What Readers Really Want

Today is the final instalment of our four week foray into why our readers are drawn to story. We’ve discovered how pervasive story really is, why humans love story, how story affects us, and this week we’ll articulate exactly what it is that readers want when they open the pages of a book.

Evolution is all about survival, and survival is about overcoming trouble. So it’s not surprising, that story parallels this very same objective. At its heart, every good story is about trouble. Take the well-known, age-old nursery rhyme about a soggy spider.

Incy-Wincy spider climbed up the water spout,

Down came the rain and washed poor Incy out.

Out came the sunshine and dried up all the rain,

So Incy-Wincy spider climbed up the spout again.

With nothing but four lines of prose, Incy-Wincy captures the essence of story. Facing challenges. Experiencing dilemmas. And for those stories that end happily like this one, overcoming them. 

We touched on this earlier, but stories about the rhythm and realities of life don’t grab us. If I wrote you a story about my day—waking, eating, working, sleeping—would it sell thousands of copies? 

And yes, that is a rhetorical question. 

Talking about going to the toilet, making dinner, doing the shopping aren’t what readers choose to invest their time and money in (unless it’s part of a bigger ‘problem’). It’s not something I would want to read. How many times have we daydreamed about winning the lottery? But you would you want to spend four hundred pages reading about a middle-class Joe picking the winning ticket, upgrading his lifestyle, and buying a yacht? Utopic stories of wish-fulfilment don’t keep a reader engaged. Heck, even beautiful stories about people seamlessly falling in love don’t cut the I-have-to-read-this mustard. 

Stories about trials and tribulations though? They are the ones readers want to dive into.

Sure, romance is about the guy getting the girl (or vice versa). But good romance is about the hurdles, internal and external, the hero and heroine must overcome to be together. Crime novels are all about whodunnit, but the good ones are about the challenges and difficulties, criminal and personal, in solving the murder. Science fiction is about fantastical worlds, but it’s also about fanatical conflict and complications that is only limited by our imagination.

Most writing craft books emphasise the importance of conflict, and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction encapsulates it wonderfully:

“Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction…In life, conflict often carries a negative connotation, yet in fiction, be it comic or tragic, dramatic conflict is fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting…This is not so in life.”

Now that we know that readers are drawn to story because it functions as an evolutionary virtual reality, the draw of conflict makes sense. Developing tools for overcoming adversity, particularly when navigating the social minefield that is our world, is important to finding a partner, conceiving with a partner, and ultimately being around long enough to raise those rugrats so they can repeat the process. Talking to others about this, hearing about it, reading about it, and watching it are all safe, effective ways of achieving this.

Authors are in the business of writing about it. 

Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human (fascinating book, by the way) outlines that stories involve a universal structure of complication, crisis and resolution. He calls it story’s universal grammar, story’s master formula. He states the deep patterns of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome it are central in narrative engagement, and then he takes it one step further. He states that ‘stories universally focus on the great predicament of the human condition.’ Stories are about sex and love, fear of death and the challenges of life. They are about colliding and clashing and competing. 

Yep, they’re about conflict.

And at its centre, conflict is about power. It’s about the struggle to win; whether it’s against the villain, against mother nature, against vampires or the ruling class or nanotechnology, or against the inescapable demons we carry deep in our psyche. It’s not surprising that survival is about winning. Evolution recognised this parallel, and that’s why we’re drawn to conflict—the fight to win—in story.

As a writer, that is the first key you need to incorporate to into your manuscript to hook readers. Not because some craft book said so, but because psychology just demonstrated it. 

The following weeks are going to delve into the fine-grained strategies to grab readers’ attention and hold it. But as you learn and harness each of these components, you need to remember that conflict is your central structure. Consider it your skeleton. A body, or a story, without bones are inert puddles that can’t move themselves, let alone anyone else. 

But a body, or story, without meat and muscle, are scrawny structures that lack life and interest. Your story is going to need both. So as we explore the power of curiosity, the elemental drive of emotions, and the essentials of a character we connect with, remember that the skeleton of your story is conflict.  The rest is the flesh on the bones.

Have a wonderful week,


Want to know more?

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One comment

  1. Hi there Tamar! I’ve been away most of the summer and do happy to be back with my seat back in the chair! I have to get back on track with my writing! Always a delight to read your posts! One comment on this piece – I just finished reading ALL THAT IS, by James Salter — It was the best book for style, craft, love — such an inspiration. Pick up a copy and let me know your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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