“There’s an old Chinese proverb that says: ‘One demonstration is worth more than a thousand words.’ A good rule, I learned, is never to say anything you can dramatize. Better yet: never dramatize anything yourself that you can get the customer or prospect to do. Let the customer perform. Put him into action. In other words: Let the customer help you make the sale.”
This gem of wisdom comes from Frank’s classic guide, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling. When I read this nugget of advice, it jumped out at me: I realized that this principle applies to involving readers in our stories just as it does to customers in a sales pitch. Here’s what I mean: When we create active readers — when we make them “perform” and put them “into action” — they become more committed and engaged.
Ever since I made this connection, I’ve been thinking about the different ways in which we can transform our readers from passive absorbers of our stories into active, fully engaged “performers.” Here are a few techniques I came up with:
Sketching details: In our earnest desire to help our readers see the worlds that we see in our own heads, we often overload our stories with so much color and description that we rob them of the joy and pleasure of imagining that world in their own unique way. I think this is one reason that books made from movies are so often disappointing — often, the graphic images in a film aren’t as emotionally satisfying as the pictures we create ourselves. So a deft, light touch in sketching details may prove more provocative.
Enliven the action: Action sequences and high drama offer rich opportunities for giving readers an adrenalin rush and hooking them emotionally. Combining “headlongedness” (love this word, I made it up!) — that breathless sense of forward momentum with just the right pacing can really put your reader into the thick of things.
Push the pause button: While action sequences can help hook your reader, if you pile them on too quickly or without giving the reader the time to process them, the result can be distancing rather than involving. So consider giving your reader moments to reflect and integrate what’s happened.
Sprinkle clues: The enormous and continuing popularity of mysteries is proof positive of a compelling tendency we can use to our advantage: Many readers love to solve puzzles. With this in mind, consider creating mysteries within your story and then peppering it with clues. I’ve done this in my children’s novel — it’s loads of fun and has added some extra zing and zip.
End chapters with cliffhangers: This is an old tried-and-true way of keeping your reader actively engaged in your story — but since its works, why not use it? Crafting these little verbal pushes from page to page is challenging, but very satisfying. Why not give it a go?
I’ve come up with five “active reader” techniques here, but I’m sure there are tons more. Any approach you’ve used that’s worked well for you? I’d love to hear about it. Write on!