Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Keeping your Readers Reading

We all know how important it is to have a good opening to draw the reader into your story. The main advice about this can be summed up as:
Open with one of your protagonists.
Open at a pivotal point in the story.
Open with a hook – maybe a question or the first suggestion of a conflict.

My first two lines of ‘Fragrance with Violets’ are:

“Jack Tremayne’s back at Fir Garth,” Mrs Garside said.
The delicate china figurine of Peter Rabbit slipped out of Abbey Seton’s hand, and fell to the floor, shattering with a tinkling sound.

 Okay, so I think I covered those points. Maybe Mrs Garside isn’t a protagonist, but Jack is, and his return is pivotal. These two lines also provide the hook and the question: Why is Abbey so startled about Jack’s return that she drops the figurine?

 On Six Sentence Sunday, I’ve used two more excerpts following these first sentences and had a lot of comments to the effect of ‘want to know who Jack is’, ‘want to find out what their story is’, ‘why is she reacting like this’ and, one of the most recent ones (following an excerpt which comes at the top of the second page in the actual book): ‘Intriguing. Now I’m really curious.’

So hopefully I have my readers hooked and asking questions in the first two pages.

Now, how do I keep them reading?
Here’s what I think (in no particular order, just my take on what keeps ME reading a book!)

If you answer some of their initial questions, give them other things to wonder about.

Don’t dump all the backstory in one lump, tease your readers with part-revelations, not obscure enough to frustrate, but intriguing enough to make them want to find out more.

Don’t introduce too many characters too quickly – readers can get confused (and annoyed!) when they can’t work out who’s who and /or whether they are important characters or not. .

Move the story along. Don’t meander into irrelevant events or conversations.

Make your characters ones they can care about, empathise with, feel their emotions, cry when they cry, smile when they’re happy.

Make sure your plot is realistic and not contrived.

Don’t go into excessive description – readers tend to skip it.

Provide cliff-hangers i.e. page-turners. Your readers should want to know what happens next (so that they think , maybe late at night, ‘Just one more chapter’). Some of my reviewers have said they ‘couldn’t put it down’ which, to me, is one of the best things people have said about my first book.

Keep them wondering how the hero and heroine can ever get together for their ‘happy ending’. They know this is going to happen but they need to be curious about how it will happen, when all seems lost.

And finally, don’t hand a solution on a plate to your hero and heroine through some contrivance or coincidence. The reader needs to know they’ve struggled against the odds, overcome their problems, and, most satisfying of all, learnt something about themselves and each other in the process.

But please don’t have the hero and heroine hating each other all the way through the story until the final chapter when they suddenly realise they love each other!

And here am I, with my Kindle and a story I had to keep on reading, even while I was waiting for my daughter and partner to finish their shopping at Disneyworld! 


  1. This list is right on, Paula. It's funny (in a not haha way) how much work it takes to follow these rules.

  2. Those rules make it sound so easy. Actually following them and making your story work that way is another thing!

  3. I don't claim these are 'rules'; they're just some of the things that keep me reading. Nor would I claim this is a complete list. In fact I was hoping you'd add other things that keep you reading a story!

  4. Okay then, here's what keeps me reading: believable characters that I can relate to; believable story that I can follow (no jumping the shark); transporting me out of myself so that I am "in" the story; something about the story that keeps me thinking about it long after I've put it down.

  5. Love that you're reading your Kindle at Disney! It's a handy device, isn't it?!

    I always find that starting right in the middle of the action is a good way to hook the reader...and then hopefully keep them reading as I fill in the blanks along the way.

    My opening line for 'This Can't Be Love' is "There was a naked man in her grandfather's bathtub."

    Worked like a charm.

  6. As a reader, I want to care about at least one of the characters. I have to want something for that person. They have to be someone I can "picture" so if there is no physical description (which I don't necessarily need) I will make a face and body in my head. I need enough description to create my person.
    As far as not being able to put it down, for me, it's all about needing to be 'with' these people or that person. Wanting to know what's next, what's the end, but actually not wanting it to end. If I clicked back to the home page on my Kindle to search for the next book by this author to see if there is a sequel, that is a very well done book, to me.

  7. Jenn, I agree with all your reasons, especially the one about being 'in' the story. Something that keeps you thinking is also part of it - or, at least, the fact that a few weeks later, you can remember what it was about! I've read some stories which were unfortunately very forgettable!

  8. Debra, love that opening line! It certainly has a hook - and raises several questions all at once!

  9. Jo, I usually have a picture in my mind of the characters in any book I'm reading too.
    Not wanting it to end is a very good pointer to a story that keeps you reading.