Get Your Reader to Pony Up
Convincing Your Audience to Go All In on Your Content
“A faint heart never filled a spade flush.”
I think of writing as something that a writer gives. It’s something you create and then put out into the world. You might charge money for it or you might give it away for free. Take Shelf Life, for example. I don’t make you look at ads, I don’t charge a subscription fee, and I don’t monetize recommendations by using affiliate links. I do like to get your email address for my mailing list, but even that is optional. Is Shelf Life, then, my gift to you?
Hi, I’m Shelf Life. (Hi Shelf Life!) I’m totally free, but I’m also not free at all. Every time I publish, I’m asking for something from you.
I’m asking you to make an investment of time, energy, consideration, and critical thought in the writing that I provide for your consumption. I’m asking you to spend your time reading what I wrote when you could use that time for doing anything else.
My brother and his friends, for instance, enjoy spending their time playing poker. They’ve moved their regular poker game to Discord due to the ongoing pandemic. I dislike gambling (not on principle, I just don’t enjoy it) and I’m bad at card games—especially those that require strategy and skill. However, I like being in their Discord because I enjoy their company and they post fun memes. I am Aaron Burr trying to be in the room where poker happens.
The thing about poker that makes it different from other casino games is that it’s a game of skill with elements of chance. Blackjack or baccarat, on the other hand, are games of chance with elements of skill. Thinking about poker, I realized that it’s a lot like writing. It’s a skill—one you can learn, build, hone—with some elements of chance that you can’t fully control. For instance, your audience.
And every time you put your writing product out there in the world, you’re asking your reader to place a bet on you. Their stake may be monetary, or it may be an investment of time and energy, or it could be both. Let’s look at some poker strategies for getting your reader to buy-in.
The buy-in is the cost to get into the game. To purchase some chips and sit down at the table. Before someone even starts reading your writing, they have to buy-in somehow. That might mean clicking to your website, or subscribing to your newsletter, or purchasing your book. This is the inciting action that puts your product in front of their eyes.
A lot of this is marketing and promotion, which aren’t my areas of expertise. But there are ways, in the writing itself, that you can encourage your audience to buy-in.
If your project has a headline, make every word count.
If your project has a table of contents, make sure those chapter titles are compelling.
If you’re selling a book, make sure your back-cover copy or description is excellent.
Have your elevator pitch polished and on the tip of your tongue to tell anyone who might be interested.
Deal the Cards
First things first. You’re the dealer of this story. You’ve got control of the deck. You’re playing against your entire audience at once.
The audience isn’t a monolith. The people who make up your readership are as variable as the possible configurations of a 52-card deck every time you shuffle it. Well, not quite. There are way more variants on a shuffled card deck than there are folks on Earth. But you catch my drift.
Before you start dealing, make sure you know what kind of game you’re playing. Is it a friendly house game at someone’s basement card table? Or a professional casino game or even a tournament? Playing a house game is kind of like writing Shelf Life. My investment is smaller than if I were writing a novel; the investment I’m asking from my reader is fairly small; and the stakes on both sides are pretty low. I’m not investing money into Shelf Life, and neither are you. If you’re trying to sell a book to a publisher, or publish it yourself, you’re playing a whole different game. The stakes are higher, the risk-to-reward ratio is different—and the house is going to take a rake.
In poker, the number of players at the table matters. It determines your strategy and moderates the strength of your hand. Your audience size and composition matter too, in the same way. Pocket threes in a heads-up game of poker is a solid hand, but you’ll need something more impressive if you’re playing against seven others. Ask yourself:
Who reads my writing? and
Who do I want to read my writing?
Maybe the audience reading right now is a small group of dedicated fans. If that’s your end goal, then you don’t need to take broad appeal into consideration. Pocket threes, in this case, if that’s what you have—it’s good enough. But what if you want to take your writing more public? Offer it to more people? Sell it to a publisher? You’re going to need a stronger hand, like pocket aces, to stand out among the competition.
This is a great time to take advantage of some beta readers or hire a professional for a manuscript evaluation. Assess the strength of your content in light of your goals and the outcome you want to achieve. Seek specific feedback to bring your content up to the level of quality and polish you need—and then take that feedback to heart and implement it.
Takeaway: Begin with the strongest hand you can make.
You’ve lured a reader to the table. They’ve bought in, they have chips in hand, and they’re thinking about playing a game with you. You need to get their ante, their initial investment in your reading, to move forward. How can you do that?
You don’t get a whole lot of chances to pitch your writing to a stranger. You’ve got to show them your value proposition right away if you want them to ante up and start reading. What’s a fair ante to ask for? Let’s say it’s 5 percent of whatever you wrote. Therefore, in today’s 2500ish-word Shelf Life, your ante was about 125 words. That’s how much content space I had to hook you so you’d go on to read the rest. In a 256-page novel, it’s fewer than 15 pages. That’s about how much of a novel I will read before deciding whether I’m into it. And if I’m not? I’m moving on to another book.
That’s not a lot of time to convince the reader to stay in the game. Here are a few ideas to make the most of your ante and get your reader to invest:
Assess the reading level of your writing. How challenging is the writing to read, and is that the correct amount of challenge for the audience you want?
Start your story’s action quickly. If your story has a slow pace, you might need an action-packed prologue to get the reader interested fast. Conversely, if you have a prologue that contains a lot of exposition or backstory—you might need to chuck it in the discard pile.
Lead with something strong. An interesting character, a snappy dialog exchange, or a really memorable first line. As you’re writing, keep track of the sentences and scenes that you’re particularly proud of—and see if you can put one of them right out in front.
Takeaway: Start strong and fast to hook your reader at their initial investment.
Raise the Stakes
In reading, like in poker, the reader can drop out of the game at any time. At any moment, they might decide the investment is getting too much for them and they don’t want to continue throwing more time at your content.
There’s two reasons people pay to stay in a hand of poker. The first reason is they want to win the pot. They’re paying for a chance to win. The other reason is they want to enjoy the game. If you don’t want to keep investing, you have to fold. If the game is fun, then a person will pay for the pleasure of playing the hand—even if they don’t think they’ll win. They’ll pay for a guarantee (the enjoyment of playing) and they’ll pay for a chance (to win the whole pot).
Your writing needs to keep the reader invested throughout. Even after they’ve contributed an ante, they might still give up. You need them to keep building upon the initial investment, sinking more of their time and energy into your work. Don’t let the middle of your story wander aimlessly. Having a strong ending won’t help you if the middle is too boring to get through and you lose your reader before the big finish. Readers want consistent enjoyment as they move through your text and they want a payoff at the end.
Keep your story moving forward. Keep the action rising, the stakes going up for your characters and your reader. Above all, don’t overplay your hand. Don’t promise something you’re not going to be able to deliver. Ever read a book where a bit of dialogue or brief action in the first third leads you to believe that the story was going to take an unexpected and surprising turn—but by the end it never happened? Don’t be that writer. There’s a place for red herrings, but don’t trick your reader into expecting more than you have to give them. Nobody enjoys disappointment. Remember—unless your audience bails on you, you’re going to have to show those cards.
Takeaway: Don’t let your story flag in the middle. Your reader can fold at any time and walk away.
Focus on the Flop
It’s time to put the community cards on the table: the flop, the turn, and the river. These are the cards that everybody at the table uses to make their best possible hand.
Whatever you reveal in the flop needs to excite your reader enough to complete their investment. This is the moment when you—as writer and dealer—go all in to persuade your reader to call your bet. Whatever plot foundation you’ve laid up till now, this is the time to flip the flop and bring that winning hand together for the audience. If you’ve given them an Ace and a Ten in the hole, now’s the time to turn over a King, a Queen, and a Jack.
How do you make sure your final product is a royal flush for the reader?
Don’t leave loose plot threads dangling. It’s fine to leave some open questions if there’s another installment coming but make sure you haven’t left anything untied. If there’s an open question, have a character call back to it toward the end of the book so your reader knows it’s not simply forgotten.
Make your surprise or twist impactful. You lead the reader down a road the whole book; the destination needs to be stellar. If you invite your audience to ask, over and over, what the deal is with an object or character that is more than they seem—for the love of dog make sure the reveal pays off in a satisfying way.
Deliver on the promises you made. Whatever you explicitly and implicitly offered throughout this journey, the reader needs to have it in hand by the end. Did you promise to teach them something? Then they better know it. Did you deliberately write an insufferable character? Make sure they either got their comeuppance or their redemption.
After the flop the dealer acts last, which is a huge opportunity for you. You get to see everyone else’s actions before you have to act. When someone has finished reading your writing, pay attention to their reaction. Their review, their comments—any feedback they’re willing to give you. It’s a great sign that they invested their time to read all the way to the end. Now you want to understand why they stayed till the end, and what they may have preferred to be different. Incorporate and iterate.
Takeaway: Prepare a satisfying payoff so your reader comes back for another hand.
You showed your hand. All the cards are on the table and visible. Your player stayed in the game till the bitter end. Now all you have to do is determine the winner. Who walks away from this hand with the pot?
In this scenario, the writer can win in the short-term if the reader invested anything and then folded. If you put writing out there for money and the reader paid for it, you won even if they didn’t read it. If you put your writing out there and the reader invested time to read some or all of it, you won. You got your ask. But a long-term win would be getting your reader through the whole text and leaving them wanting more. More of the same story or characters, or more of your writing in general. If the audience comes to the end of the hand wanting to put down chips to play again, then you succeeded.
The reader wins if they come away from the experience of reading your product feeling as though they are enriched beyond the cost of the investment they made. Whatever they paid for your writing, whatever time and energy they invested in reading it, they win if they get more than that out of it in terms of enjoyment or education. A story that kept them hooked from start to finish is the equivalent of an enjoyable evening of poker. Even if they didn’t take home the whole pot at the end of the night, they got enough of what they wanted out of the experience. But if they come away from the experience feeling like they hit the jackpot by reading your writing, then they’ve succeeded.
If the game ends with you gaining a new reader who will look forward to and consume your future writing; and with the reader finding a new favorite whose back catalog they will consume and whose future content they’ll eagerly await; then in reality you’re both walking away with the pot.
Takeaway: If your content is good and you successfully entice your reader to consume it, everybody wins.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the intricate game of poker and the complicated craft of writing. This is a topic with a lot to give on all the ways to use poker strategies to get your reader to double down. I'm just kidding! I know that’s blackjack! If you can think of some other poker strategies that might be valuable for writers, please drop them in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
TL;DR: If you want to keep your reader at the table hand after hand, make sure they feel like they’re winning.
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PS—Ever wanted to try something like NaNoWriMo but felt your project wasn’t a good fit? Wishing you could participate in a writing community challenge in November but not up for the pressure of NaNoWriMo Official? The Shelf Life Discord is hosting a NaNo Club for anyone who wants to participate in any capacity, for any type of writing project. Want to write poems? Songs? Blog posts? Short stories? A non-novel long-form book? Choose your project and then set your own goals, mile markers, and schedule. We would love to have you.
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Long ago I read the advice "Start your story at its most exciting moment." I like that idea because it gets the writer excited, too.