Psychology has spent over a century studying human behavior; our emotions, thoughts, needs and wants, what draws us in and what pushes us away. This means psychology can teach us a lot about our stories, our characters, and how to engage readers. And we can tap into these reams of research and use it to hook our readers.
There’s one powerful motivator that led your reader to your book — curiosity. Human curiosity is so powerful it has us doing completely unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. Think about it, have you ever got lost, ever tried something just to see what would happen, or did things just for the heck of it? Yep, that was curiosity working its magic.
Curiosity is what captured a reader’s attention when they saw your title, your cover, and then your blurb. Their synapses fired. Their mind wanted to know more, because when we actively pursue new information, we’re rewarded with a flood of pleasure inducing dopamine (just like when we eat, have sex, or snort cocaine). Evolution knew that the drive to find new and novel things helped us not only survive, but thrive, so it wired it into our grey matter. And once that spark has been created and your reader has turned to the first chapter, you need to keep that flame burning. Thankfully, psychology has studied curiosity, and we writers can use what they’ve discovered.
Here are the top three literary devices you can use to capture your readers curiosity:
The human drive for question gave us wonders like planes that can carry cars and cameras you can hide in your tie. Our brain doesn’t stop asking questions because it knows that’s how it learns and evolves. This means your book needs to be driven by questions. Questions raise uncertainty. Unknowns. And if there’s an unknown, then humans want to make it known. There will be a big question that will drive your story—such as will Frodo get to Mount Doom and save Middle Earth? But there will also be all the little interesting questions along the way – like did Gandalf really just die? Who was that hot elven-chick that just rescued Strider? What will happen to sad, twisted Golum? Your book will need a variety of whos, whens, whys, and wheres to keep your reader engaged.
Ultimately, there’s one question that every one of these can be classified under. It’s the mother-question that’s drives your reader like astrophysics drove Einstein and dust filled homes drove Hoover. And I propose that every scene in your book needs to have this question define it. I’m suggesting that each chapter needs to finish on this question. I say that your protagonist, and even your secondary characters, need to have this question hanging over them. It’s what will keep your reader turning those pages. Because their mind will be asking the most important question of all—what happens next???
The Element of Surprise
Surprise is a sure fire way to capture a reader’s curiosity. When presented with anything unexpected our brain lights up and hones in so it can explore and learn. Eyes look for longer, arousal is heightened, attention is focused. Create the element of surprise through the following:
- Novel characters—interesting people interest us. We don’t expect a villain to be someone we can empathize with, or the shy pen-pusher to be the hero. Quirky people do the unexpected – just think Don Tillman from The Rosie Project. Those are the people characters we want to spend time with.
- Unusual situations—everyday people thrust into unusual circumstance do unexpected things. These unprecedented or unpredictable situations are the ones our brains know we can gain something from. We didn’t expect a sadist to be someone a naïve, virginal girl would fall in love with, but man, did that concept sell some books!
- Unexpected ideas—research has shown that babies are particularly interested and focused on exploring those situations where their expectations were contravened. Challenge assumptions, create concepts we hadn’t considered before.
- Ambiguity – a situation where we can’t decide between different, competing hypotheses or ideas, or where the existing information just isn’t sufficient to draw a solid conclusion will have your reader curious. We all know that feeling when we can’t quite figure out which is the correct answer. Was Darlene’s drive to run away from home because of the guy she met online? Or was it because of the relationship with her father…? How many hours have you poured into a book to get to the answer?
A Gap in Knowledge
Research has shown that we find it harder not to listen to someone talking on the phone (so we only hear half of the conversation) than to listen to two people having a face-to-face conversation. Basically because curiosity is a drive for information – the drive to know the answers to all the questions we’ve just discussed. We want to explore. We want to fill in the gaps. That very drive will have your reader turning pages hour after hour. Consider the following:
- Foreshadowing—yep, plant a seed. Leave clues. Allude to something more complex, more intriguing than the initially suspected. You’re hinting that something is coming.
- Drip feed important information—we are most engaged when we know there is still more to be learned. If we think we’ve figured it all out, that there’s nothing else worth knowing, our brain moves onto the next novel stimuli, which equates to a reader putting down your book and picking up the remote. Show your reader some valuable information, but also let them know they don’t know it all. They’ll have to keep reading to get all the pieces of the puzzle.
Curiosity is what’s going to keep that magical chemical concoction swimming around your readers’ brains and ultimately keep them reading. Weave the elements that spark curiosity through your book and you’ve given your reader a reason to keep reading. We’ve all been there, it’s 4 am, on a week night, with children that are early risers…knowing we’ve run out of coffee—but we just HAVE to know the answer!
What do you think? Do you see some of these elements in your favourite books? Have you incorporated them into your own stories? I’d love to hear what you think.
Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.
Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.
Angela here–I just discovered Tamar released a new book on Jan 1st: Grit for Writers: Why Passion and Perseverance are the Keys to Your Writing Success. (Sounds like a great read to start off 2018, doesn’t it?)
I am a big fan of Tamar’s work so am looking forward to reading this one. I wanted to make sure you know about it too–here’s the link.
Happy writing, all!