-finish, I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, it boils down to emotion; I need the book grab me on an emotional level.
So below are my top 3 tips for kicking your reader right in the feels and ensuring they don’t put your book down:
1. Emotions: your characters should have some. This may seem eye-rollingly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many books I’ve started where the first several pages were either pure exposition– explaining where the characters were and how they got there– or else pure action. That second one is a particularly easy trap to fall into if you’re writing in a genre where action is prevalent in your plot: fantasy, distopian, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries. All of those genres– and of course others as well– very often include big exciting scenes that involve battles or fist-fights, murders, abductions, and other high-stakes action sequences. All of which can work great at hooking a reader, but it can’t be just straight action. I’ve read loads of books that open with a super high-stakes, thrilling action scene, and yet it falls flat for me because I might as well be watching a video-game character running through a demo. What’s missing? Emotion. You can have all the action in the world, but if your character is just moving through the motions like a robot, readers still aren’t going to care. Show your characters’ desperate fear, their pain, their determination and triumph or even their crushing loss.
Even better–and this brings me to tip #2– show at least two of those at once:
2. Dig deep into secondary emotions. Of course, before I even start to mention this topic, I need to acknowledge that our own Donald Maass is the resident expert at it, and he both teaches workshops and has written several fabulous blog posts here on using secondary emotions to take your work to the next level. But it is something I was paying attention to and striving for in my own work even before I read what Donald had to say– and I think it’s such a crucial factor that it’s well worth stating here. People are complicated. Our emotions don’t generally come one at a time with neat little labels like those ’emotional awareness’ games for kids that Pinterest is always recommending to me as a homeschooler, where you see a picture of a little yellow smiley face (or a frowny face, or a mad face) and have to match it to the word ‘angry’ ‘happy’ ‘sad’ etc. I’m not meaning to knock those types of games for those they work for, but in my experience, feelings just don’t work that way. Emotions are messy, all-over-the-place, tied not just to our in-the-moment experiences but to our pasts, our memories, and to our future hopes and dreams.
Just to take an off-the-top-of-my-head example: picture a woman who’s planning a romantic evening and a big fancy dinner for her husband, only her husband is staying late at work . . . again, and he only called to tell her this at the time when he was supposed to already be home. (I realize this example is super gender-role cliched, but like I say it was the first one that popped into my head, so let’s just roll with it). Now, what is the wife’s primary feeling? Disappointment? Anger? Resentment? Suspicion that her husband is having an affair? Any of those could be a believable reaction, and you could play your scene to key into any or all of those. But what else could she be feeling?
Well, amidst the disappointment and resentment, she could also be feeling a smidgen of angry satisfaction. Ha! She could be thinking. I accused him of not caring about our marriage and this just proves that I’m right! Or you could give her past abandonment and self-esteem issues, and have her husband’s behavior trigger feelings of despair that underpin her anger: he doesn’t love me, no one will ever love me. Do you feel how much richer and deeper the emotion of the scene would be if you give her something else to feel besides just mad that her husband has ruined the evening she planned?
3. Don’t be too obvious. I once read a list of “rules” for newbie authors to follow, and one of them was “never name an emotion.” Now, I confess that it’s this type of supposed “rules” list that makes me grind my teeth and ask whether the list’s writer is some kind of officer with the writing police. But I do understand what this rule is getting at. You don’t want to spend your entire book saying things like, “she was so mad” or “he felt sad.” Show don’t tell is another supposed “rule” that I think can be implemented in an overly dogmatic way, but there’s no question it’s more compelling to show your characters’ clenched hands and gritted teeth as she grinds out her one-word answer than just to say, “she was angry.” On the other hand, though, there’s a big difference between saying, “I was scared” and “fear stabbed me straight through the heart.” You don’t have to be terrified of ever naming an emotion, but do it in such a way that the reader can feel your characters’ emotion, too.
What about you? What hooks your emotions as a reader?