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Stir Reader Curiosity

December 17, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 17, 2012

There’s nothing like curiosity to make us dig deep, to encourage exploration.

When we’re curious, when our interest is aroused, we want to figure out what’s going on.

And when our curiosity is wakened, we’re likely to follow along to see where something leads because we need to know the outcome. Curiosity is a force, a compelling one. A force that makes us act.

This is what we want for our readers, we want to waken them to the possibilities of our stories. We want them curious, enticed. We want them following our characters into their adventures. We want them to act on the curiosity we create.

Imagine irresistible breadcrumbs laid out before the readers. If you promise readers that the breadcrumbs will lead to an ending that will satisfy them, will make the trip worthwhile, they’re going to be at least willing to step into the adventure. If you also make the breadcrumbs themselves appealing, readers are going to follow quickly, become enmeshed in your stories.

The task of the writer, then, is to promise a satisfying ending and to drop enticing breadcrumbs along the way to keep readers on the path toward that ending.

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Readers may need a lot of breadcrumbs at a story’s opening, or they may need only a few highly enticing ones. This means the breadcrumbs might need to come frequently at the top of a story. They definitely need to be appealing. Remember that books in general and one book in particular must compete with every other form of entertainment and every distraction and every responsibility that could draw readers away. At the beginning of a book, you’ve got to give readers a reason to follow, to commit. To turn away from any and everything else.

Once the reader is committed, he may stay committed because inner anticipation has replaced the lure of your breadcrumbs. This doesn’t mean that you stop luring him. But it does mean that once readers are involved, their experience with story can do some of the work.

To stir reader curiosity, give them the unexpected. Challenge their brains and their emotions. Provide a puzzle that needs a solution. Surprise them.

And do each of these things more than once.

Yes, draw readers in with your story’s opening. But don’t forget about reader curiosity after that point. Give readers a tidbit to puzzle over with the inciting incident. Draw them deeper midway through the adventure with a twist or an unexplained event or a mysterious character. Give your lead character a motivation that begs to be explored.

Make sure that each scene leaves readers wanting more. Don’t allow readers any moment without some uncertainty or question or puzzle. If they’ve got all the answers—or simply think they do—readers have no reason to continue reading.

A story’s opening hook has to be strong enough to attract a reader, get him involved. But you need compelling characters and captivating events sprinkled throughout the story to ensure the reader’s sustained interest.

Think about your reader—what will have him anticipating the next event? What have you written that will stir him? Give him something new if events and characters seem to be moving along without bumps; you don’t want to put readers to sleep.

Increase reader tension by introducing a story element that makes them look closer, that makes them pay attention. That makes them have to pay attention. Think in terms of anticipation.

Picture your readers as listeners around a camp fire. You want them leaning forward in anticipation; that means you’ve got to give them something to anticipate. And you have to lead their responses.

If readers were surrounding you in person, listening, you’d see when they responded, when they leaned forward with interest or when they grew restless with boredom. And you could adjust your storytelling to fit their responses. But since you can’t see them, you have to move them in ways you know will work, methods proven to entice readers.

Surprise the reader

Provide a twist

Turn the expected inside out or upside down

Pose questions and delay the answers

Have a character act contrary to her nature, either negatively or positively

Encourage readers to anticipate what could happen, but give them an event or character response they couldn’t have expected, yet one so very appropriate for the story—this means you get to not only lead them, but mislead them

Encourage emotional responses in your readers

Create anticipation by writing a character action that requires another character’s reaction

Give characters multiple problems and setbacks—pile on the problems

Encourage readers to think—keep them involved

Change the pace

Raise the stakes

Give characters a reason to move faster—set a clock ticking

Introduce a new character, one who shakes up the status quo

Remove a character to take away another character’s support system

Change any major story element—don’t allow either characters or readers to grow comfortable

Lead the reader where you want/need him to go; don’t let him start wondering why a character did such-and-such when you need him wondering instead why she did so-and-so. That is, direct the reader. And don’t leave unintended openings for the reader to stumble into. You want readers on your path, not some alternate one that doesn’t go where you need him to go.

The bottom line is to keep the reader in mind. Once you’ve sketched out the first draft or two or three, make sure the novel has scenes and passages that will have the reader leaning forward in anticipation. You can’t expect the opening hook and inciting incident to carry readers through 350 pages to the climax. You’ve got to give them entertaining moments along the way. You’ve got to keep them curious.

If you’ve spent all your time plotting story events and building characters, take a pass or two through the manuscript to identify elements that will capture the reader’s attention. If you don’t have any for pages at a time, for scene after scene, you’ve got to add some. The story is about the characters, but you’re writing for real readers. Keep them involved. Make them curious. And increase that curiosity throughout the story.

You can follow established patterns of dramatic structure, such as what is typically found in three-act plays and movies and even in TV shows, but you can also use your own methods to ensure rising and falling action. If you’ve not formally studied dramatic structure, do a bit of research to see what the options are, see why it’s important to engage readers at particular points in a story.

Yet know that you can make the reader curious at any point. Curiosity leads to anticipation which leads to the need to find out what’s going to happen. If you keep leading your reader, he will stay with you and your characters to the end. And that’s the point of writing enticing fiction—to keep readers turning the page until they reach the final one.

You don’t want readers bored. You don’t want them stopping before they get to the end. You don’t want them guessing the vital events and character reactions before they’re unveiled on the page.

But you do want them curious and anticipating.

Give readers enough without giving away the payoff. A tricky task, but one that novelists need to master. One you need to be proficient at.

Make your readers curious and keep them that way. Write enthralling fiction.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

16 Responses to “Stir Reader Curiosity”

  1. Enjoyed this post. Though I must say I misread your sentence “If readers were surrounding you in PERSON, listening”–I thought you said “If readers were surrounding you in PRISON, listening.” Still not a bad tip–the ol’ Scheherazade ploy–keep them engaged in the story as if your life depended on it!

  2. Scheherazade it is, Heather. Maybe if we imagine that we’re in her situation, we’ll keep the reader enthralled and coming back for more.

  3. In my WIP, I turned the nice, monk-like hero into a basket case and pushed the worn out heroine down a dark well full of voices in her head and even more suffering. Hopefully, I’ve got Sharyar hanging on. Points if you know who Sharyar is.

  4. No points for me, Jennifer—I had to look up the reference. But it sounds as if you should have his attention. Basket case and suffering sound like legitimate curiosity stirrers. Keep the readers—and kings—turning those pages.

  5. Tom says:

    Good stuff. Sustaining interest is important – I’ve seen too many stories where parts became predictable, even boring.

    Incidentally, I’m quite happy to have found this blog. It’s very good reading.

  6. Boring is indeed the kiss of death for a story. The good news for writers is that there are dozens of ways of keeping readers interested.

    I’m glad you found your way to the blog, Tom.

  7. sj martiny says:

    I read to my 11yo regularly, and I find that keeping readers interested is something that chapter book and middle grade writers tend to do fairly consistently. To my taste, it tends to be rather unsubtle and in-your-face (think “Perils of Pauline”), but it certainly keeps my daughter’s interest. She pleads for “just one more chapter, Mom!” even as the clock inches toward 10. While I wouldn’t want a white-knuckle cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, those unanswered questions, challenges, and puzzles can be woven into stories for any reader.

  8. Dear Editors Blog
    I chose you for the Very Inspiring Blog Award. Thank you for inspiring me with wonderful information to help me improve my writing. Read more about this award here: http://joanyedwards.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/i-gave-the-very-inspiring-blogger-awards-to-15-blogs/
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  9. SJ, I think you hit right on a key—make those chapter-ending hooks appropriate for both readers and the genre. Give readers something to anticipate and wonder about. Entice them to read just one more page.

  10. Joan, thank you so very much. I’m honored.

  11. Barry W. says:

    Hi Beth.

    Hope this is the right place to post this question: I want to completely hide the identity of one particular character. How do I go about this without giving anything away?

    Told you I’d need you again!

    Regards.

    Barry.

  12. Barry, some questions about your question—

    Do you have to hide his presence from other characters? Or will they know him, just not who is really is? As with Batman/Bruce Wayne, will most characters know him as one character but have an awareness of the other character, just not connect the two in any way?

    Or are you hiding the identity of a bad guy from the reader while at the same time showing all his bad acts?

    Or are we talking something different?

    Let’s pinpoint the need and then see what options you have.

  13. Barry says:

    Beth. This character is the murderer of a friends mother. I want to show this person remembering the murder, but I want to hide their identity from the reader so in the end the idea is to shock them.

    I hope this makes sense.

    Thanks.

  14. Barry, there are two things you’ll want to work on for this. You’ll need to plant clues, as with any whodunit, so readers could theoretically guess who the murderer was. At the end, you want readers both surprised and satisfied by your choice of murderer.

    But to hide his or her identity, you’ve got to be very picky about word choices in the scenes when he/she remembers. Highlight details about what the conditions were like and what happened to the victim but offer few details about the murderer. Put the accent on the murder and the victim’s responses, maybe on the responses of others who were around.

    Don’t accentuate how the killer moves or feels or what he/she does unless you can give away nothing identifiable. Also, if you’ve got suspects of both sexes, you’ll have to stay away from pronouns that give away the sex. Might this person have a gender-neutral nickname? Has the media given him or her a name that you can use?

    Let the killer think we and us—She thought she’d get away with it, but no more. She’d always been like that, thinking how special she was. How sweet. But the rest of us, we knew better. We saw inside, saw that black spot that she fed and fed until it took her over. Yes, we knew. And she shouldn’t have been surprised.

    Also, keep the killer’s viewpoint scenes short and break them up if you have to, so you don’t have to strain to find fresh ways not to say he or she or the name in any one scene. The killer might be remembering, running through the murder, and be interrupted by a knock at the door or the ring of a phone. He or she might be playing back the murder while at work and be interrupted by a coworker or client.

    In these cases, the interruption itself can be a false clue. So maybe the killer’s memory of the murder is interrupted by a receptionist saying the next appointment is there. If you mention the busy day of another suspect or suspects, someone talking about back-to-back meetings and another someone chimining in with “You don’t know busy until you’ve worked at XYZ during fall blitz,” you throw suspicion around.

    You don’t want to be too blatant, but you can work anything into a clue, false or not.

    You could use first person POV, but that might be odd, depending on your other POVs. The plural we might be more easily accepted.

    Or you could convey the killer’s emotions and responses through thoughts and dialogue, maybe mutterings. If the killer is catching up on media reports, you might show him/her at a computer, laughing at the inept police or speaking calming words so he/she doesn’t freak out at reports of an imminent arrest. You can put dialogue and thoughts in first person, so nothing is given away—“You deserved it, Jane. You know you did. And I just couldn’t wait any longer for fate to hand it to you.”

    Be careful about revealing anything you don’t want to reveal or give progressive revelations over the course of the story. So if readers and the police don’t know if the killer was a stranger or someone she knew, don’t reveal that from the killer’s viewpoint scenes. But once that information is known, the killer could make a reference to the past.

    A scene with a killer remembering the kill could take place anywhere, as the killer is driving or eating or brushing his/her teeth. Remember to give the killer a reason for remembering the murder, especially if he/she plays it back multiple times. that is, make sure there’s a stimulus to the response of the character replaying the murder.

    I hope this is enough to get you thinking of some ideas that’ll fit your plot.

    An example of the murder itself (the end of the scene), with the killer revealing that he/she knew the victim from the past, knew what atrocities she had committed. Of course, the murderer could be crazy, just thinking Jane had been evil and deserved death. You’d spin the details to fit your story—

    The knife plunged deep, and Jane fell, disbelieving to the end. Her blood spread, racing away from her as if it couldn’t stand to touch her, be part of her, for one more second. She’d never believed anyone would make her pay for her malicious sins.

    “But I did. I made you pay.”

    The knife came out with a sharp tug, the sunny kitchen went silent, and the avenger for every one of Jane’s helpless, voiceless, powerless victims eased out the door, tonelessly whistling some old pop tune.

  15. Barry W. says:

    Beth, advice was helpful and appreciated. Thanks.

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