Why frustration is what keeps readers engaged

Posted on 25/01/2024

There’s a delicate balance to be struck between satisfying the reader’s expectations and throwing hurdles in the path of our characters when writing fiction, especially when it comes to genre and trope expectations. While it may seem counterintuitive, the frustration experienced by our characters when things don’t go as planned is a powerful tool that can increase the engagement of the reader. Read on to discover six reasons why the art of frustration is a key element in crafting compelling narratives.

  1. Empathy Through Adversity:
    • Readers connect with characters on a deeper level when they witness them facing obstacles and experiencing frustration. It mirrors real-life challenges, fostering empathy and emotional investment. These challenges can be big or small, physical or mental for the character to overcome.
  2. Anticipation and Tension:
    • Frustration sets the stage for anticipation and tension. When characters encounter setbacks, readers are driven to discover how they will overcome these hurdles. The uncertainty creates a page-turning effect, keeping the audience hooked.
  3. Realism and Relatability:
    • Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and fiction that mirrors this reality resonates with readers. By subjecting characters to frustration, authors infuse authenticity into their narratives, making the story more relatable and engaging.
  4. Character Growth and Development:
    • Frustration serves as a catalyst for character growth. As protagonists grapple with challenges, they evolve, learn, and adapt. This transformation not only enriches the story but also keeps readers invested in the characters’ journeys.
  5. Cathartic Release:
    • Just as in real life, fiction provides a safe space for readers to experience a range of emotions. Allowing characters to express frustration can offer readers a cathartic release, as they vicariously navigate challenges through the narrative.
  6. Plot Complication and Resolution:
    • Smooth and uneventful plots may lead to reader boredom. The injection of frustration introduces twists and turns that defy predictability, sustaining reader interest throughout the story. Frustration acts as a natural plot complication, paving the way for satisfying resolutions. The greater the obstacles, the more rewarding the resolution, creating a narrative arc that captivates the reader from start to finish. This is especially important when introducing tropes and genre expectations. Typically a romance novel will have a happily ever after ending but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be twists and turns on the way there. If the couple meet, fall in love and then get married but face no problems on the way to the altar, that’s not going to keep the reader engaged for very long! Instead maybe there’s a proposal, just like the reader expects, but it’s rejected due to a misunderstanding. Maybe the first date ends in the hospital due to some unexpected accident. Either way, it’s the frustration the characters must be feeling in the moment that helps the reader to engage.

In the intricate dance between characters and readers, frustration emerges as a formidable partner, adding depth, tension, and emotional resonance to the storytelling experience. By weaving the tapestry of a narrative with the threads of adversity and frustration, authors create a compelling journey that not only entertains but also leaves a lasting impression on the reader. Embrace the art of frustration, for it is through the trials and tribulations of our characters that the true magic of storytelling unfolds.

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