Six impossible things

Keeping the Reader Reading

Ultimately, writing is all about keeping the reader reading. There’s all sorts of advice out there on how to do this, ranging from cheap tricks to dense psychological analysis. Ultimately, though, all of them are a means to an end, and the end boils down to this:

In order to keep reading, the reader has to care about what may or may not happen next.

That may look a bit simplistic and/or obvious, which is perhaps why it sometimes gets overlooked. At best, a lot of the time people jump straight to “how do I get the reader to care,” which pretty much ignores a couple of other fundamental questions: 1) what the reader of this kind of story is likely to care about, 2) what the writer of the story wants the reader to care about, and 3) why the readers care about whatever it is they care about.

Until the writer has some idea what the answers to these three questions are, they cannot pick the right technique for how to get their readers to care and keep reading. A writer whose story is a look at the deep psychology of a grieving mother is unlikely to hook the readers who’ll like the book if the story starts with a dramatic, middle-of-the-action hook; a writer with an action-packed thriller isn’t likely to grab the readers who’ll enjoy it if the story starts with a long, action-irrelevant monolog on the protagonist’s teenaged angst.

What a writer wants the reader to focus on is a similar but not necessarily identical factor. Much of the time, the writer has, consciously or unconsciously, chosen the story they’re writing according to what they want to do. For instance, they want to present some dramatic action, so they’re telling an action-adventure story or a thriller.

Other times, though, the situation is not so clear: the writer wants to write about the emotional and moral growth of a protagonist who is an assassin or a spy, for instance. That story could look like a thriller or action story, but what the writer really wants to have at the center is the character. A writer who doesn’t recognize this can get dragged off course by their action plot, and end up with a story they’re unsatisfied with. (And a story that doesn’t satisfy the writer often doesn’t satisfy the reader, even if neither can quite put a finger on why it isn’t as compelling a read as they wanted it to be.)

Knowing why readers care tells the writer how to balance the various aspects of the story, especially when the writer is doing several things at once. Different readers are attracted to different things: they fall in love with one or more characters, they escape into a totally different setting/culture from their own, they want to be carried along by a thrilling or suspenseful plot, they want to watch an intricate puzzle being solved. The more of these a story does at once, the more readers it is likely to appeal to.

Very few writers I know make these fundamental choices consciously, but the most successful ones stick firmly to their central vision (what the writer cares about and wants the reader to care about), even when the character they want to delve deeply into is an action-adventure hero, or when the intricate political plot that is their chief focus requires a lot of equally intricate character-based interactions. Nonetheless, it can be a good idea to take a conscious look at these questions, especially if one is having difficulty sorting through all the recommendations for how to keep a reader reading.

Because how you keep a reader reading depends in large part on what kind of story you are telling to what kind of reader. In its simplest form, how you keep the reader going is a matter of presenting the reader with an explicit or implicit question (“Is it normal in this world for a frog to talk, or is this frog an enchanted person? Is he ever going to propose? Why is there a watermelon on that desk? Who shot J.R.?”) and then eventually answering the question at the right moment. “The right moment” means a) not immediately, but b) not so long that the reader has forgotten the question or given up on ever getting an answer.

Pretty much all of the “how to hook a reader” and “how to get a reader to keep reading” techniques are different ways of raising questions in the reader’s mind that will make the reader keep reading in hopes of getting an answer. Each way of opening or ending a story or chapter, or presenting information about the characters’ progress, is a way of raising different kinds of questions and/or timing the answers.

One event can raise multiple questions, or multiple kinds of questions, from “Do normal frogs talk in this world?” to “Why did this frog ask for a cigarette?” to “Is this talking frog trying to help me out, or is it on the side of the bad guys?” to “Why is the protagonist even listening to this dumb frog?” The more kinds of questions an incident raises and the more levels (emotional, moral, action, background) those questions are on, the greater the chances that a particular reader will find a question they care about getting answered (and the more interested a given reader will likely be, since very few readers truly read only for one thing).

How soon the writer answers the questions they’ve raised depends in part on how big the questions are. “Who is the murderer?” usually isn’t answered until the very end of the story; “Who drank the last of the coffee?” usually gets answered within a couple of pages, unless the writer makes it a running gag. Answering small questions within a page or two lets the reader know the writer can be trusted to answer the big ones that take longer.

  1. Good points throughout . . .

    It seems to me there are two distinct factors here in what keeps a reader reading. One is the “questions seeking answers” motivation, which is where discussions of hooking the reader generally seem to end up. The other is the question that’s bouncing around earlier in the post: What sort of story does the reader want to read — what kinds of events are most satisfying?

    We don’t read *just* to answer the questions, but also to enjoy a dynamic action scene, an illuminating reflection, an intense character conflict, witty banter, heartwarming moments. Seeking for more of these is also part of what keeps the reader going. (And, as the post observes, the desired experiences are different for different readers.)

  2. Lee Child (whose books aren’t my cuppa, but whose interviews I’m becoming a fan of) has a spiel on using unanswered questions to keep reader attention, and points out that even an inane question on a subject you don’t care about will keep most people hanging on for an answer. (Hence trivia questions on TV shows before commercial breaks, etc.) Apparently it’s hardwired into our brains.

    Also, I now have a burning desire to do a running gag about the last of the coffee. 😉

    • For me, that immediately mutated into a “who is drinking the coffee?” mystery: Four office mates, none of whom drink coffee, but who all take turns brewing a pot every morning under the mistaken impression that the other three are avid coffee drinkers.

  3. Thinking for a moment about the hook, I believe it’s worth considering the readers you don’t want too. If I mostly read, oh, milSF, and the opening chapter is a daring space battle, and the rest of the book is the romance between two people on different sides… there’s a good chance that I’ll buy the book on the basis of the first chapter, and spend the rest of my reading time waiting for it to get good again.

    At which point I may well bad-mouth it to my friends.

    Better, in this situation, to put me off up front by introducing the book with the sort of thing with which you mean to continue it – then I’ll think “eh, not for me” but not get annoyed with it.

    (A friend of mine came up with the “page 117” test – by that point in a book the introductory stuff is probably out of the way and by reading that page you’ll get a feel for what the main body of the book is like.)

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