How to Know Which Parts of Your Story Readers Will Like Best (It Isn’t Always What You Think)

You want readers to like your story. You want to give them something to love on every single page. But it’s so much easier said than done. How can you know—really know—which parts of your story readers will like and which will have them yawning and skipping ahead?

So many stories, in all mediums, hit the market with blazing optimism from their creators. Audiences are going to love this! We’ve checked all the boxes!! We’re so excited to share something we’re so sure is going to make you so happy!!!

The optimism isn’t always well-founded. Just watch behind-the-scenes interviews on would-be blockbusters, which were intended as the first in a series only to fall flat at the box office and never be heard from again. Beforehand, directors, producers, and actors might have gushed about how certain they were audiences would geek out over their choices for the film—only to have their enthusiasm met with a big green splat on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly, they misjudged those parts of the story they thought audiences would particularly like.

Novels don’t usually dive-bomb so obviously or spectacularly, but I can certainly think of a few sequels that failed to live up to their glorious predecessors. Mostly, this is because the authors made clunker decisions that, pretty obviously, were intended to be just the opposite.

So what are you to do? Maybe throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and hope enough sticks to keep readers happy? Or maybe just write the blithering book to the best of your ability and hope it all works out for the best?

Naturally, the latter option is the way to go. But it doesn’t have to be a blind path into the unknown. There are ways to figure out which parts of a story are mostly likely to entertain readers and which are not. And the key words here are “most likely,” because if there’s one thing you can be sure of in this business, it’s that art is subjective.

6 Ways to Figure Out Which Parts of Your Story Readers Will Like Best

Subconsciously, readers are going to judge every single one of your scenes and file each in one of three categories:

  • Entertaining
  • Tolerable
  • Boring

Very few stories manage the brilliance necessary to land every single scene in the Entertaining Category. The good news is that you can still create a story readers like even with a handful of Tolerable scenes and maybe even a (very) small percentage of Boring scenes.

The bad news is that the higher your Tolerable count rises, the more the book as a whole will lean toward Boring. Even if readers finish it, they’re not likely to remember it. And, of course, if the count on the Boring scenes crosses a certain invisible threshold (which is a little different for every reader or viewer), the story is bye-bye.

You can perform a rather sobering exercise by listing all your scenes and ruthlessly judging which falls into which category. Every scene that ends up in the Tolerable or Boring Categories needs some help.

And how do you help them? Here are six ways to judge whether a scene contains the stuff readers love—or the stuff they actually don’t.

1. The Best Part of Your Story Is… Your Characters

So I admit this post is kinda inspired by Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which left me pretty meh. It’s not totally a fair example, since the film is exactly what it’s intended to be. But for my money it could have been a lot better. It just needed more of its characters—especially its most interesting characters.

Elle was fine, Pfeiffer showed admirable dental work in chewing through the scenery. But is this Maleficent’s show or not? Like so many stories these days, the protagonist appeared in a scant percentage of the actual running time. (I find it a little ironic that in a film supposed to be about the original villain of the Sleeping Beauty story, most of the story and screentime went to the new villain.) The only scenes in the movie I would chuck squarely into the Entertaining bucket were the few moments early on when Maleficent’s sidekick coached her in smiling and then later when Maleficent grudgingly tried to charm the future in-laws. After that… not too much interesting character work going on.

The movie falls into one of the most common pitfalls I see in stories that try really hard to be Entertaining without quite making it: it splits up it’s most interesting characters. For roughly 60% of the story, Maleficent doesn’t interact with any characters except the Dark Fey—whom she mostly just observes. When [SPOILER] the guy she did talk to dies, however crucially, the relationship feels barely developed, almost meaningless, especially in comparison to the preexisting characters back home with whom she could have interacted with so much more entertainment value. [END SPOILER]

This is the single most important trick for genuinely entertaining readers.

1.  You have to write great characters—people with whom the audience will emotionally invest and who will then act with genuine spontaneity and organic energy.

2. You’ve got to put all your best characters in the same room. One awesome character monologuing to a bunch of redshirts (or, worse, musing in solitude) is never going to deliver the same amount of goods as two (or more!) awesome characters impacting each other’s plot progressions.

3. Don’t skimp on the character interaction just to squeeze in other stuff. Other stuff is important. But it is not—it is never—as important as character development.

2. The Best Part of Your Story Isn’t (Necessarily) Genre Beats

Usually, the stories that try really hard to please readers only to fail are those that place too much faith in the importance of genre beats.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Genre beats are important and can be wildly entertaining. Romance readers want the kiss. Superhero fans want the Big Boss battle in the end. Paying nothing but lip service to important genre tropes can make it seem as if you’re phoning in the entire story. But overdoing them, especially at the expense of developing other aspects of the story (*cough*characters*cough*), can create an ironically flat experience even for die-hard fans of the genre.

To my eye, there seems to be a lot of confusion about exactly what to do with genre beats these days. Writers know readers have seen certain beats so often, they’ve become clichéd. So they go meta on the clichés by pointing them out (but, don’t miss, still including them). A super-obvious example is calling out the villain monologue. The subversion of the trope felt fresh and funny when Syndrome did it back in 2004, but not so much anymore.

Truly, the only way to hit genre beats in a deeply satisfying and entertaining way is to go old-fashioned—do it how it was done in the very beginning, back before a particular beat ever became something so obvious as a beat, much less a trope. And what is this old-fashioned way? Write it organically into your story. Make it a crucial and emotionally-important part of the plot-character-theme trifecta. If you can’t be fresh (and, please, be fresh), then at least be so honest with your story that it hurts.

3. The Best Part of Your Story Is That Sweet Spot Between What Readers Have Seen Before and What They Haven’t

What are genre beats? For that matter, what’s plot structure and character arc? Although many writers initially see these beats as something to be arbitrarily added to a story (the “secret sauce,” if you will), these beats are instead an emergent of time-tested archetypal patterns. “Genre beats” are a thing not because readers “like” them, but because readers resonate with them.

Understanding story theory and studying the archetypal patterns in narrative will give you a foundation for writing a type of story that will reliably grab people’s hearts. But as any reader or viewer will immediately tell you, this does not mean they want to see the same thing over and over.

Genre fatigue happens when the same storyform is being told too often in the same way. In a romance, we want to see the leads end up together. But that doesn’t mean we want the 100th rendition of Marry Christmas: A Holiday Happily Ever After. People fall in love every day. It’s the same archetypal story. But to those involved in it, each story is brand new and deeply important—and deserves to be told with honesty and freshness. Hit your genre beats, but do it in a way that is integral to the story you’re trying to tell (a story no one’s ever told before, right?) and with the truth of your own unique experience.

4. The Best Part of Your Story Is (and Isn’t) What You Like Best

Until your story is out there for readers to irrevocably judge (aka, until it’s too late), the only person who can give you a line on whether your story has enough of the “good stuff” is… you.

You know you’re on the right track with any scene you emotionally or viscerally respond to. You know you’re on the right track if you’re writing the kind of scene you would get on your knees and beg your favorite author or director to make for you. (And, note, this doesn’t just mean ripping off the scenes you went nuts over in somebody else’s story.) What’s your favorite scene in your story so far? That scene might well be the most entertaining scene in your whole book (and if it’s not, it should be).

Be careful, however, to distinguish between the scenes you love because they hit you in the gut and the scenes you love just because you think they’re really, really clever. If you’re realistically acknowledging that you skillfully executed a scene, that’s one thing. But if you’re geeking out because you’re just sure readers will bow to your genius, you might want to double-check your objectivity.

5. The Best Part of Your Story Isn’t the Part That Doesn’t Work

Spoiler alert: if the writing’s bad in any given scene, that’s probably not going to be the scene your readers fall in love with.

In short, as G.R.R. Martin has told us (in a way that seems kinda prescient now):

Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.

Funny characters, shiny plot beats, and original ideas won’t save a story that doesn’t come together holistically. Here’s a very short, very incomplete list of the mistakes that can blind readers to even your most entertaining scenes:

  • Plot holes (“It was fun, but… it made. no. sense.”)
  • Authorial condescension (“Yes, yes, the overdone symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue made the thematic message so much more powerful.”)
  • Authorial self-indulgence (“Ten chapters of worldbuilding. There must be a test at the end of the book. There’s a test, isn’t there?”)
  • Wasted time (“We get it. She’s training. Again.”)
  • Boring info (“Ah, my old friend—backstory info dump. What would we ever do without you?”)

6. The Best Part of Your Story Is the Foreshadowing

This one almost is a secret sauce. This is because foreshadowing is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s bag for evoking emotion.

Yep, you heard right.

Foreshadowing, done right, can knock your book out of the park. And I guarantee you’ve got some missed opportunities waiting for you in your story right now. I say this because I see these missed opportunities all the time in published stories.

The key is to remember there are two halves to proper foreshadowing: the setup and the payoff.

It goes without saying that if you pique reader curiosity by setting up a big juicy clue early on, then you must pay that off later in the story. Otherwise, it’s one of those plot holes we took issue with in the previous section.

Most writers know this and are careful to payoff early clues. What is easier to overlook is the opportunity presented by any big event in your story’s second half—especially the Climax. And I do mean anything. Even the smallest reveal or plot turn deep in the story can be transformed into an emotionally resonant moment by planting a little foreshadowing early on (don’t believe me? go watch Endgame again).

Avengers Endgame Captain America Mjolnir

Examine every scene in the second half of your story and make a list of any and all revelations and plot turns. Can you create foreshadowing opportunities for at least some of these early on? Callbacks such as these create the effect of depth, meaning, and thematic resonance (plus, it makes it look like you really know what you’re doing). Skillful foreshadowing has the ability to take a Tolerable scene (even a Boring one, in a few cases) and transform it into an Entertaining and even unforgettable moment in your story.

***

Ultimately, the parts of your story readers will like best are probably the parts that made you want to write the story in the first place. Look for those scenes, figure out why they are so personally powerful to you, then leverage them for all they’re worth. Readers won’t be able to look away, and they’ll close your book happily wishing you’d given them more of everything rather than grumpily wishing you’d just given them more of the good stuff.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think are the parts of your story readers will like best? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Another great piece, part checklist and part inspiration.

    Glad to see Syndrome in there. In the original Incredibles plan, he was only the traditional villain’s sidekick, but they realize (in the several *years* testing that makes a Pixar film great) that it would be more fun to make him the actual archvillain. A classic example of finding what does work and replacing the less inspired parts with it (and still getting in the genre beats, of course).

  2. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    Thank you again for your insight on what works and what doesn’t work in storytelling.

    It looks like I’m going to have to look at my foreshadowing scenes again to see if they have any emotional impact and if indeed they foreshadow anything.

    A question comes to my mind. Guy Gavriel Kay (one my favorite authors) has a habit of doing something dastardly to a minor character. The event turns out to be gut wrenching. Do Mr. Kay foreshadow?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t read his work, so can’t comment specifically. If you’re asking whether the expectation that he *always* kills a character is foreshadowing, I’d say no. It’s more just a pattern.

  3. Casandra Merritt says

    Do you think there are different kinds of foreshadowing? I mean, the difference between the kind of hint that when readers come across it, they are alerted that something is coming, and the other kind of hint that they don’t even notice, and seems to be only a setup so that some future event makes sense.

  4. Gary Myers says

    Your first and last points really resonated with me. I can literally feel, deep in my gut, when my two main characters are interacting best. It’s exciting and I know one of the goals has to be to convey this feeling to my readers.

    Regarding foreshadowing, I feel that the most important task during the revision of the first draft of my WIP has to be to get the climax right. Having played with the plot, characters, and theme while writing the first draft, it’s time to make sure it’s all pulled together with the right climax. Otherwise, how do you know what to foreshadow? And a later tweak to the climax could negate so much work that, while it may be good on its own, doesn’t support the climax as well as it could.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although it’s amazing how much foreshadowing can fall in place intuitively even before the author himself knows what’s going to happen, I definitely agree that knowing the ending allows for a much more conscious and purposeful use of foreshadowing throughout the story’s structure.

  5. KM, another great post. I so appreciate the way you break out crucial pieces of the writing craft. Thank you.

  6. This post gives me the next step in the revision of my WIP. I’ve been working on character interactions in my first act (as you discussed in your first point). And because of that focus on character development through interactions, I’ve even written a new scene where I literally do bring all the main characters into the room — looking for ways they reveal themselves as well as conceal themselves. I’ve done this with the end in mind, thinking about the foreshadowing I can create. Your idea of looking at the third act for moments that might benefit from foreshadowing has inspired me to do just that. See if I can find those “missed opportunities.” Thank you for the idea.

    (I’ve also had my early readers give me “points of curiosity,” those things they wonder about as they read early chapters. I’ve found their insight most helpful in seeing moments I set up early, that I actually addressed later, or that I fail to address. And sometimes I find out that I am a bit too much “on the nose.”)

    I appreciate your posts and look forward to reading them every Monday morning. I always come away with either great tools for working on my stories and/or with encouragement that I’m on the right track.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Points of curiosity” is a great term and a great way to mine missed opportunities in later drafts.

  7. Another great post. I always get something useful and inspiring from what you present. I wonder if you can go back and put in plot beats. I seem (hope) to have done them unconsciously, having finished the novel before I knew about plot beats. Is it possible to have picked up the rhythm of plot beats from being an avid reader???

  8. Excellent concrete advice. I get so much from reading your posts.
    I can see my next story improving by maximizing character interaction and foreshadowing.
    Thanks, K. M!

  9. Foreshadowing = Chekhov’s gun. If you hang a listol on the wall in the first act it should be fired in the second.

  10. Good article! I often notice many of problems, you mentioned here, in current movies. I always thought, that this focus on checking boxes to please different groups of viewers is the wrong way, that the filmmakers (and screenwriters especially) must focus on story and characters, on creating of emotional response in viewer’s heart. But many people (including so-called critics) says about bad pace, bad editing, bad actors play, etc, when the problem is so obvious – story! It must be sincere, must emanate from us, must inspire us ourselves. Even breathtaking details emerges by themselves, if we are inspired, while writing it. Good story always hits all the boxes in organical way. Now I don’t doubt in it and have an authoritative source to cite, when arguing with some of the “critics”. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So totally agree. We hear the following so often, it’s almost a cliche. But it’s so true nonetheless: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

  11. How do you feel about nature playing an opposing character in scenes? True we don’t find it exciting unless a character is interacting with others but he or she can interact with a storm, blizzard, mountain etc. Kaye

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Certainly there are examples in which nature can be an interesting opponent. But it’s comparatively really hard to pull off. Facing off against a silent wilderness is rarely as entertaining as facing off against a faceted human being.

  12. I love foreshadowing, and this post has inspired me to examine places where I can use it. Another thing that resonated with me is the “truth of your own unique experience.” We all know there is nothing new under the sun, and while what we (& our characters) experience may not be unique, why we experience it may be something fresh & interesting for readers. There are parts of my story that I don’t like at all because they feel expected and way too familiar (tired), so now I’m seeking that sweet spot. Thanks for this insightful post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of my main rules of thumb for judging my fiction is based on asking whether or not I’m bored or excited by any particular scene. If I’m not enthusiastic about it, I know I should rework it. Or I should say, I *get* to rework it–because it’s always fun to push for a more entertaining alternative. Basically, I’m giving myself an implicit promise that I never have to write anything that bores me.

  13. You saved the best for last with the tips about foreshadowing. I will keep that in mind.

    People have told me my dialogue is too “on the nose” but I am not sure how to fix that–I welcome any tips.

  14. Love ALL of this, and SO agree with the aspect of foreshadowing…that and at least one BIG red herring 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, red herrings are great for mixing things up and keeping even the foreshadowing from seeming too on-the-nose.

  15. Peggy Jayne says

    Dear K M…You are so GOOD! Thank you. thank you, thank you…

  16. Katie,

    Great post.

    I’m always wondering how to write scenes so this was really helpful. I echo what you said about subconsciously judging every scene into entertaining, tolerable, or flat out boring. There’s a certain thriller author I read that falls into the “Tolerable” category. The plotting is extensive and is partly the reason I keep reading his books, but it’s tolerable at best, and sometimes downright boring. Not sure why I keep reading it though. Perhaps because it’s an internationally bestselling series and I’m secretly hoping it’ll get better. The plotting is good but it’s also part of the problem. Too. Many. Details. Not enough character, and no hint of a character arc.

    I get what you’re saying about genre beats but still writing a good story with foreshadowing, etc. I LOVE when the foreshadowing pays off in the end! Even better if it’s sprinkled throughout the book. Definitely resonates tenfold if done well. Movies, TV, or novels. I’m sure this is easier said than done since I’m still learning how to write, lol. But it’s also what I love most about writers in general.

    1. Seeing the imagination and remarkable creativity of writers.
    2. The challenge to be creative.

    Love what you referenced about George R.R. Martin about ideas and execution. Someone could take a completely boring or cliched idea and make it into a blockbuster because of their execution. Like, wow! Wish I had thought of that.

    Taking a masterclass by Dan Brown who also points out promising the reader certain things and paying them off often and early.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Another useful exercise is to consider some of your favorite stories. There’s a good chance that one of the reasons they’re favorites is that so many of their scenes are Entertaining. You can then go back and examine what these stories did that made all of their scenes (even the work-a-day ones) so fun to experience over and over again.

  17. The work that taught me how foreshadowing can resonate like a tuning fork, creating just the right pitch for the entire work, is John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” They set the tone for everything that is to come, including the ending, without telegraphing anything at all. It is only in hindsight that the reader can go back to those paragraphs and realize that the author told us almost everything upfront. We just didn’t have the “eyes to see” upon the first reading.

    It is my opinion that those first three paragraphs have more foreshadowing in them than the reader originally realizes, because it is hidden within the characterization. It is veiled instead of obvious foreshadowing (like Chekov’s gun) and makes the reveals feel more authentic than contrived because they developed out of the character(s), rather than the author.

  18. What part do I think the reader’s like most? The last sentence, the final words that tie the whole thing together, like the last words in a closing statement before the jury deliberates. I want that sense of wonder that what I promised in the first page I delivered fully and conclusively. I want the reader to get the the entire subtext, theme, and message of the book, and be left speechless with no way to identify a part of the book they liked best. I want the reader to have a completed puzzle, with no thought of finding their favorite piece.

    Of course, that make writing in a series more difficult…

    My books tend to bookend with comments on theme or premise. So, “When the Wood Is Dry” starts with, “Lali loves to spin,” and ends with, “And Lali remembered, even when she was just a little girl, how she had always loved to spin.” So, now you have to read the book to figure out what the spinning is all about.

    Something similar happens in “Merry Friggin’ Christmas,” but it is more of a spoiler to deal with it specifically, so I won’t.

    In bookending the first with the last, you underscore the foreshadowing and remind the reader that you told them the big picture from the beginning, and filled in what you meant that seemed mysterious in the beginning.

    I want the last words remembered, so I write them last. Kind of like in the World According to Garp, when Garp says, “No matter what my f—— last words were, please say they were these: ‘I have always known that the pursuit of excellence is a lethal habit.”

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