Agent Jon Sternfeld On: Engaging Your Audience

Jon Sternfeld is an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.

Jon’s co-agent, Irene Goodman, offers manuscript critiques on eBay every month, starting on the first day of each month, with all proceeds going to charity. Click on the link for more details on these critiques and charity auctions.


Engage your audience:


While I’m not a writer, I feel like I’ve developed a firm grasp on why some novels work and some simply don’t. Often during critique sessions, I find myself going over a concept that I think applies well across the board of all genres: ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE.

What ‘engage’ means here, and it may come from my teaching days, is give your reader something to do. Readers are not passive vessels looking to be dragged somewhere and told a story. They’re looking to get involved in a storycaring about the protagonist, wrestling with any issues that the narrative brings up, and most importantly, guessing what happens. This is not just an issue with mysteries or thrillers but with all narratives. All genres are mysteries, in one way or another; don’t forget that.

A reader that is not doing anything is a bored reader. Not only should a reader never be ahead of the author, he/she should be engaged in a back and forth with the author. Readers want to take what is there on the page and extrapolate, use their imagination, draw conclusions, make assumptions. It’s why they’re reading a book and not watching a movie.

This issue goes down to the micro-level of prose as well. When every description is dumped into a paragraph or when every aspect of a character’s personality is explained, basically any time you’re telling and not showing, you’re giving your reader nothing to do. You want to leave a gap for a reader to get active. You want to be asking him or her to fill in the blanks and to infer things from what you’ve suggested. This is active reading and it’s how audiences stay engaged.

When writing or going over your writing, take notice and see if there are gaps for the reader to fill in. Ask yourself: am I asking my reader to work? If not, there’s a problem. Think of a game of hangman with all the letters but one filled in and you get the idea of what not to do. Reading is a cerebral and emotional experience and when an author respects his/her reader enough to engage both of these ideas, beautiful things can happen.

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3 thoughts on “Agent Jon Sternfeld On: Engaging Your Audience

  1. jack everett

    I enjoyed this piece it made me want to check over everything I had ever written to find things that the reader should be doing. Of course-in the main- it is too late now but it is something I will now keep in mind. Thanks Jon.

  2. Bill Schweigart

    Great post and great reinforcement of show vs. tell. Going through some of my old writing, I cringed in places where I not only did not show vs. tell, I showed AND told. Then I told you again. I loved your hangman reference. When NOT to write – purposely leaving some gaps to let the readers build that connective tissue – takes confidence, respects the reader, and shows true authorial authority.

  3. Stephen Brayton

    Good post to remember for writing stories. Another tip would be while engaging, don’t treat your reader as ignorant. I had 4000 words cut out of my story because they weren’t needed because the reader already knew what I was trying to over explain.


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