Friday, August 17, 2012

Writing Novels: Keeping Readers Reading

My pastor said this yesterday, "God uses us when we go where we are most uncomfortable." She was talking about how we should listen for where God leads us and trust him even when it means we must move outside our comfortable worlds. However, what her statement made me think about was how we as fiction writers can make our readers so uncomfortable they will keep reading, and perhaps enjoy our story more because of it. Sorry, Pastor Amy. My mind roams sometimes.

What keeps a reader reading?

I suspect you all can point to recent books you've read where it was impossible to find a stopping place. This is good and bad. It's good because it means the story has pulled you in and you want to keep reading to find out what happens next. The characters have become your friends and you're reluctant to say goodnight. But, such a book is bad because most are too long to be read in one sitting. We have to stop reading  and put the book aside for a while to go on with our real life, be it eating, sleeping, or carting children to and fro.

Being retired, I have the privilege of reading during the day, but for years the only time I could read a novel was after I was in bed. The imaginary world and people in the stories helped me clear my mind of the day's problems so that I could relax and a fall asleep. A good book, however, had the opposite effect. I could get involved in the story and not want to put it down. And, when I did, my mind played around with what would happen next, or how did the author grab my attention the way she did.

Cliffhangers work

My wife reads to the end of a chapter before stopping. Some of the books I read don't allow for that. For example, chapters in Kathy Reich's Temperance Brennan novels nearly always end with a cliffhanger making it the most difficult place to stop. I read mostly on a Kindle, so it is easy to stop anywhere. When I go back to it, Kindle opens where you left off.

So, cliffhangers at the end of a chapters keeps me reading. What else can writers do?

When I was studying novel writing techniques, I learned about scenes and scene goals. I was taught that the protagonist must never achieve the scene goal. That seemed wrong. I wanted my characters to be happy. I wanted them to succeed. I didn't want them to keep bumping their heads against a brick wall. My instructor told me I must live a happy life with no conflicts. She said such a story would be boring.

In real life we tend to want to stay in our safe place. We seldom go where we are uncomfortable. But, reading novels is a way to escape, to get outside of ourselves and experience what's out in the world. If our character is facing a major hurdle, or could possibly be hurt, it is like watching a scary movie with one eye covered. We, the reader, want to know what happens next, but it is still hard to do. Curiosity wins and we keep reading.

The Hero's Journey

Another plotting techniques is The Hero's Journey. This is a technique proposed by Joseph Campbell. I won't attempt to explain it here, but there is a wealth of information available on it and how to apply it to modern novels. However, using this approach is an effective way to keep your readers turning pages.

Save the Cat Technique

The latest technique I've studied is based on a screen writing method developed by Blake Snyder and published in his Save the Cat series of books. He proposes fifteen beats from the beginning to end with the first being the Opening Image and the last the Closing Image. In between, there are beats with such interesting names as Set Up, Catalyst, Debate, Fun and Games, Bad Guys Close In, and All is Lost. This plotting method not only provides an organization to help writers remember to include numerous ups and downs on the way to the story goal, it also provides a formula for how many pages you should allow per beat.

Whatever method you use, don't forget to make your reader uncomfortable. For some reason that seems to keep them reading.

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