How to hook your readers

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Cranking out a page turner
Recently I heard an author claim that all genre fiction is a type of suspense. It hadn’t dawned on me until I heard that, but I think she was right. Now some of you are reading this and thinking since you have no dead body on the floor or evildoer stalking your heroine your novel does not fall into the category of suspense, but according to Webster, suspense is a state of mental uncertainty. It’s uncertainty that has your reader asking, “What’s going to happen next?” And THAT is the engine that drives a page turner. THAT is the question that keeps your reader turning pages and missing a good night’s sleep. A dead body or stalker definitely adds that element, but what if your story isn’t intended to keep your reader awake with fear? Now what?

It’s important to remember the habits of the average reader. First, they usually read at bedtime. Secondly, most readers will not quit in the middle of a chapter. Thirdly, every time a reader puts down a book, there is a serious danger he won’t pick it back up again.

Keeping your reader from putting your book down is tough, but there are tricky little ways of doing it that can work with all genres. The following are a few suggestions you might want to try to crank up the suspense and keep your reader up all night.

Short chapters
Some authors will argue that a longer chapter is better because most readers will not put down a book in the middle of a chapter. While that is true, if you end those short chapters with a hook, your reader will continue on to the next one anyway. In the meantime, short chapters lend an element of excitement and trick your reader into thinking, “I can go ahead and read the next chapter before going to bed. It’s only 10 more pages.”

Ending each chapter with a hook
If you’ve never read the Da Vinci Code, you should if for no other reason than studying the way Dan Brown ended the chapters. Brown ended each chapter in the middle of a scene. His characters continually opened doors then gasped and you had no choice but to read the next chapter to see what all the gasping was about. To make matters worse, he started the next chapter with another scene so you had to read several pages into it before discovering the reason for the gasping in the previous chapter. By the time that curiosity was satisfied, you were already into that chapter and being set up for the next gasp. Don’t believe for an instant that Brown did that accidently. He knew exactly what he was doing and it worked.

But what if you don’t have gasping doors?
No problem. You can still end your chapters in the middle of a scene and you will still have your reader wanting to see what’s going to happen. However, you have to make sure the spot you choose to end the chapter is an interesting spot. Don’t end it where the character stops to take a drink or scratch his head. Select a place where the tension is high. I’ve heard of some authors writing their entire novel without chapter breaks then going back later to decide where to place them. I’ve never done that but I have gone back during revision and moved some breaks in places I felt the story was lagging. Don’t forget to use love scenes for this technique too. If your reader has been waiting for 5 chapters for the hero to kiss the heroine, ending the chapter as he leans toward her will definitely drag your reader into the next chapter. But be careful not to lose the tension as you shift chapters. A good way to stop that from happening is to simply change point of view at the chapter break.

Add secrets to your story
Alice Orr, retired agent and current author, once advised that your hero and heroine should never meet by accident. She recommended that one of your protagonists should seek out the other for a specific purpose. I follow her advice with all my novels for the simple reason that it allows for delightful secrets. Suppose your hero seeks out the heroine because he feels responsible for the death of her husband—only she doesn’t know he was involved. Talk about a secret!

Layer those secrets
If the reader learns in chapter one that the hero was involved in the death of the heroine’s husband; you’ve lost a wonderful opportunity to hook your reader. Try to expose that secret in three different layers and disperse them throughout your novel. For example, layer one might be revealing to the reader that the hero had found the heroine intentionally (a fact the heroine would not be aware of.) Layer two might be that the hero was at the scene of her husband’s death (another fact the heroine may not know.) The final secret might be that the hero was the husband’s partner on an undercover case and he could have prevented the death somehow. This final secret might be revealed to the reader before the heroine knows or at the same time. Both reveals can hold a lot of drama, depending on the scene and would probably set up the big black moment. The secret that holds the most potential to destroy the relationship should be the last one revealed. That gives the relationship a chance to develop and makes the possible split more devastating.

Use dialogue more than narrative
As a rule, dialogue is much more interesting to read and moves more quickly than narrative, but some narrative is necessary to learn what the character is truly thinking and to get a glimpse of his/her past.

Prop up the middle of your book by starting over
The most dangerous part of your novel is the middle. That’s where the story has the biggest potential to drag and the reader is most likely to stop reading. When you reach that danger zone, ask yourself what you would do from here if the story had actually started at this point instead of 200 pages earlier. You’d be surprised what interesting ideas you can come up with to spice up the excitement.

One darn thing after another
Another tip from Alice Orr: Things are only interesting if your characters are overcoming obstacles. If all is peachy, it’s also boring. Consider making a list of things you can throw in your characters path to stop them from reaching their goals, then throw them with abandon. Your characters might not be happy, but your reader will be glued to the pages.

Use romantic/sexual tension to increase the suspense
Romance readers read romance novels because they want to fall in love all over again. They want to see a relationship develop between two characters that they care about. Don’t let the relationship develop too quickly or they have nothing to tease them along with the story.

The ticking time bomb
Adding a time element in your story will increase the urgency, thus the pacing. If your characters only have a certain amount of time to accomplish something or dire consequences will occur, your reader will be much more interested in turning those pages!

Good luck, and happy writing!

(This post was originally published on http://www.lisacookebooks.com)

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