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Can't put that book down? How to hold a reader's attention from beginning to end

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

How do they do it? How do some people manage to write these unputdownable novels that have you reading long into the night?

The short answer is that it all comes down to feeling—how we feel and why we feel. To understand what happens when we read, we need to understand how our sensory system affects the way we feel at any given moment.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains that feelings are a core component of our internal appraisal system—a system geared towards surviving and thriving in the world. Feelings measure our experience of being in the world, and they measure our internal states as well. But, not all the messages about our internal experiences result in immediate action. Not everything we feel is brought to our awareness. Plus, our inner workings aren't always relatable to the moment at hand. Sometimes this is because we've suspended our attention to our environment momentarily, as happens when we read.

Say, for example, you're reading a story about a protagonist leaving an event late on a winter's night. You'll necessarily draw on aspects of personal experience (vicarious or actual) in imagining the scene. Let's imagine they meet a stranger who offers them a lift. If the description resonates with your bodily sense of what it is to meet another person for the first time, reading of the encounter might almost feel like you're there yourself.

This is because you have pieced together the described events using fragments of your own sensual experience of the world and, specifically, what has happened in the past when you met another person.

When we use aspects of personal experience to imagine a scene, we activate our appraisal system and it assesses these actions and how we feel about them. This two-part appraisal system, which measures feelings that arise in response to our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell), works with that part responsible for measuring the internal experience (called our interoceptive measures), the latter being engaged in anticipation of what we need to do. As we read, some words are triggering internal precursors to action. Suppose the character in the book you are reading licks her lips. In that case, your internal response will include much of the architecture behind the movement of lip-licking: you're almost ready to lick your lips, but you don't because it wasn't food or desire that caused the marshalling of your inner world.

Multiple fragments of experience are involved when we imagine an action or simply read a word that we associate with an action. Writing that activates our bodily comprehensions of words and their meanings has the potential to involve us in ways that go beyond intellectual processes. When this happens across a sequence of described events, reading becomes gripping, and the action feels intense and almost real because our brains are estimating the physical costs of such exertion, causing us to pay close attention to the action in order to make an accurate appraisal.

But, when we read, we are usually sitting comfortably. Our inner being may be getting mildly excited, challenged, ready to move or act somehow, but the external environment isn't asking much of us at all.

Damasio explains that our feelings keep us on track to surviving and thriving—we move towards things that feel good and away from what feels bad. Day by day, in mostly imperceptible ways, we sidestep trouble and keep on track by doing and being in ways that feel right in organic terms. Our body rewards us with a pleasurable feeling when we are on track and keeping ourselves safe in the world by understanding how to live in it organically. These feelings—good or bad—keep us alive and help us thrive.

When you close a book or briefly check in with yourself, a reckoning of sorts occurs. Your senses tell your body that everything is fine. Not much is happening. As your body makes the internal preparations to climb a mountain, chase a villain, make love, eat, dance, and talk to some really interesting people, your senses send the message to chill and relax because the physical action isn't actually called for.

In measuring the disparity between what you imagine and what you actually do as you read, your body's appraisal system records a saving in energy and a sense of efficiency is registered. This may seem like a false win, but, in fact, you have saved a ton of energy by having access to an experience without having to do it. When you take stock of all the things that can happen in a novel—well, that's a lot of effort imagined, and a lot of achievements gained, all while you're doing practically nothing.

Reading feels good because we are speedily and almost effortlessly resolving elevated levels of internally sourced feelings about anticipated energy needs, stimulated through our involvement in imagining the story. Our appraisal system, going back and forth between the information supplied by the senses and the anticipated energy needs as based on the imagined action, is telling us that we're doing well and to keep doing it. This isn't about whether we find the subject matter interesting or motivating, by the way. Interest goes to reading enjoyment, of course, but the feelings generated by our sympathetic involvement in a story account for a significant part of the pleasure to be found in reading.

What does this mean for writers? We already know the importance of including sensual descriptions in our narratives. This article explains why such strategies work. By becoming involved in imagining a story's events, reading engages processes that reward us for 'doing' a lot without actually expending the energy to do it. And the buzz of a job well done keeps us turning those pages, chasing these good vibes.

So, how do you write vivid, provocative sensual descriptions of action? I hear you ask. You begin by paying attention to your own sensory experiences. Slow down and take note of what it means to be a body, a living organism, experiencing the many simple and complex wonders of the world. As well as paying attention to your five senses, notice how you feel in your body when you're moving fast or slow, when you're tired, or bored, or agitated, when you're bloated or hungry, thirsty or drunk. And, what you haven't experienced, imagine. Find comparable sensual experiences and piece these together into something that sits with the described action—the feel of dirt under your fingernails may inform your protagonist's experience of climbing a rock face, for example. Notice these things and then bring them into the thick of the action. But don't overdo it. A little goes a long way.

Now that you know one of the whys and hows of a gripping read, you are on the way to making your writing unputdownable.


Armstrong, Paul B. Stories and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

Damasio, Antonio. The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Pantheon Books, New York, 2018.

Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Pan Books, 2018.

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