Monday, May 20, 2013

How to keep readers turning the page

How do you keep readers turning the page? When a story starts with tension and keeps the tension up at the end of each chapter, the reader wants to know what happens next. I've lost many hours sleep because something happened at the end of a chapter that leads into yet another issue or problem to be solved. But you've got to let the reader breathe. Resolve one issue before piling on another.

Well written dialog moves the story quickly, as well. Let's face it, we humans often speak in fragmented sentences. Best friends or spouses of many years can finish our sentences for us, because they know how we think. A little exposition mixed in helps set the stage, and action makes it real, so don't just have talking heads. This is hard for me, because often I hear the dialog in my head very clearly, but the scene is not as vivid - yet!

Readers now want to start right in the middle of the action. They get to know the character as they read how that character deals with the mess they are in.  In the case of a murder mystery, death has to happen in the first couple of pages, so the protagonist can start the hunt for the murderer. Along the way they will discover the who and why. The reader gets pulled into the mystery and wants to figure out who done it.

Avoid data dumps. This sounds like something we authors should all know, but it's tempting to set the stage, fill in the back story, then proceed to what's happening now. Readers won't stick around long enough to get to the story if the build up is too long. We live in a fast paced society and we go from one thing to another. It's no wonder ADHD is so common, we are jamming as much as possible into an eighteen hour day and we seldom stop to consider where we're going. We just know we've got to get there and fast! Mark it off the "to do" list and go on to the next one. Readers want to be  immersed in the story on the first page.

By making the main characters three-dimensional, flaws and all, we can give the reader someone to care about. Even the antagonist needs to have at least one redeemable quality, so he can be a character people will love to hate and maybe sympathize with - a little. If the reader doesn't care about your characters then they can put the book down and maybe not even finish it. The main character in FEISTY FAMILY VALUES is a conceited snob. BUT underneath she has a heart of mush melon. Few people like her, but many come to understand her. There's an itty bitty bitch in all of us. 

Surprises and emotion are vital! Don't make the story too easy to figure out, surprise the reader with twists they don't expect. And if they are going to care a lick about the characters we have to show how they feel. Readers find pieces of themselves or their lives in stories, commiseration for shared experiences, justification, validation, hope and even comfort. If Annabelle in FEISTY FAMILY VALUES can learn to fight back after years of abuse then maybe I can, too. Let the readers feel right along with your characters.

Make the reader a part of the story. Use all five of the senses, not just sight and sound. If the reader can relate to the wonderful smell of bread baking they will want more. If the creaky old house your characters live in is real to the author, it will be real to the reader. They will want to visit it, to smell the mustiness and touch the smooth bannisters where hands have slid hundreds of times.

And don't forget humor. Readers have to laugh as well as cry. 

Good stories with strong characters, vivid scenery and intense emotions keep me turning the pages. How about you?

--> A lifetime resident of the Midwest, B.D. Tharp graduated Magna Cum Laude from Wichita State University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communications, Women/Minority Studies and Fine Arts.  Her award winning women’s fiction novel, Feisty Family Values, is available on her website, Watermark Books, and Feisty Family Values was chosen one of the 150 Kansas Best Books, a finalist for the USA News Best Books of 2010, and winner of the J. Coffin Memorial Book Award for 2011. 


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, B.D.,

This is such excellent advice! Creating suspense, making the reader want to continue to turn the pages is demanding. You give writers helpful suggestions. Active verbs and shorter sentences also help in building suspense in scenes.

BDTharp said...

Hi Jacqui - Yes, I shorter sentences and active verbs is also crucial. Thanks for the input!

Carole Price said...

All good advice. One reader didn't like I set the scene and main character's name in first sentence. Others like it because it jumped right into action. Sometimes you can't please them all.

BDTharp said...

Hi Carole, You are right, we can't please everyone. But it's fun to try! Thanks for the comment.

June Shaw said...

Great advice. Thanks for the reminders.