We don’t think, as authors, that we’re responsible for making our readers successful. We think about making our careers, our book, successful, but our readers? How can we control that if we’re not writing a non-fiction book about leadership or some other business topic?
You are the only one who can guarantee your reader’s success at reading your work.
You want your readers to have the best experience possible, right? There are several ways you can help to make this happen. A lot of it has to do with comfort and familiarity. Let me explain.
I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and it was fabulous. I love books that delve into the psyche and teach me something about how my brain works. In this book, the author told the story of the song, “Hey Ya” by OutKast. You’ve probably heard the song. It’s quite popular and well known… now. But this wasn’t always the case. Though it was predicted from the start to be a huge hit, the song struggled at first. They found that it was because it was so different, people didn’t know how to take it. When DJs started playing it between well known songs and made “Hey Ya” a familiar song, it exploded. But without that comfort of the known, people wouldn’t listen to the song.
This scenario applies in books, as well. Readers have a favorite type of book, sure, but it’s not all about genre. There’s nothing you can do about your horror book if you have a reader that loves romance. But, no matter what you’re writing, the faster you ground your reader and make them feel comfortable in your world, the faster they will latch on and want to keep going.
Here are six ways you can ground your reader quickly and help them hook into your story.
1. Your Book’s Cover
Before a reader ever clicks on or picks up your book, they’re going to see the cover. Believe it or not, if you study genres, each one has a certain style and feel to it. Chick Lit tends to be fun and colorful, romance has half naked people in an embrace, literary is often text only or deeply dramatic scenes, fantasy is darker and mystical. See what I’m getting at? You should have an idea of what genre a book is just by looking at the cover. If you’re published traditionally, your publisher will (hopefully) know the market well enough to design a cover that fits. If you’re going the self published route, it’s kind of on you. Find an artist who does your genre well and look at other books similar to what you’ve written. Find the elements popular in your genre and make sure they’re on your cover so your book feels familiar.
2. Your Book’s Back
I’ve read some incredibly vague back descriptions. I’ve also read some that made me drop the book into my cart so fast I don’t think I actually even had time to think, “I’m going to buy this.” It’s tricky, I know. You need to tell enough of your story to draw a reader in, but you don’t want to give away spoilers (thanks a lot, Unbroken). But no matter how much you hold back, this is not the place to be mysterious. Again, you have to check your genre. If it’s literary, who cares about the plot? Make me love the character. If it’s mystery, tell me why I’ll care about solving it. Get the picture? The blurb is likely the second piece of your book a reader will experience. Use it to give them a clearer picture of the adventure they’re in for when they open the cover.
3. Know Your Place
This is very similar to my last two points, but again it has to do with genre, which is, essentially, where your book fits in. Find the place your book belongs and make sure it’s there. You won’t have control over it’s location in a bookstore, but you have control over where your book hangs out online and in marketing. Have you ever started reading a book you thought was one thing and slowly realized it wasn’t what you thought? That’s usually not a positive thing. But the point is, how you market your book and talk about your book also needs to fit your book. Don’t post a link to your Christian book in a Facebook book group for erotica lovers. You’re setting your readers and yourself up for disappointment. Give them what they want. And do that by going to where the readers of your genre already are, not by trying to pull readers from elsewhere. Find your book’s place in this world, set it there securely, then alert everyone it’s arrived. Don’t dress it up in some costume and send it somewhere that it has to pretend to be something it’s not.
4. Your First Scene
Now to the actual writing. If you’ve done the outer stuff correctly, you have a reader! Yay! But the work has just started. Now that they’ve invested in your book enough to read it (or at least click the preview on Amazon), you have to suck them in. Remember the “Hey Ya” scenario? You want it to feel like something they’ll love. That means your first scene is critical. You’ll hear people say you should start with action. And you should. Something should be moving. Don’t paint a static picture because there’s nothing for a reader to do except sit and look at your picture. You want them packing their bags to join you on this journey and that means something has to be doing something on the page. But action is not the same thing as major conflict. This doesn’t mean you drop your reader into the middle of chaos and think they’ll know or care about what’s happening. I see this often. A book starts out in a high conflict scene that I care nothing about because I don’t know who’s about to get hurt or why. Make me care first.
A reader needs to know three things almost immediately:
- Where we are
This doesn’t have to mean state, county, etc., but are we in a house or an abandoned mental hospital? Is it summer or is the character sweating because it’s winter and he just finished running three miles? Don’t spend your first scene in nothing but description, but give us enough that we can piece it together.
- Who We’re With
If you start with three people doing something in the first scene, the reader should be able to tell quickly their relationship to each other. Are we with a group of friends out on a Friday night? Or do they hate each other and are put into this scene by force? That changes the dynamics severely and your reader should have a hint of that. Who are these people and why should I care about them? Tell the reader. But again, this doesn’t equal backstory dump. Only give them what they need to feel grounded.
- What the Problem Is
There’s nothing worse then reading three pages before you realize the characters you thought were having a fight are really just acting in the school play and the problem isn’t the boy they were pretending to fight over, it’s that they’re secretly witches trying to take over the school. It’s one thing to work in surprises, but it’s another to outright lie to and displace your readers. Know the difference. And don’t waste any time. The reader should have at least an idea of both the main conflict of the story, but definitely the conflict of the first scene, very quickly. The faster they know what the problem is, the faster they’ll want to see the resolution.
5. Your First Line
I’ve heard it said that your first line should be a microcosm of your book. Sounds daunting right? It doesn’t have to be. If we think of the elements that make up a book–genre, characters, conflict, scene, etc. All of that can be worked into one line, believe it or not. But this doesn’t mean you need a massive sentence to do it.
Here’s an example. In the story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (read it here), this is the opening line: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” In this line you get several things. First, a character. The grandmother. Did you notice how by calling her that and not Grandma Hatty or something more affectionate, you already have an idea about her? We instantly know the conflict. She doesn’t want to go somewhere, but she’s presumably going to. But this also tells you something about her. She’s maybe rebellious or at least unhappy.
In one sentence you’re probably already wondering why didn’t she want to go, and why is going if she doesn’t want to? It also fits the tone of the story. It’s a rather heavy line, and it’s a rather heavy story. It is indeed a microcosm of all that’s to come in the next pages. The rest of your opening scene lets you go deeper and start both answering the initial questions and creating new ones, but the opening line needs to draw readers in immediately.
6. Starting With Dialogue
And finally, this is why starting with dialogue very often does not work. I’ve seen countless arguments over this topic, but it never fails. When I pick up something that starts with dialogue, I’m almost always annoyed because I have no idea where I am with this story. Here’s why it’s usually a problem. All those things I just mentioned about grounding your reader and letting them know who we’re with, where we are, and what the problem is? Very difficult to do in one line of dialogue.
The one case I hear for an example of doing this well is in Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” But look at this line. We have Papa right from the start, so we know it’s a child speaking, he or she is talking to someone else, and the conflict is right there. He has an ax and the person asking has no idea why.
Even in this case where it works, I don’t think it would have lessened the story to have a first line where Fern sees her father walk toward the barn with an ax. Starting with dialogue gives the reader little grounding. When this happens, we usually don’t know who’s talking, who they’re talking to, why, where, or what is going on. Starting with dialogue often misses most if not all items that make a good first sentence and draw the reader in. And most times, it doesn’t add anything to the story to start that way. So, why not start a sentence earlier and give the reader a good sense of what’s going on?