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4 Ways to Hook Your Readers & Keep Them Wanting More

Thursday, May 3, 2012


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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39 comments:

  1. Excellent points. Number one is what I'm really trying to work on. I tend to have abrasive characters. lol

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  2. I'm the same a Jessica - my main characters tend to have a bit of a polarizing effect on people. Turns out sometimes what I think is an independent spunky heroine is someone else's spoilt selfish brat ;)

    I think number one is the most important. If I really care about the characters I will wade through a sagging middle, less than sparkling prose etc to get them to the end. On he flip side I've currently got a book on my bedside table that is brilliantly written but I keep putting it down for days at a time because I don't really care about any of the main characters.

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  3. Jessica and Kara, I have trouble with the same thing! Fortunately, I have a crit partner who likes characters who are soft as mush, so when the two of us get together and trade chapters, we usually end up with characters who are palatable to a large number of readers. Mine get softer and hers get tougher. :-)

    But I was just struggling with this. I was writing the first scene to a new novel, and it wasn't working. I'd started at the perfect, high tension point in the scene, when my character was defying a cruel smuggling lord who's trying to manipulate her into doing something not very nice. I wrote the first two or three pages, and the scene just fell flat.

    Then I figured out why: my readers didn't know my character. Yes, I was starting with all this tension and an impossible situation, but my readers had no reason to care what happened to her. So I backed the scene up, started while she was walking to the meeting, where you could feel the darkness surrounding her and understand her hesitancy, yet the fear for her children that propelled her to this terrible meeting. The scene worked a lot better then.

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  4. Brilliant, Jody! The point you make that I'm working on right now in my editing process is making sure each scene has multiple reasons for existing and that each plot thread is impacted by the scene in some way.

    Thanks for the inspiring thoughts today!

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  5. Good morning, ladies! Great thoughts this morning from everyone!

    I think that opening scene is always tough. We want to grab our readers by dumping our characters right in the action/conflict, but we also want to have our characters doing something that makes them likable. I think it's possible to do both at the same time, somehow weaving both together (possibly including a "save the cat" kind of moment). We don't necessarily have to "set" up the scene first with that compassionate act, although that might work too. I guess I'm always looking for ways to jump right into the heart of the story but still finding a way to bring out something good in my character to get readers liking her.

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  6. Great points! As a reader, I love watching the conflict layer on bit by bit and then I'm left to wonder, how in the world is the author going to pull off a save for the main character? As an author, I don't have trouble dumping on the conflict, but sometimes I wonder, how in the world am I going to pull off a save? :)

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  7. Gabrielle, I ALWAYS get to a point in writing my story where I wonder the same thing! :-) I've made it so bad for my characters, I worry that I'm not going to find a way to get to them out of their black hole--at least believably! So I usually take a mini-brainstorm session at some point about the three-quarter mark and try to roadmap the rest of the book. And in doing so, somehow the pieces seem to fall into place. At least so far! *crosses fingers* :-)

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  8. Wow, oh, wow. I've actually been to one of Gary Blackwood's book signings. He attended a local library where I was working at the time and I listened to him talk about his writing adventures. I bought a couple of his Shakespearian Stealer series books. I've yet to read them though.

    Good evaluation of his writing and great tips. Thanks!

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  9. Jody, this post is packed with so much meat! You pinpointed exactly what we struggle with as authors.

    For me, it's always a fine line of throwing the characters into too much conflict initially and then expecting the reader to care about them the way I do.

    Excellent thoughts as always!

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  10. Thanks so much Jody...what excellent points! I sometimes struggle with "layering on the conflict"...but know I need to "throw more stones" to get the main character to her inevitable black moment:) I love what you said too about making every scene count...I'll need to review my chapters/scenes see what I need to add or take out:)
    Again...very helpful post!

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  11. I love your thoughts on #3! Especially investing the worth of every scene. Good stuff. :)

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  12. A great post, as always, Jody! Finding the balance between sharing enough in the beginning about a character that readers will care about what happens to him, and starting a story in the midst of a crisis or conflict, is always my dilemma.

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  13. I LOVE your suggestion about listing 10 reasons for each scene so they'll pull multiple duties. I've been looking for ways to put more oomph in my scenes, and that might really help. Thanks!

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  14. Great post! Very timely for me as I tackle revisions on the opening on my WIP.

    I was debating whether to cut a few paragraphs to throw the heroine more quickly into the soup, but now I think not. I'll trust my instincts that I need them to establish her character.

    I always enjoy your blog, but I'm a lurker. :-) You do a great job keeping your content fresh.

    Your book is on my TBR pile!

    Sheri

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  15. Soooo, if page one has our hero's mother dying during a time of terrible ethnic cleansing/attempted genocide and page two has our heroine condemned by her horrid husband to die in a dungeon...am I on the right track?

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  16. Me and a friend were just talking about this today and how to get the reader to connect to your character. Great post. Thanks, Jody.

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  17. Thanks for joining in the discussion today, everyone! And, JennyM, yes it sounds like an intriguing opening! The key is to make sure that in the midst of all the chaos and tension, you have your hero and heroine do something likeable, even if it's miniscule so that readers will begin cheering for them!

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  18. Thanks Jody. I like the idea of finding ten or more reasons to include a scene and of roadmapping the rest of the book at the three quarter mark.

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  19. Jody, I write memoir but these points are all very pertinent. I'm bookmarking this post. It is succinct, practical and applicable to any genre. Your idea about listing ten reasons for keeping a scene is great. Thanks so much for sharing such valuable information.

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  20. Jody, I write memoir but these points are all very pertinent. I'm bookmarking this post. It is succinct, practical and applicable to any genre. Your idea about listing ten reasons for keeping a scene is great. Thanks so much for sharing such valuable information.

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  21. I made sure that both of them have plenty of sunshine woven in along the way to the swoon worthy ending. And he quotes Byron.

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  22. Awesome advice here, thanks for sharing these tips :)

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  23. Hello, Jody,

    Isn't it awful to be a writer, so that you end up picking apart everything you read? ;^)

    Seriously, this is an excellent post. I've previously encountered (and hopefully utilized) points two through four, but your first point is a real eye-opener. Of course, it depends on the genre - some stories feature deliberately unlikable characters - but for romance, this is a new insight for me.

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

    http://www.lisabetsarai.com

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  24. Thanks, Jody! Your blog is one of my regular resources.

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  25. First time reader and really enjoyed this article! Thanks

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  26. Same as most, the first is the hardest. My characters tend to be teens who have necessary character arcs of becoming more appreciative or more responsible, so it's hard to have them likable straight up.

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  27. I enjoyed your advice and will definitely be using it when writing from now on. Just wanted to let you know I linked to this post in my first edition of my blog's newspaper.
    The Harley Bear Post

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  28. Thank you for linking to me in your blog newspaper! Appreciate it!

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  29. Thank you so much for this post, Jody. This one's a keeper!

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  30. I tend to be hard on myself with my stories and In sometimes struggle with why there is a disconnect. This was really great and I a realizing now why certain scenes and what not aren't coming across strong enough. Thanks for sharing!!!

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  31. I just wish to give an enormous thumbs up for the nice info you've got right here on this post. I will probably be coming back to your weblog for more soon.

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  33. Good advice for an aspiring writer like myself. I wonder though if this applies to characters we love to hate? How do you capture your audience in a way to cause them to think " I hate that guy...tell me more

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  36. Great tippers...its all about creating an interesting character/characters then layering on top of it until you get a heaping palette of colors...places....obstacles..until it drizzles over with an interest and captures the spontaneous minds and spirit!!

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