Keeping Readers Reading (And Yourself Writing)

steampunk readingIt’s becoming easier and easier for people to put books down these days. With so many entertaining distractions in the world, writers have to fight for readers’ attention more than ever.

Normally, I approach these articles only from the stance of a writer. However, today I’m going to wear two hats: one small writer’s beret with an over-sized reader’s fedora over it.

While it’s sometimes hard to think in two different modes, thinking as a reader can help you answer the age old question, “Is this story worth my time?”

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to present a series of “Reader Problems.” Then I’m going to try to analyze how I might solve the problem as a writer. In writing, I think there are minor problems, major problems, and holy crap problems. I’ll categorize each one and break them down.

Reader Problem #1: I’ve been reading this book for about ten pages now and it hasn’t really pulled me in yet. I think I’m going to go watch some cat videos for the next three hours instead.

Category: Minor or Major depending on the story

Writer’s Solution: Everyone has a different threshold when it comes to their “cut off point.” Meaning some people are more forgiving and will give a story several pages. Others may tune out from even the first couple of sentences. People have lots of stuff to keep up with these days, so they may not have patience for a story that starts out slow. Fantasy fiction in particular is known as being slower paced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes one really has to let the story kick into gear before putting it down.

A number of things may keep people going as readers (and writers):

1. A unique voice

I know this is the most nebulous idea ever known, but it’s one of those things that you know when you see it. Of course this comes with years and years of writing and tinkering, so this is probably the hardest idea to peg down. But if you have this “It Factor” with your writing, you’re already ahead of the game.

As a writer, the key thing is to keep writing. It’s difficult to develop your style if you’re starting and stopping projects all the time. Find a style you like and stick with it for a spell. This has happened for me with my weird, dark comic fantasy world Splatter Elf. It took years of tinkering around with ideas before I felt comfortable in my skin. You may eventually find your voice jumps out and bites you on the nose. Hopefully not literally. That’s creepy.

2. An interesting world

Sometimes readers may forgive a slower moving plot if the world is interesting. This could be due to the writer being excellent at descriptions and instantly immersing the reader. World-building is huge in fantasy writing, but it’s like putting cream in your coffee. If you have too much, it’s basically like drinking coffee-flavored milk. You don’t want your stories to be world-building with a wisp of a plot and skeletons of characters. Unless your characters are skeletons. In that case, carry on.

If you rely heavily on your world-building, then presenting it in an engaging way is important. Dumping it on readers’ heads for pages and pages may lose them. Keep it interesting and you may have a winner. Sometimes awesome world-building might save a story from being abandoned early.

3. Come in strong

There’s a reason so many people advise that making the first five pages (or even first five sentences) winners. It’s because readers honestly want to have that “Oh hell yes” moment with the books they read. They want to know that they’re in for a story that’s going to keep them awake at night. Even if they feel like crap the next day, there is nothing readers want more than a book they can’t put down. Coming in strong is your promise to the reader “This is going to be good. Just stick with me here.”

Writers can accomplish this in many ways. Some prefer to use a highly descriptive passage to showcase how captivating their world will be. Others may have an action scene. Yet another way may be to have a dialogue exchange. You can come in strong with various methods, but the most important thing is to maintain this quality throughout. I’ve seen so many reviews that say “Wow, this story was awesome at the beginning and then it just kind of tuckered out” or “This started out slow, but blew my mind towards the end.” So come in strong and don’t let up. Give the reader a reason to look forward to each time they pick up your story.

Reader Problem #2: This book has a lot of grammar problems and typos in it. It’s really distracting. I think I’ll go read something else that doesn’t give me grammar headaches.

Category: Holy Crap

Writer’s Solution: This is another thing that some readers can forgive if it happens a handful of times. But if your story is littered with these issues, it can quickly eject them from what’s happening. As writers, we have to be conscious of these issues before releasing stories out to the world. The easy solution would be to have critique partners who can snipe these issues for you. Or if you’re really terrible at catching issues, hire an editor. Good editors will make sure your story reads clean. You don’t want your readers thinking a wazard is fighting a legion of raging giblins, do you?

Reader Problem #3: Well, that chapter was decent. *forgets to read again for another month* Wait, I forgot what’s going on. Crap. Oh well. I’ll pick up something else.

Category: Major

Writer’s Solution: I’ve talked with numerous people over the years about books and this issue seems to be one of the most common. Someone might say, “Well, I got up to Chapter 7 and started reading something else. I tried to go back to it, but I was just lost.” Good and even great books can suffer from this issue. This problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved by cliffhangers at the end of every chapter (although that might not hurt). The one attribute I’ve noticed that keeps me reading is expectation. If I have some expectation of what is going to happen, then I’ll stay engaged and keep trucking along. The expectation could be of an upcoming event, a character making an important decision, a showdown, arriving at an interesting place, etc. My expectations don’t even necessarily always have to be met. As long as the final result makes sense, I’ll be happy with the outcome.

Having “Holy crap!” moments (in a good way) can help as well. George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire is appealing to many readers due to the fact that no one is safe. Seriously, no one. This makes the story-telling engaging because it goes against expectations. As I mentioned above, my expectations don’t always have to be met. Things only need to make sense. Many of the deaths in A Song of Ice and Fire defied my expectations, but they made sense. Therefore, as a reader, it even heightened my expectations more. This doesn’t necessarily mean books with tons of random shocking moments are good. They should make as much sense as possible. Otherwise you just have dozens of dead characters stinking up your novel for no good reason.

From my experience, if I’m reading a story that ends each chapter with burning questions (“Will Adeline finally reveal to her boyfriend that she is indeed a lizard person?”), then I’m hooked. The same keeps me writing. If I want the answers to questions, then it stays alive. But if I run out of questions to answer, I know the story has stalled and I need to add more fuel to the fire. Eventually the trigger has to be pulled on the answer, but that gives you the opportunity to present new questions to be answered. On and on until the story is over and the reader goes, “Wow, that was an awesome ride!”

An example may be a story in which Frank has just found out his new wife Lana is a witch with a rat familiar that spies on him through the walls. He loves Lana, but doesn’t like his wife using creepy familiars to keep tabs on him. Does he confront her about it? Does he hire an exterminator to take care of the rat? Does he play up good behavior so the rat will tell Lana nice things about him? Does he leave in the middle of the night only to be chased through a cemetery by a massive slobbering were-rat? If I keep asking questions about what Frank is going to do or how he’s going to deal with his problems, that’s a good thing.

Reader Problem #4: I think this is well-written, but it’s just not the kind of story I like to read.

Category: Minor

Writer’s Solution: Not a whole lot you can do here. There are always going to be readers that are wowed by impressive prose. Others may not care and want a strong plot. You can’t do Quality Control for every single reader on Earth. You have to only do this for your “Ideal Reader.”

Ah, the mysterious, elusive Ideal Reader. I’ve heard this phrase bandied around over the years and I believe it can help keep writers writing. When writers stop working on a story it’s usually because they’ve either come across a better, shinier idea or they haven’t pegged down their Ideal Reader. You want to figure out who your Ideal Reader is early on. You’re always going to either be super critical or super confident in yourself as a writer. So ideally you want your Ideal Reader to by someone else other than yourself. Which requires you to finish things and let people read them. Of course you have to be happy with what you’re writing, but if you want any sort of audience, you have to also think “Who is going to be reading this?” Your Ideal Reader could be a friend, a family member, a spouse, or anyone really. Keeping an Ideal Reader in mind will prevent you from worrying about every single solitary person loving it.

The only reaction you don’t want from readers is “Meh.” Aiming for that Ideal Reader may help you avoid trying to play to too many different audiences that you may never win over.

Reader Problem #5: Ugh. I have so much to read. I’m never going to get to (your book). Oh well. Maybe in ten years or so.

Category: Minor or Major depending on your outlook

Writer’s Solution: A massive stack of books glaring at your from the corner of the room (yes, they glare) can sometimes be a lot of pressure for readers. Common phrases may be:

“I’ve been meaning to read that for a while.”

“Yeah, I’ve had that one for five years and it’s been staring at me.”

“Oh, that one is good? I’ve had it since grade school, but never got around to it.”

“One of these days I’m going to read War and Peace. Seriously.”

As far as your actual story goes, it’s hard to hook someone that is too busy to get to it. Or they just have too many other books to read in their increasingly gigantic book stack (or e-book stack, whatever that would look like). This is where having a killer cover and blurb comes in handy. If you can get readers to move your story to the front of their To Be Read pile, it’s going to be done from the “outside” of the book. Word of mouth does wonders in this regard. Social media can be instrumental in getting your work in front of people these days.

But that all sounds like marketing, right?

Well, yeah, but your blurb is, like your story opening, your promise to the reader. It’s the earliest promise of face-melting awesomeness. So this can be extremely important in getting a reader to even consider your book in a sea of books waving their tiny book hands screaming, “Me! Me! Me!”

All in all, getting readers hooked connects very much to writers completing their works. My belief is that so many stories are left discarded because of a lack of expectations. If a writer has no idea where a story is going, it can sometimes be a good thing. But if a reader doesn’t know what the point of a story is, they might lose interest fairly soon. Give them something to hang their hat on. An upcoming event, a bizarre circumstance, a witty character, or a beautiful world. As a writer, you may too lose interest if things are clicking the way you want them to.

Bear in mind, the way I may handle these problems might be different than yours. And that’s what makes us all cool and unique as readers and writers. Some things we like and some things we don’t. I believe thinking about these Reader Problems can remind you that your role as a story-teller is to communicate something worth following. Worth picking up. Worth not getting sleep over. So write with that in mind.

What keeps you reading as a reader and writing as a writer? If you have other solutions, feel free to share your methods in the comments below.

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

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7 years ago

As a reader, I like how you remind writers that they should they think like their readers. I also want to share that every individual has a different point of view on what they’re reading. For me, every detail written in a book matters. And you deserve applause for showing writers what to do for their readers. Thank you for the nice article:)

Mary Enck
7 years ago

I sincerely appreciate the information you have provided in this article. For me, I can see ways to get my thoughts in order when it comes to my work. It helps to know that the isolation that comes with my choice to be a writer that leaves behind an out of touch state of mind is experienced by other writers. If they have some of the same problems that I do, it lifts any frustration from the choice I made. I want to be the best I can be and with the suggestions I have read here, I feel it will go a long way to aid me in getting my act together. Thank you for taking the time to organize these ideas.

Philip Overby
Reply to  Mary Enck
7 years ago

Thanks for commenting! I wish you good luck in your future works. And making decisions is always tough, it’s best to just stay committed to them.

7 years ago

This was really interesting. I loved the double perspective of writer and reader. It’s the first time I see an article like this. I read the entire thing without switching tabs to stare at my Twitter feed or check on my phone.

I’m one of those readers with a very short cut off point. If
the character and the prose aren’t to my liking, no matter how good the plot sounds, I’ll bail.

You have a page or two to engage me, or failing that, a page or two to not commit any pet peeves of mine.

I’m a bastard.

About beginnings, and keeping the reader reading in general, I like the idea presented on “Extra Credits” (video game design YouTube Channel) about video games keeping in mind the metric “Awesome Per Second.”

It’s a bit like a scene in The Simpsons where Homer finds a piece of candy on the floor. And then he finds another one, and another one, and another one….

I think it can be applied to books as well. The “awesome” varies from reader to reader, of course. What they mean is, don’t waste time. Give your reader something awesome to experience as soon as possible. It doesn’t mean to write a Michael Bay movie into your first chapters, though. Awesome comes in small packages that contain no explosives.

But maybe just one piece of candy on the first paragraph?

Philip Overby
Reply to  Nicole
7 years ago

Wow, I think that’s a pretty big compliment that you didn’t jump over to Twitter! 🙂

I agree, that “trails of candy” are definitely what keeps me going as a reader. I think sometimes that can be confused by meaning crazy stuff needs to constantly be happening to keep my attention. I feel like it means something I need to care about something happening in each scene. If it’s dialogue, it has to make me care about the characters, be funny, or advance the plot. If it’s description, it needs to engross me and immerse me in the world. So yeah, I think awesome is going to vary from person to person, but in order for readers to keep going, they need an incentive.

Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

I love the idea of using occasional “Holy crap!” moments to grab the reader’s attention.

A few years back I watched a series on producing television ads by Rhett and Link. This was one of the techniques that they used in their ads, and it was very effective. It can also work in writing.

Philip Overby
Reply to  Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

Yeah, the Holy Crap moments are part of what have made Game of Thrones an international hit with viewers. I believe people love the characters and all, but there is this kind of appeal of seeing what’s going to happen to your favorite character in this dark, unforgiving world.