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Encourage Your Readers to Participate in Your Story

By Joseph (Joe) Gordon

One of the most effective ways to get your readers to keep reading is to let them participate in the story.

We have all read those books where there is paragraph after paragraph of, what quickly becomes tedious, description. By the time the author is done we know everything about how a character looks: how tall they are, are they skinny or fat, what color their hair and eyes are, how they are dressed, do they wear glasses, if there are any moles, and so on and so on.

We often get the same treatment with settings. The author tells us the pattern of the wallpaper, the fabric of the drapes, the color of the furniture, the texture of the carpet, and so on. The author goes to great lengths to paint us a complete picture. But have we, as readers, been active in the process of putting that picture in our minds? No. We have been passively absorbing the details while the author was painting that picture for us.

What if the author, instead of pouring out paragraphs of detail, only gave us some cues as to what that character might look like. “The stranger unfolded himself from the easy chair. As he extended his hand, the sleeve of his jacket rode well up his arm exposing a slightly frayed cuff. There was noticeable spot on his tie.” At this point the reader is now invited into the story by engaging their imagination to fill out the picture. A tall, slender man? Wearing an ill-fitting suit? Not too concerned about his appearance? There are undoubtedly many more inferences we could draw from those few cues.

The same technique works with settings as well. “The room reminded him of the parlor at his grandmothers old house; ornate old furniture, dim light coming through the filmy glass of an unwashed window, littered with knick-knacks covered in a fine layer of dust, and a musty, seldom occupied smell.” Again, there are numerous inferences that can be drawn from these cues to mentally complete the picture.

The relevant factor that comes into play here is that the reader is encouraged to use their imagination to fill in the missing information and, in that process, they become engaged in the story. More importantly, the detail the reader provides is relevant to their own experience. And as a bonus, even if they do not realize it, they have sub-consciously taken part ownership in the story.

About the Author

Joe is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator and brings almost fifty years of business/educational/technical writing experience to the creative process. Based on this background, he claims he practices “organized creativity.” He currently is serving as the president of the Heritage Writers Guild in St. George, Utah.

Early in his academic career he became intrigued with the impact that a fear of failure has on students and their ability to reach their highest potential. He later applied many of his findings to a variety of people and activities, in particular practitioners of creative endeavors. He is in the finishing stages of a non-fiction book on the subject.

He is also currently working on a science fiction/thriller. This is his first crack at science fiction, but he has a mystery/thriller novella awaiting publication and a full-length mystery/thriller novel in final edits.

In terms of relevant experience for the mystery/thriller/spy stories he writes, Joe worked as a police officer, both as a patrolman and an evidence specialist. He also spent four years in the US Army Security Agency doing intelligence work, including tours of duty in Viet Nam and at the National Security Agency.

He is a retired college educator and has degrees from Arizona State and Utah State and frequently presents and does training sessions on a variety of writing and communication topics.


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