Monday, 28 May 2012

Easy Ways To Keep The Reader Interested

The reaction I want when I read a story is Ooh, possibly Ah and maybe, if I’m lucky, Woo hoo! What I usually get when reading a WIP is Meh, maybe Blah and more often than not, Huh?

It’s all very well advising writers to write something interesting, but how do you do that? It’s all subjective isn’t it? When you read a good book it holds your attention — sometimes it’s obvious why, sometimes it isn’t.

So, here’s a list of the types of story elements that are universally attention grabbing. 100% guaranteed or your money back.
(subject to terms and conditions, excuses apply, time does not equal money, anyway I'm skint so good luck trying to redeem this offer)


You’re walking along the street and a man is walking the other way, do you pay him much attention?

What if you’re walking along and there’s a man hanging from a fifth storey window ledge?

We’re hard-wired to be interested in trouble. The more difficult the problem, the higher the stakes, the more absorbing we find it. This is the reason for rubber-necking, gambling, sporting events, gossip, and whole host of other human activities.

The temptation is to think you have to have life threatening situations to make the most of this, but struggle can come in many forms. I could be trying to stop an atomic bomb going off, or I could be trying to resist eating that slice of cake  I know is in the fridge (that last one isn’t so hypothetical).

What it comes down to though is judgement. Do you think the struggle is worth watching? If you’re not sure if the struggle is big enough, that’s okay, you can work with it. It may not require you to make it bigger, or more dangerous, it could be a matter of making it more intense or more emotional.

If the question you’re asking yourself is, Where is the struggle? Then you’re screwed.


This isn’t just the Boo! or The President’s an alien! type of surprise, although those can certainly be very attention grabbing. Whenever something happens that the reader wasn’t expecting, the reader will be engaged.

That’s one of the reasons humour works so well, even if it isn’t pushing the plot forward. Jokes rely on you thinking things are going in one direction, and they end up going in another. Creating a convincing false trail and then going in an unexpected direction will make the reader pay closer attention.

But random surprises aren’t very satisfying. Only when the unexpected turns out to actually make total sense do readers become appreciative of the skill being employed. Not very easy to do. 

The only real way I know is to read stuff by people who have done it and study how they got from A to B (or possibly A to C). Not something many aspiring writers are very keen on.


Knowing what’s coming and looking forward to it (or dreading it) is probably the best way to glue the reader to the page. However, that doesn’t mean just any event is going to be eagerly anticipated.

Plus, there has to be some indication of the consequences (good or bad) and there has to be good reason for the delay in getting there.

If we’re just waiting and waiting it can be easy to lose the reader’s interest. But even then you can string people along with the promise of something worth the wait. If you let them down though, you won’t get a second chance.

Consider the story of the Three Bears. We know Goldilocks is in bed upstairs. We already know she’s the one responsible for the eaten porridge and the broken chair. But building up to the discovery step by step, with a great deal of repetition, is what makes the ending work.

Although, it should be remembered what works for a child isn’t quite the same as what works for an adult.


We all love a good mystery or riddle. Whether it’s solving it for ourselves, or being told the answer, it’s rewarding.

The mystifying question isn’t that hard to come up with. Anyone can create a seemingly impossible murder. Few can then produce a satisfying explanation of how it happened.

It’s also very easy to give characters secret after secret, and unrevealed motivations for their actions. Eventually you have to provide answers and if they don’t satisfy, you can be sure no one will ever bother giving you the benefit of the doubt again.

You have to know how your puzzle works, inside and out. Just posing a question and refusing to answer it for 300 pages won’t cut it.


When a piece of writing actually teaches you something about the world or about life, and does so in a way that isn’t preachy or didactic, it can be extremely rewarding to read. If I knew how to do this I’d tell you. 

Addendum from Margo Berendsen: Here's another one to add to this list, but I can't take credit for it, I learned it from the StoryFix blog (Larry Brooks). Give the reader a vicarious experience. What are the inner workings of the Vatican? Or a terrorist cell? Or behind the scenes on a movie set or an emergency room?
Any other suggestions for how to get the reader turning those pages? Will happily add them to the list with accreditation to you.

If you found this post to be of some small use please retweet it, cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Anticipation and struggles are my favorite to use.

mshatch said...

As long I'm interested in the characters I'll go for a ride.

MC said...

Well put. The last part about learning something is very true and is something I look for when I read. A book can teach you a life lesson or it can just opens your eyes to see things a way you never did before.

mooderino said...

@Alex - mine too.

@mshatch - characters will only keep my interest for so long. Eventually I need a little something-something.

@Mandy - the learning part is probably the hardest one to get right.

Dan C. Rinnert said...

I think, perhaps, that in my current novel, I relied on surprise. Whenever I had something going on that was necessary but otherwise kind of dull, I would try to think of what could possibly be the most bizarre thing to happen to the character(s) at that moment. Then that is what I wrote.

Arlee Bird said...

You're right. I've got to keep these points in mind as I proceed with my writing in the future. I know it when I'm reading it in a book, but I'm not sure that I'm doing it.

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LD Masterson said...

I'm very character driven. If I connect with a character(s), I'll stay with the story until I find out what happens to him/her/them. But if the story has some nice twists and surprises, so much the better.

mooderino said...

@Dan - everyone loves a good surprise.

@Lee - see it in your own work is the hardest thing, I find.

@LD - it's usually the twists and surprises, and how the character handles them, that makes me like the character.

Unknown said...

Loved this article!

mooderino said...

@Suzanne - thanks.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think I've managed to keep the reader interested. Even this one dude that left me a one star review on Apple's website obviously finished the book in record time to call me a blasphemer for my ending and basically hope that god strikes me down for the things I do in my book.

So yeah...I had him interested (and angry too). I chuckle. As an atheist, being called a blasphemer is similar to someone who's upset that I don't believe in the tooth fairy.

Great post Moody.

Sarah Allen said...

Fantastic list. I'd say the struggle one is most important. I try to consciously keep it in mind and make sure its on every page as I write.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

AliB said...

A great guide to good story-telling - sounds so easy, but so hard to pull off, for me, anyway. To surpise the reader without just being annoying. annoying him, for instance, takes good plotting. the learning thing is important for me as a reader, but an info dump will have me give up straight away - so many balancing acts!

Margo Berendsen said...

And you put "easy" in the title??? (grin!)

Here's another one to add to this list, but I can't take credit for it, I learned it from the StoryFix blog (Larry Brooks). Give the reader a vicarious experience. What are the inner workings of the Vatican? Or a terrorist cell? Or behind the scenes on a movie set or an emergency room? The magnificent screen writing blog Cockeyed Caravan talks about the very first episode of E.R., something we didn't know that ER doctors did that gives us fascinating (almost titillating insight) into the ER. The same can be done with a more ordinary setting (a highschool lunchroom) if something really unusual happens - Jodi Picoult's 19 Minutes (and not even the school shooting part. What happened several weeks earlier in the lunchroom to the kid that precipitates his revenge).

Sorry.... lengthy comment. I'm always searching for what makes a book grab you and keep reading, you've got a great list here.

Tamm J. Palmer said...

So many times I start a book and think, So What? Struggle=conflict=tension. It must be there or why should we care? This was a great post, right on.

mooderino said...

@Michael - wait, there's no tooth fairy?

@Sarah - struggle is probably the most important element in most stories.

@Ali - I agree. Randomness, while surprising, doesn't really work.

@Margo - good addition to the list, have added it.

@Tamm - everyone likes to see someone fighting against the odds. It's in our nature, I think.

Nicole Pyles said...

I will read my share of books I like to call junk food books, simply because the story behind the character interested me. I think you mentioned this in the comments but the character's reaction to their present problem is what gets me going. I don't care if they are trying to save a life or restore a house, if they're reaction interests me, I'm so there.

Unknown said...

Great pointers! I will be coming back to this until I have all of them ingrained into my brain. :D


mooderino said...

@nicole - how a character handles their business is certainly one of the key attractions of a story, I think.

@Kathy - I'll be here!

cleemckenzie said...

All of these are great capture and hold story elements. I love the surprises a book offers up and if I can "escape" into a story, that's the best. Thanks for this.

Diana Alsobrook said...

Great article!

Anticipation is a tricky one. Done well, it keeps you reading to find out how everything will go down. However, if you're waiting for a character to figure out something that you (as a reader) have known for chapters upon chapters, then it can become frustrating. You know the revelation scene will be exciting, but that silly character keeps missing it! Or maybe that's just me ;)

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