Over the last six months, I’ve read about 10 books I didn’t like. Now, I’m not here to vent about the frustrations involved. And I’m not here to bad-mouth the stories; most of them failed by being mediocre as opposed to outright bad. But the experience got me thinking about what, for me, makes books “fail” in this way.
The Concept of a “Reader Entry Point”
I’m sure there are many different ways for a book to fail. However, the common thread I found in the aforementioned works was that they failed to engage me. Engagement is a complex topic, and I’m confident that readers will vary pretty greatly on when and how they become engaged with a story. However, over these last few months, I’ve tried to think through what I need to find a story engaging.
I’ve decided to call this “thing” that makes me engaged my “entry point.” It’s the point in the story where I’m not just willing to be there but willing to become invested. Without that investment, I honestly don’t think a book can give me a satisfying experience. And the later in the story this entry point is found, the more I’m likely to find the book hard to push through.
Fundamentally, I think the entry point requires that I have something or someone to care about. And once I care about that single element of the story, I’m much more willing to follow the story, become emotionally invested, and be patient with the imperfections of the work. At that level, I’m confident that all readers are the same. But at the level below it — what sorts of somethings and someones will work for them — it’s likely to vary widely.
My Major Entry Points
Despite the highly subjective nature of this topic, I wanted to explore the things that tend to work well to get me into a piece.
- A sympathetic major character.
I don’t want or need this character to be perfectly good. I don’t want or need them to be charming beyond reason. In fact, I don’t even need to like them. But I do need to feel sympathy for them and the situation they’re in. I have to recognize something human in them that makes me want to push forward. If I have at least one key player who fits into this category, I’m much more likely to become engaged.
In Neverwhere, I find the main character’s quirks, his mundane challenges, and his sense of the world to be highly relateable. As a result, the bizarre things that happen to him are far more intriguing, and it feel compelled to follow Gaiman as he presents the rest of his world and story.
- A plot with meaningful stakes.
I tend to disagree that every good story needs conflict, but I do believe that every great story needs something to be at stake. If you give me a plot where it’s clear what’s being risked, what might be gained, and those outcomes feel meaningful within the confines of the story, I’m likely to follow along even if I haven’t been won over on other fronts. And if you can do this starting from the premise of the story, it really amps up my engagement.
In A Simple Plan, the early discovery of millions of dollars makes the stakes and the goal incredibly clear. I’m pulled into the story despite having no strong feelings about the characters or the setting, and that suspense follows for the remainder of Scott Smith’s story.
- A fascinating setting.
The setting has to be pretty damn good to win me over on its own, but it’s certainly happened before. Whether it’s the magic system of a fantasy world, the compelling politics of a sci-fi adventure, or the seedy underworld of a transgressive literary tale, the setting can do a great deal to win my patience while the plot and characters are gradually being introduced.
The Name of the Wind got me interested through providing a well-developed setting. It took more than a hundred pages for the first intriguing plot point to happen, and it took even longer for me to like the lead character. Both eventually happened, but if the setting hadn’t interested me, I likely would have dropped the book before Patrick Rothfuss had a chance to introduce these other elements.
With these thoughts in mind, I’ve started to pay attention to this question in my own work. Who are readers supposed to care about? Are the stakes meaningful and clear? Is the setting rich and developed enough to bring the reader in?
But I also know that this list is incomplete. As a result, I’m very interested in a discussion of how the experience varies for you. In the comments, let me know what gets you to buy into a story, and provide examples where you have them.