Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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?
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