Accomplished author and freelance proofreader and editor Kelsey Bryant shares how to capture the hearts of readers.
The Top 6 Ways Writers Can Capture the Hearts of Readers
by Kelsey Bryant
My previous articles focused on the types of editing called copy and line editing, which hones the author’s prose so readers can enjoy the telling of the story as much as possible.
The Ultimate Challenge: Capture the Hearts of Readers
But without great content editing, even the best-written prose will fall flat. Content is the meat of your story: the characters, the plot, the themes, the setting, all the elements that must weave together to make a cohesive and believable tale.
When you edit your content, what you’re ultimately trying to do is capture the hearts of readers with a story they’ll remember and love for years to come.
How to Capture the Hearts of Readers
So what are the top 6 ways you can capture the hearts of readers?
- Develop compelling characters.
Characters draw readers into a story like nothing else. If readers can connect with at least one of the characters—especially the protagonist—they will probably love your book. Make your characters believable and relatable with flaws, vulnerabilities, quirks, an arc of personal growth or degeneration, and other characteristics of real individuals. Make your good guys lovable by giving them the desire to do the right thing at all costs, even if they occasionally fail. Give your villains complex motives so that they are more realistic, thus more intriguing and more threatening. Characters that are too angelic or too devilish bore most readers.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice are great examples of compelling characters because they are likable, though a bit flawed; they experience personal growth; and they make good and moral choices that outweigh their mistakes. Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings share these same qualities, with the addition of being unlikely heroes overcoming incredible odds. Readers love to see a little of themselves in a character as well as qualities they admire or wish they had.
[GPF Note: Consider using this character template.]
- Describe vivid settings.
If you really want readers to feel like they inhabit your book, bring the setting to life with vivid details. This works for any kind of world, from contemporary to historical to fantasy. I like to think of the setting as another character. The best descriptions show the setting influencing the story, intertwining with and enhancing the characters and plot. Too few details make your characters look like they are standing against a blank canvas. Besides painting a detailed background, include specifics of daily life.
The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Dune would not be as believable without their epic world-building. And though The Call of the Wild and The Da Vinci Code are set in the real world, we would not be as immersed without their richly detailed settings.
- Form universal themes.
Themes are the ideas explored in a literary work. They can be overt or understated, but many readers love to draw connections, learn life lessons, and be inspired through books. It gives purpose to their reading beyond entertainment. Examples of themes include the standard right versus wrong, of course, but others abound, such as navigating moral gray areas; dealing with grief or disappointment; finding the right person to marry; facing fear; and choosing redemption. Underlying themes get to the heart of what your story is about and determine the direction of the plot.
The most powerful novels we know and love are heavily laden with theme. To Kill a Mockingbird explores justice for the marginalized. A Tale of Two Cities is chiefly unforgettable because of the sacrifice and redemption depicted within its pages. Les Misérables explores the conflict between justice and compassion.
- Set clear goals.
Without clear goals for the entire story, individual scenes, and important characters, a work of fiction can leave readers confused or disengaged. The overarching goal for the story draws them along, providing a united storyline for them to follow. A goal for each scene works the same way on a smaller scale, feeding their desire to discover what happens next. And, of course, the major characters (and even many of the minor ones) must have a goal that ties in with the story goal. Often the protagonist’s goal is the same as the overarching story goal. If you have scenes or characters that do nothing toward your story goal, let them go.
Goals are most easily seen in mysteries, but what if you’re writing a gentler story, like Anne of Green Gables, that focuses more on characters and episodes? Decide what your story is about and plan goals accordingly. The primary goal of Anne of Green Gables is for Anne to be accepted into a new family and community. It may not be plot-heavy, but every circumstance in the book leads toward that goal.
- Close with a strong resolution.
The resolution of a book can cement or shatter the readers’ love for the entire work. An unsatisfying ending is one of the most frequent complaints in negative reviews. Creating a satisfying resolution can be the most hard part of writing a story, but you can nail it.
Throughout the book, build up to a resolution of the story and character goals you’ve established. Satisfy all (or almost all) that your readers have been waiting for as they devoured your book. Have your characters earn the resolution naturally; don’t rely on contrived circumstances. Tie up loose ends (keep some untied if you’re writing a series), but you may not need to answer all questions if you want your readers to imagine the story continuing after they close the book. And don’t write too many scenes that drag on after the climax; let your readers breathe and process what happened, but don’t let them become bored. These are just a few tips about strong resolutions, but if you have trouble, take the time to study and explore more ideas so you can ace your story’s ending.
You can probably name many examples of your own favorite endings, but two of mine are Jane Eyre and Far from the Madding Crowd. Both are fairly dramatic; Jane Eyre’s ending resolves the story and satisfies every emotion, while in Far from the Madding Crowd, the conclusion is shocking but extremely gratifying. (So gratifying, in fact, that it turned my bland feelings about the book into enthusiasm.)
- Write stellar prose.
My previous articles on editing covered this more extensively (5 Tips to Eliminate Boring Writing, All About Action Beats, Break Out of the Mold: Creating Fresh Similes and Metaphors), but in summary, great writing adds the pièce de résistance to a great story. Vivid and evocative prose, with well-chosen words and imagery, engages your readers’ minds, making them feel as if they are experiencing the story along with the characters. If it’s typo-free, all the better! Typos distract readers and jolt them out of the story, but edited and polished writing keeps them absorbed.
With a focus on capturing the hearts of readers, you can:
- Write with the end in mind and follow time-proven principles.
- Use self-editing methods and tools, but before release, put the final touches on your novel with a professional edit.
- Write a story they’ll remember and love for years to come.
Kelsey Bryant is the author of half a dozen books and an editor who’s passionate about helping other writers hone their craft and get ready to publish. When she’s not absorbed in the pages of a story, she’s living real life and pondering how to portray it in a book.
Find out more about Kelsey at her website, kelseybryantauthor.weebly.com.
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How do you capture the hearts of readers?