Catching Readers in Your Net

Too often novels are just a string of events, with one thing happening after another, mostly plot and little heart. No, there’s nothing wrong with a book with a great plot that takes you on a ride. Most of us love rides. Just head over to a Disneyland or Six Flags any odd day and see how many people will wait in line an hour or two (or more) for a two-minute ride.

I used to shake my head and make for the refreshment stand when spending a “roller day” with my family, wondering how my husband and daughters could stand in line like that, all for a quick, cheap thrill. But even the anticipation while waiting for the roller-coaster ride was a thrill to them. It was all part of the experience.

I enjoy a great ride of a novel. Some of my favorite novels have no point to them other than to entertain (unless I missed some deep theme). One of my favorite authors, as I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, is Walter Moers, and his stories are outrageous and creative, and so much fun to read. You realize, though, as you jump into his books that you are there for the ride. You aren’t being promised anything other than hilarious entertainment, and he delivers.

A Story Is a Promise

So what am I leading to here? The key is the “promise.” Books give a promise through back cover copy, cover design, inside jacket blurbs, and online and print descriptions. Categorizing a book in a genre is a promise as well. Readers picking up a murder mystery or a romance novel do so with expectations. The genre promises certain things will be delivered, and if not, the readers will be disappointed.

If you are writing a novel with heart, hoping to impart and explore some themes, you want to avoid writing a book that is just a series of events. C. S. Lewis made this comment, which I feel speaks to the heart of what I’m talking about: “All stories must be a series of events [plot] but . . . this series is only really a net whereby to catch something else.”

Life As Theme

He proposes there’s an inner tension in the heart of every story between theme and plot. Look at life. It’s a plot, a series of events. But what’s its theme? What’s your theme? Does your life have one? Maybe it’s a different one each month or year. Or maybe you’ve noticed some theme weaving through your entire life.

And then there are some people’s lives that seem to have no theme at all. And maybe not even much plot. Would we think they were interesting? Would we consider their (or our) life a good story?

Casting Nets That Entangle in Wonder

Lewis says that our stories should be like nets. A story with heart should entangle us in a net of wonder, hold us dangling in the air over the surface of our lives and immobilize us momentarily. Many people’s lives may never entangle anyone like that. Maybe our life story rarely does. That is why readers yearn for stories that can do that. That can entrap and entangle and make us face “the sheer state of being.”

I also like what Lewis says about rereading books. Have you ever read a book numerous times? Why in the world would you do that? You already know what’s going to happen, so why bother? Yet, some people reread particular books over and over again. I have some favorites like that. Clearly we don’t reread a book to be surprised by the plot. We know it already. So it’s not for the surprise that we read, according to Lewis; it’s for “a certain surprisingness.”

Think about children who love to be read the same book over and over. When my daughters were young, they did just that. Some books they read dozens of times, and never grew tired of the story. How can they get so excited? Ever see children squirm when they know what’s about to happen? They want to get caught in that net of wonder again and again because it just feels so great.

I get that way, too, with some movies I watch over and over. I have my favorite moments that get me readying myself on the edge of the couch in anticipation. Sure, I know exactly what’s going to happen. And I know exactly how I’m going to feel when I watch that scene. The same way I feel every time. A great scene in a movie or book can work like magic, like some crazy pixie dust that evokes a special, expected reaction in me. Amazing how powerful words can be. Oh, that all our stories would have that kind of power.

Going Back to That Place of Origin

So, how can you catch readers in your net? How can you make sure you’re not just writing a string of scenes or scenarios for your characters but are weaving a net? I would say you need to often go back to the place of origin, to that spark of idea, where concept originates. Remember that germ of an idea that got you excited. Let the themes and passion for the story bubble up again (last week I gave some suggestions on ways to get that bubbling action going). Then infuse whatever scene you are writing with that passion and focus.

What Speaks to Your Heart?

What gets you excited when you read? Can you think of some books you’ve read over and over? If you have a favorite or two, spend some time thinking about why. Why you love the book. Why you read it again and again. What your favorite moments are.

What does this say about your heart and what you are passionate about? Think about the novel you might be writing, or have just written. What are your three favorite scenes? Why? What comes out in those scenes that speaks to your heart?

If you take the time to explore the passion that moves you to tell a story, and you find ways to keep it at hand so you can call on it at a moment’s notice, you will be able to weave that net that will catch readers. I want nothing more than to dangle my readers in wonder, help them stop their busy lives (that string of events) so they can revel in the “sheer state of being.” How about you?

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  1. I remember from high school lit class that all great literature has one of four underlying conflicts, man vs. man, man vs. nature, nature vs. nature or man vs. himself. Many works have a primary conflict and several secondary ones. It is through the resolution of these conflicts that the reader experiences some change in himself.

    Your points are so true! The writer should put significant thought into developing the conflict and more importantly developing how the reader will experience it.

    1. I find a moving plot as in man vs. man is very catchy. People like stories that reflect their own lives and those of significance around them.
      Jacqueline R Banks
      Author of: A Fine Piece of Chocolate;
      Righteous Sistas Crossing Over to the Wild Side

  2. Great post! I know some people never re-read a book or watch a movie twice, but I have favorites that I read/watch over and over, and for exactly this reason. I’d like to think that my own books are the same way: promising, then delivering, memorable and uplifting emotions. Thanks for the great analysis.

  3. Love this and very provocative. I have reread THE GREAT GATSBY for the shear pleasure of his word choice and imagery. And I love rereading children’s books to my grandchildren because YES–they know what’s coming, but they are caught up not only in the story, but in the KNOWLEDGE that they know what’s coming. It opens a treasure chest for them of comfort in this huge reality that they are learning to navigate. It’s comforting like a lullaby. Beth

  4. I have been diligently reading your postings and so far have not thought of thanking you although I learn a lot from them. So here it is, a huge thank you for the way you generously share your wisdom in matters of writing.
    I am a humble author of one book so far but if there is something I can do in return for your gift I will gladly comply.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog. I appreciate it. Feel free to post or share/tweet the posts! And you can always buy and read all my novels, but I wouldn’t want to push my luck here!

  5. You have made some points here I’ve never really thought about. I have read very, very few books more than once, but my children, and I as a child, asked to hear the same books read over and over again. Every writer hears about having a great plot, great characters, suspense and conflict. What I think you’re talking about is having heart. Bottom line, the readers have to care about the characters. Once we have them caring, we have them reading. Thanks for this post. It has given me a lot to think about.

  6. Susanne:

    This is a lovely post! You captured it exactly in your comment about “pixie dust”. That’s exactly how I’ve felt since I started reading books when I was 4, almost 56 years ago.

    I’ve never lost the love and delight of reading books. Real books. Touchy-feely books made of PAPER. I caved recently and bought myself a Kindle, and I think they’re great, such as they are. But real books, now, that’s something else entirely.

    The anticipation one feels when opening a “new” book includes knowing that you are about to interact with another’s mind and heart in a way no other medium can reproduce. And that’s true whether you re-read a favorite or just keep digging through the pile of things you want to read before you die.

    My favorite T-shirt at a homeschool conference:

    “So many books; so little time.”


  7. Intriguing article. I re-read favorite books all the time; I always have. Now that I am writing my own books, I often read favorites again, but at a slower pace so that I can study the structure of a good novel or what the author has done to mesmerize me. The books with lasting impressions are all written from the heart and I feel the author’s passion as I get lost in their story world or captivated by their characters. My husband thinks I am weird because I read some books more than once. He says something like, ” Are you hoping it will turn out different this time?”

  8. Huck-a-Berry-Fin! I have read it twenty times, seen the tv movies of the story many times and I never get tired of it. Thank you for bringing out this aspect of story telling. It has taken me 25 novels to reach the point of doing what you say do. My current novel titled Flight of the Fugitive, which took place in 1947 in my own home town has that kind of character. I’m on my second edit and I have found hardly anythings I want to change. First time for that! I do want to read the story once it is published, maybe several times.
    Just this morning my wife and I were having coffee on the porch and I mentioned that every time I see your post I go to it to read and receive a benefit! I do, this one was a great one. Thank you for the work and effort you put into your blogs.
    James M. Copeland

  9. I re-read certain books to relive the experience, to feel it all over again. I suspect it’s the same with watching favorite movies again. Even though we know what’s going to happen, we want to experience the thrills and passion.

    Some books and I have great chemistry and others don’t. I can’t put a finger on it, but it’s like that amusement park thrill ride, even though you’ve been on it many times, there’s always another go around to enjoy.

    Thanks for the article and pointing out that magic still exists.

  10. What a wonderful post. When I am completely drawn into a book, especially a book series, I am constantly asking myself why. Why does it speak to me? Why do I love these characters so much? What is it about this book that has me so intrigued? Why can’t I put this book down?

    You are so right. Definitely heart. It tugs on my emotions. I’m there, invested.

    Thanks for the advice. It spurs me on to dig deeper.

  11. Sometimes I’ll re-read a book because it inspires me to do something new or try something out. Sometimes I’ll read a book more than once because I like the writer’s style or the way the book makes me feel in general.

    Thanks for the great post!

  12. I enjoyed this article. Much of one’s emotional connection to a novel depends on characterisation – how deeply portrayed, how empathic and interesting to the reader. This becomes particularly important when writing a series of linked novels, such as the fantasy series I am involved in. Before beginning a novel I spend many months allowing the characters to become fully fleshed out in my head. When they start to do things that surprises me I know I am ready to start writing.

  13. I read ‘Gone With The Wind’ three times and saw the movie who knows how many? Braveheart-twenty viewings. Breakfast at Tiffany’s-movie, novella, movie, novella, movie.
    Research on the movie and all the backstage drama. More Truman Capote stories. Great usage of English, magnificent life goals, fabulous story lines in all three of the movies I mentioned. And that special something that I cannot name. I can only stand back in awe.

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