10 July 2010

Grabbing the Reader's Attention

What causes a reader to pick up a book and not want to put it down?

The best way for a writer to know the answer to any writing question is to ask it of themselves, as a reader. This situation is no different. So, what makes a book so riveting that you don’t want to stop reading?

Personally, I’m a fan of any book which keeps the action moving, and I’d venture to guess this is the case for most readers. As soon as things begin slowing down, I start losing interest. If things drag on very long, I put the book down, and in some cases will put it aside for weeks or months at a time. So, if we assume most readers want action to keep moving, how do we (now back to being writers) do so and keep the reader’s attention on turning those pages.

  1. Start off on the right foot (or maybe the left) – In every footrace, there’s a starting gun. In your writing, you have to capture your reader’s attention immediately if you expect to keep it for the rest of the piece. There are multiple ways to do this, but some things NOT to do would be to describe every unnecessary detail of the scene, give every piece of back story you developed the story with, or have your main character wax nostalgic about their personal struggles. Action helps, but if you toss the reader right into an action scene without some setup, they’re likely going to be confused or worse, unwilling to buy your book (many readers will check out the first few paragraphs of a book before buying).

  2. Keep things moving (downhill doesn’t count) – The death bell for any novel is when the story stalls out. Interesting characters and situations have to stay interesting. Conflict helps. Anytime your characters look like they’ll reach their goals, put an obstacle in the way. Continue this pattern, making the stakes higher and the obstacles harder to overcome throughout the story, and you’ll have your reader’s attention. Life (and fiction) is more exciting when there’s more at risk and everything to gain.

  3. Don’t distract the reader (ooooh, shiny!) – Side plots can be interesting, but if they distract the reader, your pages might as well be a flashing neon sign, hard to look at and something to pass by completely. Readers read to relax, to get away from their every day lives. As such, keep things simple and uncomplicated (note: do not “dumb down” your writing). Plots should NOT have ever-overlapping threads which a reader has to stop and diagram out on a white board to comprehend. The same holds true for the number of characters a writer puts in a story. If the reader has to constantly stop and look back through material they’ve already read to remember a character (out of the twenty in the story), they’ll get frustrated and will most likely set your book down. If they do happen to pick it back up later, they’ll need to refresh their memory on your characters and will probably put the book away again during the attempt.

  4. Start funneling the reader toward the end (clean out the motor oil first) – Readers like to relax, as mentioned. They also like to believe they’re going to reach the end of a book eventually (they have their own lives after all). An author needs to be able to give readers the sense that closure is coming if they just read a little farther. Granted, some books (usually based on genre) can pull this off easier than others. A mystery can’t make it obvious who the killer is too soon, for example. But overall, the closer the reader gets to the end, the more the action should pick up in anticipation of the climax of the story.

  5. A satisfying ending (try not to read too much into this following “the climax”) – Notice I didn’t say “a happy ending.” Not all stories need to have a happy ending (a few of mine don’t), because life isn’t predictable. There will obviously be those who disagree with this, based on the fact that readers want to escape their own lives (real life doesn’t always have happy endings either). But regardless of whether your have a happy ending or not, the reader must feel like the main character achieved their main goal. Otherwise, the reader is going to feel cheated. Although they’ve made it all the way through the book (which was our main goal through all of this), they’re likely not going to bother reading your next one. People like closure, and a satisfying ending is the best way in which to give one to your reader.

So, as you can see, it takes a lot of work to keep a reader’s attention throughout the entire novel. But through time and practice, it will become second nature to you as a writer. Hopefully these suggestions for grabbing a reader’s attention are helpful to you.

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T. M. Hunter has always had a fascination with interstellar travel, spacecraft (and aircraft) and beings from other worlds. Twice a top ten finisher in the P&E Readers Poll for his short stories (2007, 2009), his book HEROES DIE YOUNG earned Champagne Books’ Best-Selling Book of 2008 award. FRIENDS IN DEED is his latest novel. For more information, including links to his published short stories and novels, please visit AstonWest.com. You can also find T. M. Hunter on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace as well.