6 Ways to Keep Readers Up Past Their Bedtime

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

One of my favorite compliments from readers is, "I stayed up really late reading your book."

Story tellers would much rather have their books keep readers awake until unreasonable hours rather than having their books put readers to sleep.

So how can writers make readers bright-eyed, excited, and turning the pages rather than bleary-eyed, yawning, and closing the book?

Here are 6 ways to keep readers up past their bedtime:

1. Make Every Scene Count:

Before I write a scene, I envision a stage and my characters upon it. Who would want to go to a play and watch the actors meander around the stage talking to themselves or reflecting on problems while eating, getting ready, shopping, driving in the car, talking on the phone, etc.? Big yawn.

Rather than the mundane and ordinary, our audience wants to be entertained by the unfolding story. Put the characters on stage and have them jump right into the action and drama.

If we eliminate static scenes, then readers will come to expect that every scene in our book adds suspense or value to the plot, even when we slow the pace. The more succinct and necessary we make each scene, the fewer parts readers will be able to skim or skip.

2. Make Every Character Count:

Before I add a new character (particularly a minor one), once again I envision a stage. I check to see if any of the other characters who are already on stage can do the job first.

First, I don’t want my stage becoming cluttered with too many characters. Our audience will have a hard time keeping them all straight even if we do our best to give them unique tags and names. So when I need a minor character, I try to use one I’ve already brought onto the stage earlier (rather than add a completely new character).

If we write tight with our characters, we increase the potential for them becoming more memorable versus getting lost on the crowded stage. And in doing so, we hold our reader's attention better.

3. Cut the Flowery Descriptions:

When I write descriptions, I look at the stage and decide what props I need and why. I don’t wax eloquent about the weather or the clothing or the people passing by—just because I want to. I make myself have a reason for adding in those details.

As a historical writer, I have a little more leeway with descriptions, because of course I have to bring to life a bygone era for a modern reader. Nevertheless, I still try to be careful not to overdo the floweriness. If any descriptions lasts more than a couple of sentences, it's likely gone on too long and either needs trimming or should be moved somewhere else.

4. Create and prolong suspense:

None of my books are "suspense" novels. But every book can benefit from having elements of suspense laced throughout. Noah Lukeman in his book The Plot Thickens, describes suspense this way, “Suspense, simply, is about creating and prolonging anticipation.”

Once our readers are invested in our characters, suspense is process of dangling our readers breathlessly along, continuing to put our characters into situations where readers longs to find out “what happens next.”

Lukeman says this, “One can have underdeveloped characters and weak journeys and a hackneyed plot, but if suspense exists, and audience will often stay with the work . . . suspense, more than any other element, affects the immediate.”

5. Increase conflict:

When I look at developing conflict, I generally target three main areas for each main character: physical (or outer) conflict, emotional (or inner) conflict, and relational (or romance) conflict. I weave all three strands together like a braid. These conflicts are often inseparable yet distinct. And the writer’s job is to keep intertwining the strands without letting one sag.

Yes, the conflicts will ebb and flow. Perhaps we will bring resolution to some issues, but then we must introduce new situations and circumstances that continue to push our characters. Ultimately, we want to prolong the tension for as long as possible throughout the book—keep the braid tight until we near the end.

6. Use Read-On-Prompts (ROP):

At the end of every scene and chapter, every time we switch character points-of-view, every break in the action—we should look for ways to keep the reader wanting to find out what happens next. We want to make it hard for them to put the book down at a “natural” resting place.

However, we need to be careful about tacking on a ROP. It needs to flow naturally out of the scene. If we resolve something within one of our conflict strands, then we should make sure we start introducing a new problem or issue before we wrap up the scene.

What qualities about a book keep you reading past your bedtime? 

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