Keep them turning pages

I don’t want my readers to put my book down. I want them to get to the end of a chapter and go right to the next one. I want them to not be able to go to bed because they have to see what happens next. I want them to have to rearrange their daily schedule to squeeze in reading time.

Isn’t that the goal of all writers? Shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that the kind of book you like to read?

Writing like that isn’t easy. Mostly it takes an acknowledgment that this is your goal. Then you look at what you have written to make sure you are achieving it.hiermione

Dan (“Da Vinci Code”) Brown is one of those authors who understands this. He’s not a very good writer in the sense that he has a great appreciation for character development or prose itself, but he writes his books like a good action movie. (For a better example, read Jonathan Maberry.)

In these kinds of books, there are no long scenes of people sitting around drinking coffee and discussing the plots — things are constantly moving. Discussions are held on the run, while the characters are being chased, while action is happening. Chapters are short — scenes, basically — and we cut back and forth to other characters often.

I’ve been reading these and trying to make my stories follow those patterns. Here’s what I am always thinking about when I write:

How can I keep this moving? Can these characters have this conversation while being chased by the antagonist?

Are things going too smoothly? Has this scene gone on too long? What can I do to interrupt my characters in the middle of what they’re doing to raise the stakes and keep the action going?

How can I make sure there is plenty of tension? Are my main characters getting along too well? Is my protagonist too pure and not well developed to have his/her own inner tensions? How can I get them arguing and disagreeing?

How can I end this chapter on a cliffhanger? Can I get to an exciting spot and then stop, so that the reader can’t just put the book down? Then, can the next chapter be from another character’s point of view so that the tension in the previous scene is heightened?

Am I revealing too much? Am I spoon-feeding the plot to the reader?  (There should be constant questions on every page — What did he mean by that statement? What is that character hiding? Why did the writer mention the red envelope? Why is that important?  Every good story is a mystery — even if the mystery is figuring out what the bad guy’s plan is. Don’t solve the mystery or give away too many clues too early.)

It might help if you think about the pacing of your book from the point of view of TV and film, because that seems to be the kind of thing readers want these days. And there’s a reason TV shows and movies do this: It works. It keeps people from changing the channel. It keeps them glued to the screen. And these tricks are exactly what you should be doing with your writing to keep your readers from tossing your book aside.

Mind you, I write adventures. I want my stories to be exciting. But even if you’re writing a character-driven novel about how a family deals with a serious crisis, you still want people to not be able to put your book down. You want them turning pages. You don’t have to include chase scenes and fist fights, but you do need to include tension, anger, and conflict as often as possible, and you need to make the threat great even if that threat is just the breakdown of a relationship.

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