What’s the Key to an Engaging Story?

Last week, my fifth-grade reading group and I finished a classic novel. I’m not going to say which one it was because I’m not going to say very nice things about it.

The story itself was fine. It followed a classic narrative structure and was occasionally gripping. The problem was…

Well, it was boring in more than a few places. But it wasn’t all the book’s fault.

bored

The book is older than I am, and it’s set on a homestead in the 1800s. Setting details were very important to the author, so much so that a pond deserved three pages of description. The story would have been great for literature students studying symbolism.

Here’s the problem: I work in a school that serves an at-risk population (that means there’s a high poverty rate). Simply put, most of them don’t care what glorious colors and reflections occurred on a pond 150 years ago. Some don’t know where their next meal is coming from, so fancy prose is nowhere near their list of things worth thinking about.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t read anything outside of what they know or naturally care about. But it doesn’t hurt to choose books that will easily engage them.

So what’s the key to an engaging story?

In Story Physics, Larry Brooks suggests changing a popular question posed to authors and students: Ask not what the story is about, but rather what happens in the story.

Engaging stories are about events. Actions. Movement. 

Readers want to know what happens next.

Put another way, characters need to do something, not spend three pages ruminating on a pond. If we were not privy to the internal monologue of the character, what would it look like to an outsider?

A girl staring at a pond.

And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a gorgeous setting description, it means the character is just sitting there waiting for the author to finish before the story can continue. In the book I read with the fifth graders, if we could remove the descriptions and just leave the actions, I’m guessing about 75% of the book would be cut. That’s a lot of time where characters were waiting around.

waiting quote

Now, description does need to occur or the story will feel un-anchored. Characters need a place to function. But it’s best to weave it in among the action. In the story with the pond, just having two characters walking around it while having a meaningful conversation would have helped.

So if you want to write a story with beautiful prose that will be studied for decades by literature snobs, go for it. More power to you. But if you want to write a book your readers will not want to put down (especially if you write middle-grade), make your characters get off their butts and get to work.

14 thoughts on “What’s the Key to an Engaging Story?

  1. I think I know what book you’re talking about. I just read aloud an Avi book to my 4th graders and I had one very vocal child tell me almost every day that she didn’t like the book. I almost felt like giving up on reading it to the students because of this child. The interesting thing for me was I had several students come to me later to tell me how much they were enjoying it. They asked if there was a second book and if the same characters were in it (I’m going to wait awhile to read it to them because the main character from the first book dies at the beginning of the second book – pretty traumatic). I even had a boy take the book from the shelf after I read it, wanting to read it again. You never know how a book is effecting a child unless they speak up. I think it would be interesting to have your students write about their thoughts on the book when you are done.

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  2. Action, movement, reflection, balanced to give effect, place a part of each, but not the substance; lengthy description has rarely worked for me. For my WIP I wrote a scene set in Greenland, I barely described anything of place, my focus the principle characters, what one exposed to the other when displaced from their normality. My editor wants more description of location, on this one I’m holding out, it’s what happened that matters, we all know it’s white and cold.

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  3. It’s interesting to me how my opinion changes over time. I remember being forced to read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school and hating it. It was soooo boring.
    I’m rereading it right now in preparation for a class I am teaching and I am fascinated. Amazing character development. Balanced setting description. TONS of action in it’s own way.
    So I have to wonder if we are teaching kids to hate books when we force them to read things that might benefit from a more mature perspective? Something I will definitely take note of when my kids read this book and we discuss it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think we’re hurting future readers by aiming too high. I don’t read things I don’t enjoy, and lots of students think they HAVE to finish no matter what and end up hating reading. It’s interesting that these kids are reading the same books I read as a student. There have certainly been lots of MG books published since then, so they’re suffering because of adults’ clinging to tradition.

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  4. Great thoughts. This reminds me of the documentary my wife and I watched last night about Steven Spielberg. After directing Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET he went on to direct The Color Purple. Critics tore the movie apart feeling an action genre director could not direct an artistic movie. Movie goers proved them wrong. I wouldn’t say Spielberg uses overly long scenes in his artistic movies to reflect on inner thoughts, but the guy sure can make movies that this viewer remembers.

    Movies aren’t books, but this thriller author agrees with you. To make compelling stories that most readers enjoy, the overly long descriptions need to be cut. Yes, there is a place for the characters to reflect on issues, usually I’d recommend those be brief, unless you are writing literature, cut the long prose.

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  5. The classics aren’t so compelling for today’s students, for many reasons including those you mention. They need action and relevance. I can’t expect students to enjoy the books that I did or the genres that I do. Have you and yours read Suzanne Collin’s Gregor the Overlander series?

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