Sunday, October 9, 2011

Storytelling – Keep Your Reader Engaged

As an author it’s your job to create an engaging, compelling, suspenseful, intriguing, romantic, or other type of story content that will lure readers in and keep them turning the pages. But the key word for a successful story is ‘engaging.’

Engagement, according to, means to have an emotional involvement or commitment. Based on this, no matter what genre you write in the story must hold or engage the reader.

In an article in the Writer’s Digest January 2011 issue, Steven James takes a look at aspects of great storytelling.

The first rule to a successful story, according to James, is “cause and effect.” In children’s writing this is the same as an obstacle and its solution - there must be a circumstance that leads the protagonist to an action in an effort to find a solution. I do like the “cause and effect” wording James uses though, because it’s more in line with multiple writing genres.

In its simplest form, something happens (the cause) that creates or motivates an action or reaction (the effect).

James goes on to explain that along with cause and effect, the order in which an event unfolds or how it’s written will also make a difference between keeping a reader engaged and allowing for disengagement.

“As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story,” explains James. If the sequence of an event causes the reader to stop and wonder why something is happening, even if just for a moment, disengagement grabs the reader.

As an example, suppose you write:

She fell to her knees, dropped her head, and wept uncontrollably. Her husband was dead.

While after just eleven words, the reader learns why the woman is crying, it may be enough time for that reader to pause and wonder why the character ‘fell to her knees, dropped her head, and wept uncontrollably.’ Creating the ‘effect’ before the ‘cause’ can lead to disengagement.

To create a cause and effect scenario that keeps the reader in the loop, you might write:

“Your husband is dead.” The words echoed through the room. She fell to her knees, dropped her head, and wept uncontrollably.
A second aspect of writing James touches upon is creating and maintaining a believable story. Even if writing a fantasy or science fiction, consistency is needed, along with believable actions, reactions, observations, conclusions, and so on, within the boundaries of the story.

A basic example of this might be if you write about a character with brown eyes, then somewhere within the story you accidently mention the eyes are green. This little slip creates a believability gap.

Any gap in the believability of the story or its characters has the potential to cause the reader to pause, question, and very possibly become disengaged.

For writing and marketing information visit and sign up for her free newsletter, A Writer’s World. You’ll get 2 free e-books on writing and marketing in the process, and two more just for stopping by.


  1. Steven James will be the keynote speaker at the OWFI conference the first weekend in May. I'll be able to meet him. I've read some of his books, and I really enjoy his writing.


  2. Karen,

    These are great tips--especially the first one. Order of things does make a huge difference. I never thought of that before. Thanks for passing this on.

    Linda A.

  3. Vivian, That's exciting!

    Linda, I never really focused on 'cause before effect' either, until this article. That's why I love reading and attending seminars on writing and marketing - it's life long schooling. :)