My kids and I recently finished reading The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood. At first my kids weren’t really into the Elizabethan period. They’d just shake their heads at me and say, “Oh, Mom” whenever I oohed and ahhed over the time period details and history Blackwood was weaving in so seamlessly.
But there came a point in the story where my kids begged for “just one more chapter, please.” And while they weren’t fascinated by life in 1600’s London, the STORY hooked them and they didn’t want to stop reading.
As I analyzed The Shakespeare Stealer (which I invariably do to most books I read), I realized Blackwood utilized several techniques very well, techniques that help turn our stories into the kind readers can’t put down.
Here are 4 ways we can hook our readers and keep them wanting more:
1. Get your readers caring right away.
Most of us try to start our stories by putting our characters into an immediate conflict (especially in a romance when we have the hero and heroine clash over something). Along with immediate conflict, we’re also striving to create a strong but flawed hero/heroine.
But in creating strong characters who jump into conflict, we run the risk of them coming across as abrasive, too independent, cold, or uncaring. The trick is to find ways to make our characters likable right away, even with all of their flaws.
One way to do that is to put them in situations where the reader can’t help but feel sorry for them (which is what Blackwood did in The Shakespeare Stealer). Or we can have our character do something compassionate for someone else.
Whatever we choose to do to build reader empathy, we should do within the first few pages. The situations don’t have to be enormous but should be enough to make our readers begin to really like the character.
2. Layer on the conflict.
If our readers don’t yet have some empathy for the characters, then when the character encounters problems, our readers won’t care. If they don’t already have an emotional connection, then they won’t root for them through the conflicts we pile on them.
But once we develop reader-empathy, then we can start to heap the problems upon our characters in various levels. In The Shakespeare Stealer, Blackwood put his character into the-harmed-if-I-do and the-harmed-if-I-don’t situation. The main character was torn in what seemed like an impossible situation of having to chose to save himself or the friends he cared about. Blackwood kept layering the conflict chapter after chapter, making the decision increasingly difficult.
I’ve always liked the way writing guru, James Scott Bell, summarizes plot: Put your character up in a tree and throw stones at them and then find a way to get them down again.
We can throw physical stones, emotional, and relational—preferably all three in increasingly harder and more painful blows, so that we arrive at a black moment, and our readers don’t know how our character is going to survive and get down that tree.
3. Make every scene count.
Most of us know we should write by scenes. But the trouble is picking which scenes to include. We obviously can’t write all of them or we’d have WAY too much in our book.
When I’m deciding which scenes to bring to life, I try to have numerous (usually ten or more) reasons why I need the scene. I want to pack it full, integrating the maximum potential for each of my three plot strands (external, internal, and relational). And I also want to layer in (foreshadow) the problems that are yet to come.
When our scenes are loaded, we’re able to sock the reader, making it more difficult for them to close the book.
4. End each chapter with a hook.
Leave your readers on the edge of their seat at the end of every chapter. And if your chapters have more than one scene try to close each scene with some dangling, unsolved conflict thread for one of the three plot strands I mentioned above.
Blackwood is a master at this in The Shakespeare Stealer. Almost every chapter ends with something bad about to happen to the characters.
Not every chapter will end with our character about to be pushed off a cliff. But we can still have them dangling over an emotional abyss. Not every chapter will end with a knife at the throat of our main character. But we can put the knife in the relationship they desire.
Summary: Aren’t we all striving to write books that have readers saying “just one more chapter” but they can’t stop until the last page? Don’t we want them to say “I’m only going to read for ten more minutes” but then when they look at the clock an hour has passed?
I want to have a book like that, a book readers can’t put down no matter how hard they try.
How about you? Are you striving to write books that readers can't put down? What techniques do you utilize to make that happen? As a reader, what keeps you turning the pages long past bedtime?
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