One morning not too long ago I walked into our kitchen at about 6:30 and was startled by what I saw.
There stood my nine-year-old son in his pajamas, hunched over a piece of paper with a pencil in his hand. His nose was less than five inches from what he was drawing, and his tongue protruded slightly above his bottom lip. The kid was in deep concentration, but I couldn’t help myself.
“What y’up to, buddy?” I asked groggily. “Looks important.”
“I’m drawing the Battle of Endor,” he replied, not looking up.
“Did you just make that up, or is that a thing?” I asked.
He leaned in closer. “It’s the one with the Ewoks.”
“Ohhhhh,” I said, “that one.”
Now, if I just did my job as a writer, you stuck with me from the beginning of this piece until now. From here I could reflect on the compulsive creativity of children, what a father can learn from his son, or why the Battle of Endor truly is that important!
But if my story didn’t hold your attention, I don’t get to tell you about any of those things because you’re already gone.
That’s what makes good stories so important. If they’re engaging, we earn the right to be heard. If not, readers will wander off to whatever else does grab their attention.
In this post I want to share what I consider three essential elements of irresistibly engaging stories. Whether you’re writing a memoir or self-help or inspirational nonfiction, these elements will help you hold your reader’s attention.
Tip 1: Make Them Filmable
The most engaging writing is concrete writing, and perhaps the best way to grasp the definition of concrete writing is to think of it as synonymous with filmable writing. If someone tells a story well, you can see it in your imagination. Sometimes you can feel and taste and smell it too.
I recently attended a conference and took in a talk by great writer and thinker Ian Morgan Cron. He told a story about when his mom discouraged him from writing a book on the enneagram (a personality-typing system). He added the detail that his mom was 89 years old and had smoked a pack of Pall Malls every day for decades.
Ian so deftly brought us into their phone conversation that I could see them talking and even hear his mom’s raspy voice.
While the audience’s attention may have drifted at other times during the conference, they were completely engaged by Ian’s story about his mom.
Why? Because his story was filmable. When you tell stories, strive for this quality.
Tip 2: Don’t Overdo Your Descriptions
To make a story come to life in the reader’s imagination, you might think you need to describe every little detail. The problem with too much description is it drags the pace.
Remember that films show you a bunch of details all at once in just a fraction of a second because of how much our eyes can process. When writing, the trick is to give enough detail that the reader can fill in the gaps herself. If you take the time to go into every possible detail, your prose will slow way down and readers will check out.
Give enough detail for them to see the scene; then keep things moving.
Tip 3: Spread Them Out
If prose can be likened to a meal, stories are like the seasoning. When they’re underused, the writing is bland and boring. When overused the effect is overwhelming, like when you taste so much salt you can’t taste the full flavor of the food.
But if you get the balance right, stories will bring your words to life and create an enthralling, page-turning experience.
As you fashion your prose, strive for a good balance—enough stories to keep things moving but not so much that we can’t hear the points you’re making.
Question: Which of these tips do you find the most useful for your own writing right now? You can leave a comment by clicking here.