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6 Ways to Keep Readers Up Past Their Bedtime

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


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? 

13 comments:

  1. Characters, more than anything else, usually keep me coming back to a book. However, I did recently read a story where I loved the characters but the plot inched along so slowly that I finally just read the end and set the book aside. And since I didn't like the ending, either, I think that I'm probably done reading future books from this author. This is the second book that I've read, and both were the same way. I loved the characters, but felt like the plot crept along and never got any faster both times. :-(

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    1. Hi Naomi,

      As much as we like characters, I think your experience shows that there has to be something driving the story forward, whether that's unanswered questions, drama, conflict, or tension. Even if it's not fast-paced, there are still techniques writers can use to make sure the reader wants to keep going to find out what happens. :-)

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  2. I especially agree with #4, because like you said, once I become invested in a character, I definitely am anxious to find out what happens next and I hope that he or she will get a happy ending. If I don't like a character at all, then I don't really care about what happens to him or her, and it makes it more difficult for me to continue reading.
    I recently read Jean Kwok's novel Girl in Translation, which is more than 300 pages, in one day, just because I loved the characters and couldn't wait to find out what happened next.

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    1. I love when an author gets me SO hooked into a plot that I can't wait to see what happens next! That kind of riveting plot isn't easy to pull off, but I do think it's what the majority of today's readers like. :-)

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  3. I like your method of imagining your characters on a stage, with an audience watching. Gives me a clear picture of what should stay and what should go. Your books are getting better and better, Jody. You know what you're talking about :)

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    1. Hi Julie,

      Aw, thank you my dear for your sweet words! I truly appreciate that encouragement! And I love the stage analogy too. It's always helped me to eliminate some of the boring stuff that readers might skim. :-)

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  4. So true, some scenes and characters can be more padding than really contributing to the whole. I think of every scene as about suspense in some form -- even a celebratory party scene can use the "suspense" rules to build excitement over what kind of fun's going to happen next.

    My motto is more of a dare to readers: "Try not to read too fast."

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    1. Hi Ken,

      LOVE your motto! I think I may have to adopt that too! ;-) As you said, there are numerous ways to add suspense and that is something we writers should be striving to add to every page of our books in some way big or small.

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  5. Jody, this information is great. I will keep these in my mind as I write.

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  6. It doesn't matter which book, I'm always out like a light when I read at bedtime. Great advice for writing though.

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  8. Great characters are what makes the novel for many people. If you are attached to a character, it makes putting the book down that much harder. Creating memorable characters is very important. You have to know the characters, the main characters, not every walk-on in the book. You need to know the main characters, as well as you know your favorite cousin. Any question that you could ask that cousin, you should be able to ask this character at your writing desk, and if you don't know the answer, you need to go back on the character sketches and work.

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