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Active Readers

As these are notes for a workshop, they are not as full as they could be. If you have any questions, please email me.

These techniques are intended to help with editing and redrafting. My advice is to write your book from your heart first.

Making Your Readers Active Ones

Your readers can be active, passive or challenged

    • — Passive readers have everything laid out for them. They don’t need to think or work anything out — it’s all done for them. They merely read and observe.
    • — Active readers engage with the text. They become intrigued by it, and work to discover its secrets.
    • — Challenged readers have to work really hard to understand the text.

A passive reader will easily put down a text. An active reader will reluctantly put it down. A challenged reader all too often tosses it across the room.

What do active readers do?

Active readers…

      • engage with the characters and story. 
      • put clues together
      • ask questions and read on, searching for the answers
      • make hypotheses about what’s going to happen next
      • care about the characters
      • barrack for (cheer on) the characters
      • wonder about character(s) motivation
      • test everything that happens against what they already know

So, how do you make your readers active ones?


  • Conflict
  • Story
  • Characters
  • Writing techniques
  1. Conflict

    The core of your story is the conflict — the barrier to love, the source of tension — the reason they can’t have a nice straightforward happily-ever-after.

    For the reader to feel satisfied, the hero and heroine have to earn their happy ending. The more convincing and emotionally involving the barrier, the more satisfactory the happy ending.

    Really effective conflict involves powerful emotions and builds up gradually through the book until you bring the story to an emotional climax, having kept the readers on the edge of their seats.

  2. Story — you need a good story.

    Man meets woman and falls in love is not a story, it’s everyday life.

    Man falls in love with a woman who carries a secret which could destroy his love — and that has the makings of a story. eg movie Return to Me.

    Try telling half the story — does it have that “Well don’t stop now!” factor? If not, it’s not a good enough story.

  3. Characters

    Active readers will…

    * care about the characters

    * barrack for the characters (cheer them on)

    weep for them, laugh with them, worry for them, feel for them.

    Important factors to consider…

    • a) Character appeal 

      Try to get your reader to care about the characters within the first few pages. How? Make her appealing. Get readers interested. Give them a stake in working out what makes her tick. 

      A common technique is to give her a problem, one which people can identify with, a problem which matters.

      * what does she want 

      * why can’t she have it

      Work out what do you find appealing in a heroine. What’s not appealing?

    • b) complexity + consistency + paradox = intrigue

      Example of real conversation overheard:

      “Where’s the air coming from?”

      “Are you cold? Do you want the window closed?”

      “No, I just need to know where the way out is.”

      This makes you wonder — what does this person fear? Why?

      Characters are often a little larger than life. They are bolder, more tragic, and have more things happen to them. 

      Give them a crisis, choices, flaws, multi-dimensional personalities.

      »»»» Exercise (1) — see end of notes

    • c) Motivation, conflict, story-telling and emotion.

      I think what a lot of people do — and it doesn’t work — is work out really terrific conflicts and motivations and then treat them as explanations.

      Eg The heroine does X , which goes against all her interests, because Y happened to her when she was a child.

      We can understand why she does X — but it doesn’t hit us in the gut.

      An explanation doesn’t make us weep, no matter how well thought out and cleverly detailed. It doesn’t generate emotion.

  4. Writing techniques
    • Show don’t tell Tell someone what to think and they raise an immediate barrier.

      eg That man is a cruel, callous brute.

      If you tell people that, they will wonder if you are right, or whether you are being fair to the man in question. A whole lot of barriers can be raised when you tell people what to think. At best their reaction will probably be luke warm. 

      If you show readers a series of scenes or actions, get them to put the picture together and let them decide the significance, they have a stake in the outcome.

      Like having a bet on a horse. You start to barrack. And that means there’s emotion.

      Show the man being a brute well enough and readers will hate him.

      And emotional involvement with the character is active reading.

    • Make your characters’ actions count.

      Even small actions can carry weight, emotional significance, intrigue:

      Example: which of these carry the most emotional weight. Why?

      1) Staring at her, he put down his glass.

      2) He glared at her and put down the glass with something of a snap.

      3) Without taking his eyes off her, he set his glass very carefully, very quietly on the placemat, dead centre.

    • Structure and pacing — Beginnings, middles and ends

      Open a scene or chapter with a hook… and end it with a cliff-hanger.

      • Beginnings (i)

        For active readership, the first page needs to:

        – raise questions. The questions need to carry a sense of urgency or resonance, a sense of repercussions — so they have weight. 

        – try to get the reader to identify with the character

        – toss you into the story

        »»»» Exercise (2) Opening lines – see end of notes

      • Middles (ii)

        Set up intrigues throughout your story

        What central question in each scene/chapter/story will make the audience want to read on?

        The question must be important, have strong consequences (either way – positive or negative), have emotional consequences.

        If the scene causes change in the character(s) or situation, the question changes too. Try to ensure there are small intrigues along the way

        »»»» Exercise (3) small intrigues – see end of notes

      • Chapter endings: what happens next (iii)

        — the cliff hanger: ends on a question, where you can’t wait to find out what happens next. 

        tossing the gauntlet: a challenge of some sort 

        the bombshell: the surprise ending, which changes everything.

        Exercise: go through a page-turning book you loved and look at chapter endings. List ways in which the writer made the reader want to read on.

    • Purposeful scenes

      Are you writing white noise?

      I’ve often read chapters and scenes which are very well written and in which there’s a lot of stuff being done and said — lots of sparky dialogue and plenty of interesting action.

      But there’s nothing happening. And if there’s nothing happening, the reader loses interest.

      What do I mean? If there’s sparky dialogue and interesting action how can there be nothing happening?

      — Nothing at stake or no raising of the stakes

      — Nothing has been risked

      — No central question that matters to the final outcome of the book.

      — No character challenge being met or made.

      — No new information that matters

      — No threat to the status quo (or the relationship)

      — No intrigue — especially about the relationship — to urge the reader on

      — No what’s-going-to-happen-next factor

      — No change in a character or situation

      — No new ingredient added to the pot

      — No problem revealed that matters to the final outcome of the book

      There’s plenty of stuff done and said , but nothing of significance.

      It’s mostly white noise.

      There is no white noise in fiction — everything is (or should be) significant. And in romance, it should relate in some way to the central question, can these two people overcome obstacles and barriers to forge a happy, loving relationship.


Exercise (1) Building intrigue through actions which resonate with questions and possibilities.

Example: The heroine is arranging flowers in a room full of people talking and laughing. There is a sudden hush. She looks up and finds everyone staring at her. They are also looking at someone behind her. She turns, sees the hero… and…

a) returns to her flower arranging, perhaps hurriedly, or a little clumsily , perhaps with slow deliberate care. 

b) she jams the rest of the flowers in the vase any old how and hurries from the room, pushing through the crowd.

OK — she leaves the flowers as they are (drops them?), walks slowly towards him and… 

— slaps his face? 

— kisses him? 

— walks straight past him? 

— greets him calmly and walks on by?

— walks up to another man standing next to the hero and kisses him passionately, ignoring the hero?

See how the action can create a powerful impact, with no dialogue or explanation or inner “oh my god it’s him — the man whose secret baby I had! Whatever shall I do? He’s come to steal my child and my home and foreclose on my business!”

It’s hooked in the reader because they can see there’s a problem, a history, And that it matters. 

Exercise (2): Opening lines

* Choose one of the following opening lines and jot down the questions raised in your mind.

* List some other effects of these lines

  • “Allie McGuffey knew a yuppie bar was a lousy place to find a hero, but she was desperate.”
  • “There was a naked man pounding on Maggie Winthrop’s back door.”
  • “Sapphire Cove, Australia, was definitely the loveliest place in the world for a honeymoon. Pity about the bride.”
  • “Promise!’ The dying man grabbed her arm in a hard-fingered grip. “Promise me, damn you, girl!”
  • “Out of money, out of luck, alone and frightened, the girl known as Evening Star did the only thing she could think of to stay at the saloon’s poker table. She bet herself.”
  • “Be sure he drinks the wine before he gets your clothes off.”

Sources: listed at bottom of the page

Exercise (3): Planting small intrigues

So let’s play with some common actions to see how we can build in intrigue.

Brainstorming — A woman arrives in town…

— who is she?

— how does she arrive?

— what’s she carrying?

— what’s she wearing?

— she has some other item with her — what is it?

Compare notes with your neighbours. Which possibilities have the best potential? Why?

Copyright © 2002 Anne Gracie


Sources of first lines:

a) – Jennifer Crusie Charlie All Night

b) – Suzanne Brockmann – Time Enough for Love

c) – Marion Lennox – Hijacked Honeymoon

d) Anne Gracie – An Honorable Thief

e) – Elizabeth Lowell – Only You

f) Madeleine Hunter – Lord of a Thousand Nights