Capturing a reader’s attention is the goal for many writers. You want them to read and enjoy what you’ve written, but how do you know if you’ve succeeded until the book is out there? Beta readers are the first step, of course. They read your book while you’re still in the editing/rewriting stage, so they can tell you if your story is gripping and entertaining.
Sometimes, though, if beta readers didn’t enjoy your story, they don’t always know what to tell you to improve. So, what can you do?
You want your writing to take hold of your readers and compel them to keep reading, to find out more. Sometimes this comes with a plot twist, with a character death, or with something that is so surprising that they can’t put the book down. First, though, they need to start reading.
1 Give Your Story a Good Hook
It doesn’t matter how amazing the rest of your book is if you don’t capture their interest with the first few pages. Maybe even the first few sentences. You could start with a bit of dialogue, with something the reader might not fully understand, or with immediate action. Whatever works for you and your story, think of how a reader will react. Get them wondering What’s going to happen? and Where is this going? and What does that mean?
They shouldn’t be too confused, or they won’t want to keep reading, but you should hold back just enough to make them thirsty for answers.
More on this in Number 2, but you can even start with a question, perhaps even a dramatic one, such as Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? [The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin]
2 Insert Questions into Your Writing; Maybe Even an Answer
In more casual writing, you may pose a question directly to the reader such as Am I a troubled kid? Yeah, you could say that. [The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan] You can make an observation to them as well, and answer directly as if they’ve responded. Something like Yes, you’re right. Here’s why. or No, not quite. Here’s what really happened. Maybe even I’d love to tell you _____, but really, _____.
Another way to use questions is through your protagonist’s inner dialogue, or through outer dialogue. Having the characters asking questions of themselves and others voice a reader’s thoughts or might pose a curiosity that they hadn’t considered. Either way, it will connect with them and get them asking the right questions.
3 Don’t Give Them All the Answers
If you tell your reader everything they need to know right off the bat, there’s no mystery or intrigue in the writing. They have no reason to keep reading to find out more. Sometimes, this comes in the form of dialogue, in which characters know more than the protagonist (or just the reader—if the protagonist also knows what’s going on). Other times, it’s the narrative that’s unravelling the mystery.
You, as the author, know what’s going to happen, but the reader shouldn’t. Like in Harry Potter, which isn’t primarily a mystery novel, there are mysteries sprinkled in. What was the mysterious package that Hagrid picked up at Gringotts when Harry was buying his supplies? What is so dangerous about the Third-Floor corridor? How did the troll get in on Halloween? Who is Nicholas Flamel?
These are only a few questions that the reader is asking themselves while reading the first book. The need to know the answers push them to keep reading, and all the while, J.K. Rowling has sprinkled in clues that become obvious once you know the answer. If Hagrid just told Harry right away what the Philosopher’s stone is and that they’re guarding it at Hogwarts, most of the mystery would be lost.
People keep secrets all the time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes just by under sharing without realizing the importance of information. The hardest part as the author is to consider what each of your characters knows, because no one should know everything that the author knows, and all characters have their own perspectives.
4 Talk Directly to the Reader
Again, speaking directly to the reader is an excellent strategy, but not only to ask them questions. If you have an unreliable narrator, you may draw them into pondering why they should trust your word. If the narrator is your protagonist, having them speak directly to the reader builds rapport or connection. It makes the reader feel as though the story is being told to them specifically, like they’re special.
5 Use the Plot to Build Suspense
You may feel tempted to give your readers all of the information about things right away, but that just takes the suspense out of it. Withhold details that are interesting but nonessential to a reader’s immediate understanding.
If the story’s plot revolves around a group of vampires (the first vampires) and their plan to use the MC for a complicated ritual, don’t just hand out the information about how they became vampires in the first place or even what this ritual is. Like with not giving your readers all the information, keep them in suspense by offering hints and clues as the plot progresses, maybe throw a few curveballs at them by having your characters work out one explanation and being wrong about it—realizing their mistake when new information comes to light.
Plot is not the same as a timeline, so unless your plan is to go through the story chronologically for a specific purpose, you can order your story with gaps and jumps to heighten the suspense. For example, in Percy Jackson, even the narrator doesn’t always share their plan with the reader, even if they’re sharing it with other people. The reader is told that the narrator is sharing a plan, and often the other characters don’t like the plan, so even though the reader doesn’t know what the plan is, they can speculate, and are compelled to keep reading to find out if they’re right.
Being proven right is the best feeling as a reader, so give them just enough clues to guess where things are going for themselves, and then give the reveal; they’ll be proud of themselves and excited that they figured it out.
6 Write Captivating Characters
Creating complex and interesting characters is a great way to hold any reader’s attention. You want them to connect to the characters, to root for them or root against them. To do this, you should focus on a few things:
- what essentially drives the character
- why things happen rather than just what is happening
- difficult choices the character must make
- who opposes them and why
- how circumstances and experiences change the way they think, feel, and behave as the story progresses
7 Know Your Audience
A book written for adults is structured far different from a book written for children, or even teenagers. The same is said for different genres as well. Think about what would motivate your readers to keep reading. Do they like action and mystery? Romance? Thrilling scenes? Tense scenes?
If your story is a romance and the main couple are dancing around each other, what will make your readers root for them? Don’t be shy about teasing them with some heated scenes every now and again, but don’t keep stringing them along for too long (this gets irritating even for the biggest fans of slow burn). Have a few self-indulgent scenes, but don’t spend too much time before throwing in the next problem that they must face.
8 Be Visual and Present
You’ve probably heard of Show don’t tell, but this phrase is not entirely true. You need a proper balance of both showing and telling for a story to be great, and the key is knowing when each of these things are needed. For example, if your characters are going on a long journey, you want the reader to understand the scope of this journey, so you can’t just skip from scene to scene of things happening. You can’t write the entire journey in vivid detail either; the reader doesn’t want to know every step the characters take or every meal they stop to eat. What you should be showing are the important scenes. Perhaps the characters stop at a town and stay at an inn where there’s n assassination attempt, or maybe they are chased into a cave in which they discover exactly where they need to go. These are scenes, and should be described as they’re happening, ergo: showing.
Telling is when you just tell the reader directly what happened. Perhaps they sit down to eat, and you tell the reader “They ate salty cured jerky they traded for at the last town along their way.” This tells the reader that the group stopped in a town, though the visit wasn’t important enough to describe. The reason you needed to mention it, though, is so readers don’t wonder where the jerky suddenly came from.
9 Know Your World
This is just overall good advice for writing stories, but knowing your world inside and out is an excellent tool for making your book captivating to readers. If you know everything there is to know about the world, you can more easily decide what to share with readers and what not to share. Write more than what will ever go into the manuscript—outlines, character bios, short stories. You’ll really get to know the world this way, and all that extra practice will be helpful in the long run.
10 Consider Timeline
As mentioned above, story plots don’t always have to run chronologically. How will you structure your story? Sometimes, a story begins in a tense moment, and then rewinds to the beginning before working its way back to the present. Sometimes, the story begins by directly addressing the reader, talking about the present problems the character is facing, then jumps into the backstory and moves forward. One book I read followed three seemingly different characters which were later revealed to be the same character in three stages of her life with three different names, and the information that was revealed came in each section as the plot progressed, even though we were jumping backward and forward chronologically.
If you’re going to structure your book in a more chronologically complicated way, though, I recommend creating a timeline side by side with your plot outline so you can keep things correctly ordered. (Nothing’s worse than a character knowing future information just because you wrote the future in the last chapter!)