Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Plots that go nowhere or characters that inspire no interest are death to your stories. If nothing interesting happens in a novel, readers are likely to put it down. If characters don’t engage the readers—their minds or emotions or curiosity—you get the same result—readers tossing aside the book without reading to the end.
So the task for writers is to engage the reader and to do so as soon as possible.
The days when a book could go 50 to 75 or more pages before the story got going are well behind us. Yes, some stories and some genres allow for a more leisurely opening. But unless you’re paying them to read or they’re reading a slow-moving novel as an exercise, today’s readers simply aren’t going to give you 50 pages to entice them. They have too many other uses of their time and if you can’t catch their attention in the early pages, they’re going to be gone. And they’re going to carry their impression of your poor writing skills with them, to be brought out any time they see your name on a book jacket.
You typically only get one chance to ensnare readers and once you fail to do that, it’s likely you won’t get another chance. Not with the same story.
My advice for you today is simple—make readers care. And do it early in the story. And then do it often throughout the story.
And while you’re at it, use different techniques and characters to ensure that readers have something interesting to read as they follow your characters chapter by chapter to the story’s conclusion.
In every story, in every scene, for every event—make readers care.
You never want a reader saying, “So what? What’s the purpose of this scene [or event]?”
Even when readers don’t understand the purpose of every bit of action or every line of dialogue, you still want them paying attention and interested. You want them involved. And they become involved when the plot and characters are involving.
You want readers engaged, caring about what happens to your characters or what happens next. You want readers sitting up and paying attention, eager to not miss one word or one little event.
Write so that readers pay attention. Make them care about what’s happening and what might happen. Make them anticipate and fear the possibilities that you’ve tantalizingly woven into your text.
In your early pages, unless you’re writing a series, everything is new to the reader. You’ve got dozens of ways to interest readers who come to your novel wanting to be enticed into your fictional world. You can—
introduce an unforgettable character
establish an intriguing world
paint an irresistible tone or mood
dump readers into compelling action
Readers are predisposed to want to enjoy your novel: they’ve been intrigued by the cover or a blurb or the description of a friend; they know the genre and have expectations that your novel will conform to the genre specifics that they so love; they read the first couple of pages and got hooked; or maybe they’ve read another of your books. Whatever the reason, most readers want to love your story, want to get lost in your imaginary world with your imaginary characters and their oh-so-real dramas.
It doesn’t take much to entice the reader in the early pages. But it does take something.
Make the reader care about a character or about the story world right away. And then look for ways to continue making him care throughout the story.
First Third of the Book
Once a reader is hooked by the story’s beginning—truly hooked—you could go a little while on the interest you stirred in the early pages. But at some point you have to give the reader something new to think about.
The story’s original hook is not enough to see a reader through 400 pages of plot.
Once you’re beyond the introduction of plot, character, and setting, you’ve got to keep the reader’s interest. Writers typically do this with the introduction of new characters, challenges for the main characters, and action or events that shake up both characters and readers.
At this point in a piece of long fiction, you can send characters, plot, and readers off in a new direction, exploding the readers’ expectations and reminding readers that this is a new story and it won’t be going exactly where they expect it to go, no matter how much it fits genre conventions.
While you can’t always switch up your story as you approach the end—you’ve got to follow through with plot lines and character personalities that you’ve established throughout the novel—you can do a bit of shaking up in the first third of the story. A predictable story doesn’t engage the reader the same way an unfamiliar story does. A predictable story can be read with one eye while the other is engaged in different pursuits. A fresh story, one the reader can’t predict, keeps the reader’s focus. And his interest. And that’s what you want to draw from the reader—his unwavering attention and interest.
Use the first third of your story to—
introduce characters and their goals and motivations—this includes the antagonist and her goals and motivations
set up hurdles and challenges for the main characters
reveal some of the main characters’ strengths and weaknesses
write action events that move the story forward
deepen the quirks of your fictional world
make characters and readers feel a variety of emotions
show what’s at stake
give characters reasons to risk no matter what’s at stake
introduce a mystery or a dilemma that can’t be resolved in a single scene
induce reader anticipation
Make sure all scenes have a purpose. Actually, give scenes multiple purposes. Use layering to add different elements to a scene so it accomplishes several functions. All scenes should advance plot, reveal character, establish or change tone or mood, or raise the conflict level. If a scene achieves several of these purposes at the same time, you’ve written a strong scene. A cohesive scene.
Scenes with interrelated elements pull a story’s threads tight, making that story harder to unravel. Look for ways to purposely combine a scene’s elements so that the scene serves multiple needs.
Middle of the Book
Because so much happens in the middle chapters—and because so many of the events and dialogue include explanations and back story and perhaps flashbacks—the middle of a novel can get bogged down, trapping not only characters in scenes or settings for pages when they should be in and out in moments, but trapping and frustrating readers as well.
Don’t think that the middle chapters of a novel are restricted for established characters and their problems; you can always introduce new characters or reveal unknown traits of existing characters in the middle chapters, especially the early middle chapters.
You can add or take away characters midbook—and both are wonderful options as methods for shaking up your characters. And when characters are unsettled, you know you’ve got your readers unsettled. And when you’ve got their emotions involved, you know readers care.
For middle chapters, think change. Don’t allow the status quo to go undisturbed for long. You can get into a rhythm with your writing that makes every scene the same length, that gives every sentence the same structure or pattern. But sameness lulls—bores—the reader.
Break up patterns and rhythms.
Give readers a variety of scene and chapter lengths. Make sure different characters open or close chapters. Change the setting. Kill off a character. Reveal a secret. Change something. Change several somethings.
Introduce the unusual to recapture the reader’s attention. Make it imperative that readers pay attention.
Speed or slow the pace. Break something. Add in a betrayal.
Block the protagonist’s progress; frustrate the antagonist so he tries even harder to ruin the protagonist. Have friends of both protagonist and antagonist desert them. Embarrass characters so they must go to great lengths to save face.
Raise the stakes so that only a few characters can stay the course.
Use the middle chapters to—
reveal the true inner character of your main characters
take characters to and then beyond the point of no return
uncover elements of the fictional world/setting that help characters or hurt them
build the plot so events are timely and inevitable and causally related
show characters as vulnerable
stir anticipation for the climax and showdown
The events and feel of the beginning of the middle will be different from the end of the middle—the closer a story gets to the climax, the faster it should move. Fast is a relative term, of course, and some stories won’t rush toward the end the way others will, but all stories should induce in the reader a sense of movement, of heading some place where something explosive will happen where events will come to a head and answers will be made known.
If readers don’t have a sense that something is going to happen, that the main character’s world isn’t at risk of unraveling, then you haven’t giving them much reason to stay with your story.
Entice them with the promise of something climactic, with the possibility of doom and a slight possibility of resounding success. But make the outcome uncertain; you do want the ending to seem inevitable once it arrives, but you don’t want it predictable. Include reasons in your middle chapters for why it’s unlikely the protagonist will succeed—his friends have deserted him; he fears his own strength but knows well his weaknesses; he’s never won against this particular opponent; what he’s trying to achieve has never been accomplished.
Those Final Chapters
Once you’ve got the reader anticipating the ending, you’ve got to deliver what you promised. And more.
The chapters that lead directly to the climax should be relentless. They should move forward, all the separate elements and pieces coming together in logical sequences that fit everything that has come before and that satisfy the reader.
The pace should definitely start to move. If the pace of your story doesn’t increase somewhere around the two-thirds mark, go back and rework your scenes from that point forward.
Increase the anticipation level in the reader. Make him wonder how you’re going to resolve the story’s major and minor problems. Move characters into place so they’re ready to play their parts.
In the final chapters, you’ve got to deliver the payoff. And it has to fit everything you’ve included up to that point. For the end chapters—
build to the climax
actually write and include a climactic scene
make the protagonist the one responsible for her story’s ending—this is not the time to introduce new characters or to have a secondary character save the day
make sure the climax takes place on stage—no summaries for the climax
resolve major issues—tie up loose ends
include a resolution—show or tell what happens to the protagonist after the final showdown with the antagonist (or with his problem)
show what it cost the protagonist to follow through with her convictions
stop the story without dragging the resolution on for pages
Some of these suggestions will obviously fit in at more than one section of a novel. The point is, you want readers engaged. And you have to consciously give them engaging material at every stage of a story. You can lose readers at any stage, but if you’re aware of that, aware of the need to entice them all the way through the novel, it’s likely that you’ll include story elements that hold their attention.
If you make readers care about your main characters and their problems, if you make every scene relevant, every bit of dialogue purposeful, then it’s more likely the readers will follow you to the final page. And if you satisfy the reader who’s gone through the entire adventure with you and your characters with an ending that pulls together every story thread you introduced, then you’ve probably earned yourself a reader for your next book.
Give readers a reason to care. Don’t give them any reason to ask so what concerning a story event or section of dialogue or character decision. Give characters stories that challenge them and that hold the interest of the reader.
Make your stories exciting for those who live through them as well as those who read the adventures you create.
Write stories that capture and hold your readers