Blog

10 Ways to Avoid Mid-Book Doldrums

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I have a confession to make. When I’m reading a book, I can rarely make it all the way through to the end.

Recently while on vacation, I started to blaze through my To-Be-Read (TBR) pile. After just a few books, I noticed a pattern emerging—I only got about a third to half way through each book. I’d start a book with good intentions. I’d try to give the story a chance to captivate me. I’d put it down before bed thinking I’d continue the next day. But then I didn’t go back to the book, even though I’d planned on it.

Why? Why do I start so many books, maybe even like them, but then stop reading them? What’s my problem?

Yes, I realize part of the problem is that I’m a writer and can’t turn off my internal editor. And yes, I realize the average reader won’t have the same hang-ups I have.

But . . . I’m also realizing that we as writers have to find ways to keep our readers from stalling. We might have a great beginning hook that draws them into the book, but then somehow we fail to keep the sails full of air. The reader hits doldrums. And as nice as the story is, there’s not much to keep them moving forward. They turn the pages slower and slower. And if they’re like me, they might even stall in reading the book altogether.

What kinds of things can we do to make sure our readers keep moving forward? In fact, what can we do to ensure that the story grips them and drags them onward, so that they can’t put it down, finally have to tear themselves away, and then can’t wait to get back to it?

Here are a few techniques we can employ to avoid mid-book doldrums:

1. Always have unanswered story questions. When one issue is solved, we must have several more problems we’ve already introduced.

2. Make use of the ticking clock. Set a time limit for accomplishing a goal with severe consequences for not meeting the deadline. If a life is on the line, that makes the ticking clock even more harrowing.

3. Continually layer in new conflicts. Conflicts should abound on all levels—emotional, physical, and relational. Look for ways to have additional conflicts cropping up as the story evolves.

4. Keep raising the stakes higher. Increase the importance of the character’s objective. Make her needs critical—she must get objective or else be devastated/ruined/killed, etc.

5. Refrain from wrapping up problems too soon and too neatly. Lack of resolution keeps readers turning the pages to find out what happens next.

6. Make sure conflicts with the antagonist are slowly and steadily escalating. The “bad guy” can be any number of things: natural elements, a killer, a mental illness, etc. Make it seem like the antagonist will come out the victor.

7. In a romance, don’t get the couple together too early in the book. They should be falling in love, but there needs to be something (sometimes many issues) that hold them apart until the end. Prolong the courtship as long as possible or have them “break up” so they can court again.

8. Make the situation look impossible to resolve. In fact, we as writers should wonder how in the world we’ll ever get our characters out of their trouble without a major miracle.

9. Introduce a secret. The reader needs to know there is a secret, but suspense develops when the reader doesn’t know the answer to the secret. Or we can give one of our characters a big secret that they refrain from sharing at a huge expense to those involved.

10. Leave needs unfulfilled. If we’re helping our readers to fall in love with our characters, then they’ll be rooting for the character to get their needs filled. But we want to wait as long as possible to reveal how the need will be met.

Of course, we may not be able to do use all of the above techniques in one book. But as I plot out a book, I look through the list and brainstorm for each. I search for ways I can give my characters as many problems and as much conflict as possible.

How about you? Have you ever put a book down because of mid-book doldrums? In your writing, do you have any techniques that can keep the reader sailing powerfully forward?

43 comments:

  1. This is all good and true in order for something to be a commercial success, but I've read plenty of literary books which have captivated me without keeping me on the edge of my seat. I think it all just comes down to what an individual likes to read. You seem the type of person who likes fast-paced books with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter (and my gosh do you succeed in doing that yourself! The Preacher's Bride kept me up all night). But I also like books that I can savor and relax to. Books that do not introduce a new conflict every two seconds. It all comes down to 'taste.'

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post!

    I agree, we can't forget about readers motivated to learn more.

    Jess, i agree we don't need blockbuster action, sometimes just little things will keep a reader interested. I certainly see your point. I hate action for the sake of action.

    Once again a great post to ponder.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mysteries and secrets always keep my turning the pages. But even bigger than that it's the character's internal conflict and the unanswered questions they have. But of course that has to be combined with great writing. So I'd say a combo of all you mentioned works best!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good morning, ladies! Sending all you early-morning risers big smiles this morning! :-)

    You bring up a great point, Jessica. And since I write commercial fiction, I don't feel qualified to respond to your thoughts about literary fiction and taste. It seems to me, even non-commercial fiction must have something that compels the reader to keep turning the pages. But since I'm not the expert on it, I'd love to hear from others who have thoughts on the issue!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jody, I think the main thing I look for in literary fiction is VERY WELL ROUNDED characters. If the characters don't stand out, then it doesn't work. Literary fiction is VERY character driven. Also, all literary fiction books will hold my interest if I end up, on occasion, STOPPING, to look at the wall, and think, "WOW."

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm rght with you, Jody. I also can's shut off my inner writer, so I'm constantly analysing what I read.

    One of the worst things in a story is to see a problem solved too early, or to feel that a particular conflict has no real importance. Filler material stands out. It's so hard to hide it. A good story should ramp up the stakes at a steady pace, rather than pad out the book with side-plots that aren't really relevant or don't contribute much to the characterisation or plotline.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Awesome Point Jessica,

    I have been posting the past couple of days on the importance of characterization particularily in the start of the novel. Because i have read a few books recently where they have started in the action thinking that it will 'grip' the reader, but there is no connection with the characters. No reason to stay and find out what happens to them.

    If the author has build that 'care' in there then they should withstand small periods of quiet in the book.

    just my opinions!


    Thanks again

    sarah

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sarah, that's exactly what I love about well-written literary fiction. You actually CARE during the quiet moments.

    Jody, gee, I'm so sorry, I've just totally taken over the conversation! I'll take a back seat now :o) lolol

    ReplyDelete
  9. Don't apologize, Jessica! I LOVE when commenters begin conversations with each other in the comments!! :-) I'm sitting back just listening and learning!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think all good books have an overriding issue (arc) that starts early in the book and resolves at the end; everything else is subplot. Possibly the books you don't finish are missing the overriding issue.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Love this list - seriously. Going to print it out as I'm brainstorming for another story. :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. I think it's a great point that both you and Jessica are making. That even in more slower paced literary works, there has to be questions and tension in order to keep the reader reading.
    I put down books all the time because there is no question of what will happen next. Or if the question is there, it's not important enough.
    Great list tho, Jody! I'm adding it to my revision checklist!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Jody,

    I'm plugging through (and actually liking more than I have in the past) first round edits and some of your points screamed at me. Going to make note and incorporate some changes based on this post.
    ~ Wendy

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is the thing: Before I started writing and making author friends, I had no tbr pile. That's right. The books I read were chosen on the spur of the moment based on my mood. And the hook/blurb that caused me to pick up the book was usually enough to carry me through.
    Now that I have a TBR pile, it's harder. I find myself bored a lot too, and I don't know if it's the subject matter or the writing. You make excellent points though!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great list; I'll definitely have to reference it as I edit my current manuscript.

    As for those not-getting-through-a-book blues, I'm right there: I bring home a stack from the library, take a nibble from each, then become overwhelmed! This morning when I tidy up the bedroom, I'm actually going to toss all but one inside my bedside cabinet, and that's where they'll stay until I finish (or entirely discard) the current one. Glad I'm not the only one to start and not finish books. :D

    ReplyDelete
  16. I am bookmarking this list! Just finished my first draft and will begin editing when I get back from vacation. I know the middle of my book needs some work, and these will really come in handy. Thank you, Jody!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks for admitting this. I thought I was the only one. :) Great tips.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Definitely a great list.I have a Kindle and I love it, but for me I've noticed that it makes it even easier to just scan books, especially if I think there's a lot of clutter writing. So when I run into a book that makes me take my finger off the page turn button and soak up the writing, then I know I'm also likely to find characters I care about and plot questions I want to know the answer to.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I use what I call episodic writing. Each chapter ends with a revelation or cliffhanger of some sort that will(hopefully)make readers carry on reading.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great advice. I'm starring this for reference. :)

    Just to respond to your side comment about writer's reading hang-ups, it's good to know I'm not alone. Sometimes I've got to find grace for the author instead of thinking, "Gosh, attack of the -ly adverbs much?" :D

    ReplyDelete
  21. Great post, Jody! I'm printing it out to keep beside me as I plot my first novel.

    Thanks!
    Jan

    ReplyDelete
  22. Love your list! I particularly liked the layering the plot suggestion. I've heard it before, but for some reason, that visual just made it very clear for me.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Part of my problem is that I have much less time to read now than I did even a few years ago. I had the patience to give a book more than 100 pages because I didn't have more pressing things to do.

    But now? My time is extremely limited. Only a book with the items you mentioned will keep me going!

    ReplyDelete
  24. I totally know what you mean! There have been several books that I've experienced that with. In my writing (an epic fantasy) I try to switch up character POV every third chapter so there's something or someone new bringing another perspective to the story. It also keeps me on my toes as a writer too!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Great list!

    I add on mine, "Keep myself enthused about the story." There's nothing like my disinterest to add flatness to the storyline.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I'm a patient reader, but sometimes, sometimes, a book just loses me, and I have no incentive to finish. Usually, lack of good characterization and tedious writing shut me down. A few literary/women's fiction authors are hitting me hard lately w/ these rabbit trails that have nothing to do w/ anything. And I yawn and say forget it.

    You are a mean, mean writer, Jody. To your characters, at least. Making them suffer so. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  27. Thank you for the great post! I hope the Cat's Eye Writer link I sent you via Twitter was helpful re: comments.

    It takes a lot for me to completely discard a book. The last was War and Peace--I began reading it when my son was a newborn. The ideas and language were far too dense for my sleep-deprived brain to digest!

    When I do become mired, usually I am not invested in the characters (as commenters mentioned), the writer indulges in paragraph upon paragraph of detail (very Dickensian, but I expect it in Dickens's books), or the plot and language do not challenge me. If I know what will happen or the author does not try to add twists, I feel a bit offended and do not want to continue on (fearing I will do this stymies me as a writer sometimes).

    That said, sometimes the most insipid trash will hold my interest if I have not read in awhile:)

    Best,
    Becky

    ReplyDelete
  28. Hi Becky! I did appreciate that link! The article had some good thoughts about comments! Thanks for sharing it! :-)

    I'm impressed you started War & Peace! That IS a tough one, especially as a sleep-deprived mom with a newborn!

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thanks for the post Jody. You gave me a lot to think about.

    I'm the odd reader I guess. I always finish what I start. I feel like I owe it to the author who put so much work into it. I don't always like what I read, but I always finish it.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Jody, I have your same problem! In fact, I've been frustrated by this situation myself (and ECSTATIC when I find a book that grabs me in a way that makes me not want to read anything else). Unfortunately, this does not happen often.

    Thanks for the great tips on how to avoid this in our own novels!

    ReplyDelete
  31. Just what I needed to hear today. I'm about 1/2 way through my rough draft. Thanks for the encouragement.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Jody, these are such great tips. On the book I'm revising right now, one of my critique partners said I wrapped problems up too quickly. I'm in the process of skewering my main character's life.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I usually read books in one day, sometimes even one sitting. Even when books start getting drab, I usually try to finish them. Reading the whole book helps me get a full picture for what lost me.

    Most of the time, if I'm going to put a book down, it'll be in the first few pages.

    But then, some books, like Battlefield: Earth and The Vampire Lestat contain a character that I loathe to the point that I can't bear to continue. I try to press on—my brother told me that the despised character died soon after the point I stopped in Battlefield: Earth—but even knowing that, I've not been able to get myself to continue.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Nice post and great advice, as always.

    ReplyDelete
  35. These are all really great ideas. As you said just a few posts ago, the first page hooks the reader for this book and the last page sells the next book... unless the reader stalls out in the middle and never gets to the last page. You've outlined some practical and useful ways to keep the story moving towards the big climax. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  36. It's actually stunning how often I can encounter this situation in new stories that I pick up. Somewhere along the way the author lost sight of their path and took a long walk in the woods instead of following the trail. The stories can still be great but the piece just isn't there to keep my interest.
    A narrative is a roller coaster and if you keep it on the rails you'll keep the readers in the cart.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I don't have any tips, but I loved your list and have bookmarked it to read again and again. Great tips, Jodi! Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I made a copy of this. It's right where I am today . . . Thanks!

    I'm an English teacher, so I've read "literary" novels that were beautifully written--but nothing happens in them! So how is that different from sermonizing--which folks always accuse authors in the CBA market of doing? . . . I also, don't like too many pages of introspection in any genre. I like to see a character rise above his fears to sacrifice for someone else, risk his life, etc. Let him show me by his actions what's going on inside him!

    ReplyDelete
  39. The thing that stops me from finishing a book is that 1) it starts with backstory, and 2) Nothing pulls me from chapter to chapter. When I write, I try to end each chapter with a question that will be answered in the next chapter. Sometimes it's as simple as a strategic chapter break.

    Honestly, there is no rule that says you have to finish a book just because you started it. So many books - so little time. Read the good ones!

    ReplyDelete
  40. This is great advice. I've been doing a bunch of reading this summer (trying to read 24 romances in 3 months) and it becomes very obvious very quickly which stories I know I won't be able to put down and which ones will cause me trouble. Then again, we all know from our own writing, that this is all easier said than done. Thanks again.

    <# Gina Blechman

    ReplyDelete
  41. You're so right, Jody! Those mid-book slumps lose me. I feel so guilty when I don't finish a novel but time is too short to dwell on stories that don't captivate me at the start and transport me through to the end. One thing that disrupts my reading is the ripple effect -- a series of conflicts that don't overlap but instead, rise, crest and fall, each as a separate entity, allowing the story to stall between them. For me it's almost as bad as the dreaded sagging middle. I like conflict to build through a series of overlapping crises, smaller ones threading through bigger ones, all working steadily to a crescendo. Achieving that in my own writing is a challenge. I'm going to keep your list handy. :)

    ReplyDelete
  42. Fantastic post, Jody! I also have several lonely books just waiting to be finished. And I admit, as a writer I'm always wondering how to avoid that mid-book brick wall. I'm currently reading Charlaine Harris's 'Dead Reckoning' and studying her technique as I go. I often do this with books I'm enjoying to see what's working for that particular author and why, as a reader, I can't stop, well, reading! :) I'm sure other writers employ this technique as well. I, for one, find it indispensable. Again, thanks for the insightful post!
    -Brandy

    ReplyDelete
  43. This is a great post! Thanks! heehee what do I do? I take a break and look up sites like this. and yes I have a terrible time finishing books too...

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!