Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Keep Readers Reading (Story Breakdown, Part 2)

A post by Mary Fan
Hello again, everyone! Last month, I wrote about how to give your story tension and the different kinds of stakes (physical/external, emotional/internal, and moral/philosophical). This week, I'm going to talk about the next step: How to keep those pages turning.

Start establishing the stakes in Chapter 1
Readers have short attention spans, so it's important to hook them from the very beginning. Novel openings are always hard because you have to introduce your character/world/etc and your plot at the same time, and it's tempting to give your reader all the background/backstory/whatnot you've worked so hard to develop. Unfortunately, the days of "Concerning Hobbits"-style openings are gone. So give the reader just as much as they need to understand what's going on in the "here and now" of the first chapter and sprinkle the rest through the ensuing chapters (in the parts where they become relevant). And while you're at it, begin establishing the stakes.

Of course, books often have multiple stakes (and multiple conflicts), and they don't all have to be crammed into the very beginning. But by the end of Chapter 1, the reader should have some idea about what the conflict is. People are also naturally curious, so the more questions you can raise in the beginning, the more the reader is going to want to read on in order to answer them.

Once you've established your stakes, throw them into jeopardy. Give the reader a sense that dang, these characters could really fail. As a story unfurls, there may be several small problems that need to be solved along the journey to defeating the bigger problem. But when resolving these little problems, don't give your reader a sense of satisfaction. Each solution should open more complications, raising the stakes higher and higher, whether they're physical/external (e.g. linding a murderer, taking down a tyrant, winning a competition, surviving danger), emotional/internal (e.g. love interests getting together, character answering an internal call to greatness, discovering a sense of self, recovering from grief), or moral/philosophical (e.g. doing what's right vs doing what's easy, good of the group vs good of the individual, loyalty vs selling out, selfishness vs. selflessness).

Chapter hooks and reinforcement of stakes

One way to drive a story forward is to end each chapter with mini cliffhangers that leave the reader wanting to know what happens next. Even if a particular chapter wraps up a plot point neatly, there can still be unanswered questions. Reinforce the stakes with reminders of what would be lost if the character fails (murder gets away/love interest is lost/selfishness triumphs).


Surprises, revelations, and twists unsettle a reader and keep the story fresh from chapter to chapter. As the characters sally forth toward their goals, pull the rug out from under them. Shake things up. Don't let things get too easy. Anything dragged out too long starts feeling stale, even if the stakes are high. Twists let you inject a story with new impetuses. For example, you can have your characters working toward a goal, only to learn, once they've achieved it, that obtaining that goal either opens up a whole new world of complications or actually sets them back. The reader stays involved because they want to know what happens next... what the fallout from these twists will be, and how the characters will dig themselves out of this new hole.

Force the stakes
Whatever stakes you've set, force your character to confront them. This is most effective after you've spent several chapters building them up and up and up and throwing your character into ever deepening trouble. Around 70-80% of your way into your novel, have the situation force them into that final battle, that ultimate conflict in which everything that's at stake could be lost. You know the old saying "Chase your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them"? Well, you've been throwing rocks at them the whole time, and they've been dodging. Now, set the tree on fire. If they don't figure out how to get down from that tree, they're toast.

All Is Lost moment
All along your character's journey, there should be little failures and setbacks that demonstrate how rough they have it. The harder the situation is for them to get out of, the more engaged the reader will be in seeing just how the heck they win the day. But to make the ending really tense, have the danger close in around them. Let them believe they've lost. Have them fail. This is the moment when they're in that burning tree with rocks hurling at them and think, "Damn, I'm going to die here." At this point, your reader is totally hooked. So when your character MacGyvers a fire extinguisher and a parachute out of the contents of their backpack, then KOs the rock-throwing-fire-setting sonuvabitch, the ending will be incredibly satisfying.


Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I'm not sure if you've ever heard of this movie "Star Wars" or not, but supposedly the reason the finale is so compelling is because all three types of stakes are on the line:

a) physical/external - Will the Death Star blow up the rebel base?

b) emotional/internal - Will Luke be more than just a farm boy? Is Han about more than just money? Was Obi-Wan's sacrifice worth it?

c) moral/philosophical - Is the Force real? Does Luke really have it? Were Obi-Wan's teaching useful in a real-world crisis?

Mary Fan said...

What is this War of Stars you speak of?

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