Some committed readers insist on finishing every book they start, but many have no trouble ditching stories that fail to draw them in. This feels like a worst-case scenario for writers. A reader meets our characters, but doesn’t care enough about them to stick around? Ouch.
We aspire to the opposite: a book readers will stay up half the night to finish because they can’t put it down.
Addictive fiction doesn’t happen by chance. It’s the result of meticulous editing and attention to detail. If you want to write a book that keeps readers up all night, try these tips:
Prioritize character development.
I just finished reading a book whose plot was dangerously thin, even for a character-obsessed reader like me. On many occasions I wanted to give up and put it down. However, despite the dragging pace and mostly-absent throughline, I read all 416 pages.
I did this because I couldn’t abandon the characters. Complex, flawed characters draw readers into your fiction and get them emotionally invested.
Don’t worry — this doesn’t mean you need to write likable characters. Think about what makes you want to see and hear more from real-life acquaintances. Let that inform your writing. Place something between your central characters and the thing they most want or need. Present tough choices, give them complicated relationships, and let them make mistakes. Even without a strong plot driving the action, readers will want to see how everything works out.
Let your characters drive the plot.
Readers need to feel like characters have real choices, even — or perhaps especially — if those choices are unpleasant or difficult. That’s what makes life, and your story, interesting!
Your characters’ choices and attitudes will drive plot events, just like some plot events will spark changes in your characters. This unpredictability and humanity will draw readers into your story and leave them eager to see how things get resolved in future chapters.
Include some oh sh-t moments.
If you take the advice above, you’ll end up with a few moments in your story when the bottom drops out. The triggering event might be a big mistake or moral lapse, a character death, a big reveal, a car accident, even the birth of a child. Anything that will force a paradigm shift for your characters.
After the moment that stops your readers’ hearts, they cross a threshold with your characters. They’ve now endured a life-changing event together. How they find their way out of that upheaval is up to you.
Trust your readers.
A big part of keeping readers hooked on your prose is not your characters or plot, but the prose itself. Every time you draw attention to how you put the words on the page, you slow the pace and risk pulling the reader out of the story.
One common pace-killer is redundant information: saying “his younger sister Jessie” instead of just “Jessie” after you’ve already introduced her. Reiterating details like “he always felt uncomfortable at parties” throughout the book. Basically, presenting anything the reader already knows as new information.
Another is explaining a situation the reader can figure out on their own. Don’t say “this was not what she’d had in mind for the afternoon” when your character arrives home to find her basement flooded. Avoid stuffing your first chapter with establishing information readers can either infer by reading chapter two or find out later in the book. Think about the first half hour of your favorite movie and what made you keep watching. It probably wasn’t a barrage of exposition.
Most writers fear people will miss our carefully-crafted nuance, but our stories suffer when we don’t trust our readers. Spelling everything out — sometimes multiple times — strips readers of their opportunity to think and use their imagination when they read. This makes a book a real chore, and it’s one of the only reasons I personally will abandon a novel partway through. Remember: one of the most important editing skills is the ability to trim away what we don’t need.