Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 18, 2022

Keep Readers Turning the Pages

by Ellen Buikema

If you want your readers to keep turning the pages, answering some vital questions early on will help them commit to your story. While developing questions for your readers piques their curiosity, you’ll lose them if you don’t provide them answers.

What kind of story is it?

Readers dive into a book looking for a specific type of reading experience. They have expectations associated with the particular genre and need to know they’ve come to the right place.

Literary nonfiction provides a certain truth to its readers, whereas the romance genre promises the hope of happiness, and horror guarantees a good scare.

Your readers should be able to pick up your book and immediately know the genre based on the cover art and back-of-the-book blurb. Here’s more info from Melinda VanLone on Genre Book Covers.

When and where is the story happening?

The setting is the story world and includes the immediate surroundings of the story. Like wine and cheese, good pairings make a difference. Creating the right location and time frame for your book’s genre can result in an instant classic.

Elements of setting may include:

  • Culture
  • Historical period
  • Geography
  • Time - The world looks much different in the broad daylight than in twilight or the dark of night.

Setting can perform the role of a character in the backdrop of your story. Consider the primary location of The Shining and the impact of the Overlook Hotel. What if the setting was located elsewhere, like above an ice cream shop? How might that alternative setting have affected the story?

Whose story is it?

You’re asking your reader to spend precious time with your characters. They’ll want to cheer for the heroes you've created. Readers will devour your book because they’re invested in the characters.

Characters who do the unexpected, such as responding to a hostile neighbor with kindness, offer non-complementary behavior that entices your reader to keep reading.

An authentic voice is essential. Including actual historical events or people can help move your story forward.

Here are some guidelines for introducing the protagonist.

What’s the story behind the story?

When we think story, we think plot. But what happened before the story? What occurred in the characters’ lives to motivate them to do the things they do? What is the good, the bad, and the horrific of it all?

The internal struggle and how events affect the characters are big parts of the story. Dropping crumbs of hints about the protagonist’s internal dilemma early in the story bonds the readers to your characters. Interesting subplots help readers to connect with your characters even more.

After introducing your cast in the first few pages, the readers need to relate to them. That’s why it’s helpful to develop a backstory for each character.

Some elements in a backstory are:

  • Where the characters are from
  • Family
  • Inherited temperament and traits
  • School
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Job or lack of employment

Once you’ve developed your characters’ backstory, you can keep the readers turning the pages by creating each character’s purpose. A purpose, goal, or mission stated early in the book will leave readers wondering:

  • What will they do to achieve their goal?
  • How will they do it?
  • Will it influence the other characters?
  • To what lengths will they go to reach the goal?

You can plan this strategy by:

  • Developing the character’s goal or mission
  • Showing the character’s attempt to accomplish the task
  • Thwarting the attempts

In addition to cheering for the protagonist’s achievements, readers empathize with the character's challenges and keep following the story to find out what happens next. Then you can introduce another roadblock until the reader finally gets to the part where the protagonist accomplishes the goal.

Learn more about keeping those pages turned with Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s post The Most Important Reader Question.

Use chapter endings to your advantage.

Closing a chapter with an internal thought, question, or a hint of what might come will keep the readers interested. Don’t make it easy for readers to close the book.

If you’re crafting a tale with cliffhangers, be sure they pay off. Imagine the following end to a chapter: a character takes photographs in the middle of a field and then abruptly disappears. Having your protagonist wind up in another dimension with two moons will make your readers far more engaged than learning in the beginning of the following chapter that she tripped and fell. Make your readers happy. The characters will figure their way out of whatever situation you create.

What keeps you reading a story? How do you feel about chapter cliffhangers? What other questions might readers need to be satisfied in order to bond with the characters?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by Thomas Tangelder from Pixabay

9 comments on “Keep Readers Turning the Pages”

  1. Thanks for these great questions, Ellen! It is definitely questions that keep me reading. While I may not like a cliffhanger ending at 2AM, I will absolutely read "just one more page..." to find out the ending. It is very rare for me not to finish a book once I start it.

      1. Is it bad that I love the stories that drive me to exhaustion, I fall asleep with the book on my nose, and dream in the story world?

  2. Great points, Ellen. I'm a major practitioner of the end of the chapter hook. I like to try to make the reader say, "Just one more chapter," until they find themselves at the last page of the book as the sun rises.

  3. I think it's also important to have your characters achieving a believable goal. It also shouldn't come too soon in the story, otherwise the reader will get bored.

    I ran into this problem while reading a book recently. The character got the almighty promotion around the middle of the book, but this promotion didn't seem to have meaning because we (the reader) didn't know what this job actually is. The character was then more worried about redecorating the office than actually doing the job. At the end of the book, I still didn't understand the purpose of the job. The author had failed to give the reader key information, and the assumption the reader would know was a huge black shadow over the entire book.

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