We’ve all read stories that keep us enthralled the whole way through. The plot captivates us, and the characters tug at our hearts.

And then there are the stories that we easily put down after several pages or a couple of chapters. We don’t relate to or care about the characters, and the plot doesn’t hold our interest.

How do you write a story that keeps readers invested?

Girl reading on train platformPin

Photo by Mo Riza

I recently read a chapter of Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell that explained the key to mesmerizing your readers: portraying emotion in your characters.

What creates emotion? Desire and fear. Each of us experiences a deep range of emotions, motivated by our individual desires and fears, so reading about characters with the same nuances has the power to draw us in and make us feel.

Readers should never doubt what a character wants and what a character fears. If you show these two aspects in each scene, in each turn of events, your readers will keep reading.

Identify Desires and Fears

Often, desire and fear go hand-in-hand. A character wants something—a victory, a love interest, a promotion, a change—and fears it won’t happen or she will lose the very thing she wants.

When pinpointing desires and fears, it’s crucial to dig deep. Start with a general desire—love, security, peace, acceptance—and note the many ways that desire manifests itself in your character’s life. Then look at a general fear—death, rejection, failure—and consider the instances in which your character could encounter that fear.

Keep that primary desire and fear consistent, and don’t be afraid to put your character at risk. Force her to make difficult choices. Allow her to fail. A story is most interesting when a character will risk anything for what she wants—and when she must face her greatest fear in the process.

Express Strong Emotions

To make emotions authentic, recall and tap into your own feelings in various situations. Show (don’t tell!) a whole range of emotions within a character. But remember, in fiction, you have the freedom to raise the stakes and intensify emotion. Sometimes, it’s even necessary to take a fictional story beyond realistic parameters in order to make it interesting. After all, we often read to “escape” real life, right?

But whatever you do, please don’t leave your character alone in a room, crying and wallowing. Readers want to experience emotion through action and dialogue. Limit introspection to when it’s absolutely necessary. Experiment with never writing a single-character scene and see what happens.

As the story progresses, heighten the tension (it’s called rising action for a reason!). Nearing the climax, create a scenario in which it seems impossible for your character to get what he wants or to avoid his greatest fear.

A satisfying ending happens when a character fulfills his desire, but it can certainly be unpredictable or in a different way than he (or your readers) may have expected. Consider what kind of emotion you want to end with, what you want your readers to feel as they finish your truly captivating story.

What emotions are present in your writing? What does your character desire and fear the most?


Write for fifteen minutes. Use emotion to show your character’s deepest desire and greatest fear.

When you’re finished, please share your practice in the comments section. Be sure to read and give feedback on a few of the other comments as well.

Melissa Tydell is a freelance writer, content consultant, and blogger who enjoys sharing her love of the written word with others. You can connect with Melissa through her website, blog, or Twitter.

Share to...