Giving Readers a Stake in Your Story

jockeyI don’t like stories about gambling. They set my teeth on edge because of the inevitable slough of despair the character falls into when the addiction gets the better of him. Despite that, Let It Ride is one of my favorite movies, probably because although the story takes place as Hialeah amid the horse racing culture, it is not a movie about gambling. It’s the story of how the forces of the universe align to give Jay Trotter (Richard Dreyfuss) one perfect day, and how he had the courage to accept the gift.

My favorite lines are when Pam (Teri Garr) says, “I don’t know why people have to gamble. Why can’t they just watch the horses run?” Trotter responds, “Without gambling, there is no horse racing.”

I’m with Pam — someday I’d like to go to a racecourse and watch the horses run, but I can also see why there is no horseracing without gambling. First, there would be no income, and second, no one but those directly involved — racecourse owners, horse owners, trainers, and jockeys — would have any stake in the matter. Gambling gives anyone who has the price of a bet a stake in the outcome of the race.

This is similar to writing — if an author doesn’t give readers a stake in the outcome of the story, then there is no reason for anyone to read the book. Since there is no gamble when it comes to a book (well, except for the gamble of whether the reader will enjoy it or whether they will feel cheated for having wasted the money) the stake has to be an emotional one. For example, Kendra, the main character in Mickey Hoffman’s mystery, School of Lies, is a special education teacher in an inner city school. The book’s true-to-life atmosphere is appealing to anyone who enjoys mystery and mayhem, but it’s especially appealing to special education teachers. Special education teachers — or any teacher — who have been in similar schools and situations perhaps wish they could have said the same things or done the same things Kendra did, which gives them a stake in the outcome of her dilemma. Of course, anyone who ever went to high school would also have a stake in the story, if for no other reason than to see the truth of what they suspected — that much intrigue was going on behind the scenes.

For this same reason, a popular main character in many books is a mother juggling home life and career, which immediately gives a large section of the population a stake in the story. You see the same thing dozens of times a day in your sidebar ads — “mother in (the name of your city, which supposedly gives you an added stake in the matter) gets skinny”; “mother discovers secret to youthful skin”; “mother earns a fortune working at home.”

Your choice of characters and their predicament are not the only ways to give readers a stake in the outcome of your story. You can make readers a part of the story by giving your characters characteristics that people can identify. You make readers involved by stirring up their emotions. You show them what is happening instead of explaining every detail, and let their own reactions to the action become part of the story.

Giving people a stake in your story is not exactly the same thing as getting them to bet a bit of cash on a horse race, but getting them to pony up a bit of emotion while reading your story will give them greater winnings in the long run.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+