I can't count the number of times I have been encouraged to 'engage the reader.' It's one of those cultured pearls of wisdom that's passed around Writing Groups so often it has lost all relevant meaning . . . worn so shiny it's actually become dull. So let's churn up the waters, huh?
I don't want to engage my reader, or date my reader, or woo my reader's mother, either.
I write to play with my reader. That's right. Cat and mouse. I want to lead my reader on a breathless chase. I want to tag my readers 'It' on the first page, then dart and dance around just beyond arm's reach. I want to taunt and tantalize . . . while always staying one step ahead. You can engage your readers if you want to, but I'd rather enrage them. Tease them. With cunning maneuvers. Sharp turns. Unexpected diversions. We're the writers, right? We set the terms of engagement.
And I want my readers to know they're being toyed with. I want to keep them alert and wary . . . even uncomfortable. Most of all, I don't want them falling asleep. Not on my watch. A book on a nightstand has all the literary value of a coaster on a coffee table. Try arguing with that!
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the use of unnecessary or arcane plot gymnastics, or cheap parlor tricks, or page after page of nail-bitten cliff hangers. No. I'm just talking about staying on your toes, writers. Yeah. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Be fleet, Ali. Be nimble, Jack. Be quick. And don't be afraid to jump over a candlestick, either. Veer. Juke. Jive. Use all your skills to tease your readers into flipping them flippin' pages. We're not in the snooze business, are we? When we do it right, we're in the sleep deprivation business. And if you get lazy, even for an instant, your reader will get sleepy. So lift that bale. Turn that phrase. Force them peepers to stay propped open. If you must 'engage' your readers, engage them in a fevered chase to find out what happens next, and in what unexpected way you're going to phrase it. Be the fox, and the hounds will chase.
People, we writers are the anti-HBO. We represent the cranial-multiplex. The problem is, we write words that don't move--so we damned well better write moving words. Ah, you're getting it now. Moving. You have to keep things moving. And not just your plot. Not just your pace, either. You need to move your readers. Make them chase you across the pages. Sometimes that means you have to let them get close. Tantalizingly close. Throw the dogs a bone, eh? Convince them they've got you treed. Then pull a nifty switch, and leave them baying at the moon. They'll hate you for it. But they'll give you credit, too. And they won't give up. They can't give up. They're invested now. It's personal now. Leave a clear trail. Because they've earned it. And they will follow you.
Okay, by now you know I'm just playing with semantics. You've figured out I've just used different words for 'engage your reader'. You're pretty slick, aren't you? But I got you to chase me, right?
Writer Jenny Harp is a New Zealander grandmother who lives in the United States with her husband and loves God, life and family.