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What Makes an Compelling Story?

“The rain runs down my back along the old scars I don’t know the origin of.”

Making a story compelling is key for any reader. The first line is key, but it’s not everything. Why do I keep reading if I don’t care? For me, that line would get me hooked, but does the rest follow up on that promise?

Maybe it’s different for you, but today I wanted to talk about what I find makes a book compelling because I recently went hunting for a new book to read and ended up returning more than three-quarters of the books I picked up out of lack of interest after reading fifty pages. Yeah, you read that right 50 pages! I was that far in and gave up for lack of interest. And they were all books with summaries that caught me or from authors I normally love anything they write. So why didn’t they hook me? I found three main reasons:

1. They didn’t give me a reason to care about the characters. Why do I care about this kid living on the dragon ranch? What struggle is he enduring? Why does it matter to him? If these questions aren’t answered at least in part in fifty pages, then you better try again. In audiobooks I give them about an hour-ish listen before I give them up. And most of the books I picked up didn’t give me a reason to care what happened to the character. I didn’t know what the struggle was yet, and because of it I didn’t care enough to spend my time on it. I don’t know why I should care or hate this character. I hardly know what the character’s story is.

2. What’s the mystery? Alright, maybe it’s not a character based story. I like those best, but I’ll give you that. So what is the ‘can they?’ question? What is the plot driving force? I found a lot of the books I ditched didn’t give me a ‘can they’ question or even a ‘what if’ question. For example, can the boy living on the ranch…. Do what? The only question I may have had we answered right away. Sorry, 50 pages about the ‘science’ of Australian dragons isn’t hooking me. I’m leaving.

3. There was no risk. In all the books I skimmed over, there was no real risk. The character didn’t have to make any choices that could cost them really anything at all. There was no tension I could see at all. Many of them something that was designed to bring tension, but it just didn’t manage to do it for me. Mostly because it was so obvious what the character would choose, I knew the answer already. I think it just didn’t give me a stake that aligned with the other two points. There wasn’t a cost to finding the answers or growth for the character. The choices or actions just happen because… life. All the choices made were no brainers so there was no wondering that choice the character would make.

Lesson: We care about stories that have stakes, characters we want to cheer for (or loathe deeply), and to learn or find something unknown. A story can have something like, “Who is this character’s father?” But if you don’t make the character engaging enough, why do I care who his/her mother is? You need to set up who the character is at once. And it’s not too hard to do. Relationship hints are the best way to make a character engaging I found. All the books I didn’t care for started with explaining something. The ones I did like, started by showing the character doing something. Even if all they were doing was talking to another character, and they talked about what we needed to know. That opening makes a difference.

Also, get right into the action. The example I’ve been using about a boy living on a dragon ranch is a good one to show this problem. It spent 45 minutes of the audiobook (speed up by the way. I listen at 1.5 speed.) Just telling me the since of dragons with passing mention to the boy’s life. When we got into the story, I just didn’t feel any stakes and the ‘science’ didn’t help me want to just learn more about these dragons, so I returned the audiobook.

What about you? Do you find these the key things that engage you in a book too? Why or why not? It’s a topic I’d never thought much about for myself, but now I really want to know what you all think. What makes a book engaging for you?

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