Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Some element in every story should pop for the reader, whether it’s the puzzle in a mystery, the threat in suspense, the story world in science fiction, or the relationship in a romance.
Readers have to have reasons to continue to read a book past the first page or two, and you’re the one who has to give them those reasons.
One big advantage for writers is that readers come to books intending to enjoy them, intending to get lost in characters and the events overtaking them. You don’t have to do anything to prime the pump.
Yet you do need to deliver. You’ve got to give readers something more captivating than their real-world distractions.
The reader brings an appetite, but you’ve got to serve up the meal. And it should be tasty. Not too skimpy, not bland, and not overly spiced.
Readers come to your books hungry, wanting to enjoy what you serve up, but that doesn’t mean that you can slack off and serve slop.
Readers want a story that tastes good, that looks good.
Sometimes they may want a light meal, sometimes a full seven-course dinner. But they definitely want more than stale crackers and tepid water.
It’s your job to serve an appetizing meal.
When Books Don’t Satisfy
I’m currently reading a book that isn’t doing it for me. I’m more than a third of the way through, and there’s been only one major event. The rest of the time the viewpoint characters—several of them—are ruminating about how they know one another and what’s gone on in their lives over the past several months.
Every character goes someplace alone and then sits and thinks about past events.
But I’m looking for current events. And more going on than a character driving to a new town where he can plop himself in a hotel to think.
I don’t care (relatively speaking) what happened six months ago. I want current action. If those earlier events are the only exciting things to have happened to these characters in the last year, why write this book? Other books in the series covered those earlier events—readers don’t need a rehashing after the fact.
And readers definitely don’t want a dry report of what happened. Give us back story when necessary, but don’t spend the first third (or more) of a book on past events that already played out, as they happened, in other books.
I want more than a report.
Your readers are looking for more too.
What Readers Want
A cool idea alone is insufficient.
A kick-ass climax isn’t enough. Especially if your readers never get that far.
Even an award-winning opening chapter—if they gave awards for opening chapters—isn’t enough to flavor an entire novel. The whole thing needs to be attractive to the reader.
I’ve recently read a handful of manuscript that were solid in many ways but which nevertheless failed to engage me as a reader.
Now, I don’t approach a manuscript the same way I do a published book, yet I am a reader, and I like to be engaged, just as any reader would.
The good thing about this lack of engaging elements taking place in a manuscript is that the lack of engagement can be corrected. In published books, the author doesn’t get another chance to entice and hold the reader.
That means you need to make sure that your stories will appeal to the reader before they’re published. And that means that you need to include appealing elements throughout a story, not just on the first and last pages.
When I eat chocolate chip cookies, I want chips in every bite, not just one tiny chip in the center. When I read books, I want appealing elements laced through the story.
As with a good meal that consists of a variety of dishes, a good book should contain a variety of elements—arresting events, charismatic characters, surprising dialogue. And the entire book should appeal—all the good stuff shouldn’t be piled up into one or two story moments.
My suggestion is that as you work on a second and third draft, you should look for tasty elements in every scene and chapter. If they’re missing, add them. If they’re overbalanced, redistribute them. If they’re too strong and they come across as melodrama, tone them down or balance them out with other elements.
You don’t need to worry too much about this issue when you create a first draft, but you should consider it as you rewrite and rework your scenes. When you’re searching for weaknesses in a story, this is an issue to cover.
Ways to Entice the Reader
Maybe you’re stuck, not sure what to try as an enticement for the reader. I have a couple of ideas.
~ Capture the reader with a unique opening and then use that opening to flavor other scenes and events in the story. Leapfrog from the opening to related events, linking (lightly) to remind readers of that captivating opening.
~ Use humor. Use sorrow. Use fear. Emotional scenes are great for snaring readers.
~ Use beautifully crafted prose that fits genre, plot, character, and setting. While you may not capture every reader with beautiful phrases, you’ll certainly capture many.
~ Give readers a unique focal character who doesn’t mimic hundreds of others from books, TV, or movies. Make readers pay attention because you’ve introduced a new kind of character who handles his life in ways far different from the way familiar characters do.
~ Refuse to play it safe with common plot situations or clichéd endings. Get creative.
~ Make something happen in the right-now moments of the characters’ lives and put those events on stage, front and center.
~ Be willing to try something new, even if your experiment ultimately proves unwelcome. Be not only a technician, but an inventor.
~ Twist genre expectations. Satisfy genre requirements but add your own embellishments. Make readers crave what only you bring to the genre.
~ Give readers what they want and expect while also surprising them. Readers love to be satisfied and surprised at the same time; it’s doubly satisfying, like finding both butterscotch and chocolate chips in cookies.
~ Be willing to push beyond comfortable emotional limits—yours, the characters’, and the readers’. Don’t settle for mediocre or safe.
~ Be determined to write engaging and witty (or crackling or sharp or gut-wrenching or shocking) dialogue.
~ Be willing to let characters look foolish. At the same time, be willing to let yourself look foolish for writing something outlandish or startling. It’s the unusual—in events and characters—that captures a reader’s interest. Make readers wonder where you could possibly go after that last event or scene.
~ Be willing to step on the readers’ toes, maybe get them incensed about an issue or an event you rained down on a character.
Keep in mind what readers want from stories in general. They want to be entertained. They want their interest captured. They don’t want boredom. They may want the familiar but like any of us with a favorite dish, they want it served fresh.
Give readers enough unique characters and entertaining events to keep them enthralled for 350 pages. Don’t skimp on the good stuff. Treat readers well and feed them tasty fiction.