Wednesday, July 30, 2014

5 Ways to Engage Readers...with Style

I recently read The Book of Jon. It's a short memoir by Eleni Sikelianos, about 100 pages long. Took me maybe....three hours to read.

No, not even that.

If you have the time, I highly suggest you give it a shot.

It's not your typical "novel." It's a memoir. But the style is still so much different from any memoir I've ever seen, and adds to the reason why it was such a quick read.

The paragraphs are broken. There are poems. Flashbacks. Listed, one-paragraph stories.

It taught me something about engaging the reader, and I went through some other books to see what sorts of styles were used. More often than not, any books told in the 3rd-person had longer formats, and books told in 1st-person had shorter formats. What's going on?

The authors (and publishers and editors and anyone else involved in the science of books) fit the paragraph sizes and formats to match the flow of the story. There is a system to this. And now I'll give tips to show you how to move your own stories along at any pace you want.

5 Ways to Engage Readers Using Style


It's simple. Our eyes and brains work alternately when it comes to reading. Your eyes, believe it or not, tend to stay 3-4 words ahead of what you are reading....unless you consciously stop and force yourself to read slower. When you're immersed in a book, this has been found to be the average.

So if you want to slow people down, don't give them something that they can easily jump through. Throw in that ten-sentence paragraph. Take some time with detail. What you want to do is show observation here. Pick things apart and describe the situation, or the surroundings, or a person. Something. Anything. As long as it moves the story forward, characterizes, or puts things into perspective.


So you've reached your action scene and you want to show the action as it happens, yet keep it exciting. (In my story, there are a few instances where I have to show my MC's thought process when he gets anxious. Same thing.) The best way to start this is to use an engaging format that is easy to follow yet details the situation...thanks to how fast the pace is.

Chop up the story. Make short sentences. Boom. Crash!

Keep paragraphs short, yet concise.

If you find you need to slow down the pace, you can throw in a long sentence. Maybe add another to give emphasis to what is going on and let the reader recuperate and organize what is going on in his head. But once you think enough is enough...

Get right back to it. Make it exciting again.

Show the action. Put them in the fray. Show the erratic thoughts.



Trust me, it will speed up the pace. Give it a try. You'll see just how much different styles can affect the story.


Put the reader in your characters' heads. If you're writing in 1st-person, you probably already do this. But make more of what you have. Try to show how a character feels. How they react. How nervous or excited or sad or angry they get.

Use specific thought patterns to drive the point. If they are nervous, use erratic styles (like the example above). If they are sad/mellow/sentimental, slow the pace down and stuff their thoughts into one or two big paragraphs. If they are angry, use medium length sentences in paragraphs that are 2-4 sentences long. Different styles evoke different moods, so show what you can with more than words.


If you have an angry character, yelling and screaming is an obnoxious way to show that, unless you really think they'd be yelling and screaming and there is no other option.

Try short words. One-syllable...maybe two. Words that convey tone through sound. Sound can change flow and mood.

Now go back and reread that last sentence. I bet you didn't have a happy, higher-pitched voice in your head like you might right now. You probably read it with a voice reminiscent of Professor Snape. Try reading it faster and happier. Awkward, huh? And this whole paragraph so far, you've had a loopy voice going through your head like the ever-flamboyant Gilderoy Lockhart. (If you don't get the references...that's okay....I guess.)

What I'm trying to say is I chose specific words to use in specific styles. When I wanted a monotone...tone?....I used negative sounds and shorter words as compared to when I wanted a "faster" read, even though the paragraph was longer. See? Switch things up. There are infinite possibilities.


Don't go throwing around commas and periods and semicolons and colons and ampersands and exclamation points and question marks and en-dashes and em-dashes and ellipses without a battle plan.

Throw them in strategically.

In case you're wondering, an en-dash is ONE dash (-) and denotes a break in a thought that will be continued (usually on the same line), or conjunction of words, like "light-year." en-dash is a HYPHEN. An em-dash is TWO hyphens (--) and denotes a break in thought that will NOT be continued. (This is the basic rule to follow, especially in thought patterns.)

Use periods ( . ) and commas ( , ) and semicolons ( ; ) to slow down pace (I hate semicolons though).

Use ampersands ( & ) at your own discretion. Try to keep it in business/band/product names (Johnson & Johnson), and that's it.

Exclamation points ( ! ) should only be used when necessary, like, when your life truly depends on them. Use the correct language patterns (discussed above and in another one of my posts) and you won't need that pesky point.

Question marks ( ? ) ask questions. But try not to ask too many questions. Sometimes a period will fit, because you might actually be asking a rhetorical question. Check it again and figure it out.

Ellipses ( ... ) denote pauses in thought or speech and are a good tool when you want to drag out a point or let something sink in...especially in dialogue and thought.

That's what I've got to say on the specific use of paragraph, sentence, word, and punctuation styles. Experiment with them whenever possible. You'll find that there truly are an infinite number of ways to use them together and create the mood and pace that you want to convey, which greatly enhances the reader's experience.

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  1. This is great! On the subject of style, I'm currently reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Its writing and presentation style is different from any other book I've read and has me intrigued. Have you read it?

    Your second point is spot on. Fast events, such as fights, seem to happen slowly when written in long, especially detailed sentences. Most often, short and even abrupt sentences best convey action.

    Your fourth point is good too. I'll have to remember that tone and word choice/amount are as much an expression of mood as volume and body language.

    Thanks for another excellent post! I've enjoyed reading your blog and have tucked away all sorts of tidbits! Keep it up!

    1. I've never read The Book Thief, but I have skimmed it in the past and know what you mean about it's style. Definitely different.

      Glad you enjoy the posts!