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Apr16

Keeping the Reader engaged

Hi all, for this post I’d like to talk about how to keep a reader engaged.

 

In today’s modern era of television, internet, texting, social media, *insert distraction here* it’s almost impossible to hold someone’s attention. People want results quickly so that they can get back to whatever important or pointless thing they were doing. As an author, this makes keeping a reader engaged harder than ever before.

 

When writing a book, you’re asking someone to take a significant amount of time out of their day to get invested in your story. It’s not like other forms of media where you can write an e-mail, talk on the phone, watch TV, listen to music, and keep an eye on the kids. A book restrains a readers hands and then asks them to visualize a world that doesn’t exist.

 

That’s a big request for an audience that wants to do everything at once.

 

Let’s say that you miraculously got someone to read past your opening line. Now what? Obviously you want them to finish your baby which you spent at least a year or more crafting. How are we going to keep that reader engaged until the very end? This is where we take a lesson from television programming and apply techniques learned from the show Breaking Bad.

 

At the start of each Breaking Bad episode you’re given a preview of a scene. It could be a building blowing up, a burned stuffed animal floating in a pool, or fake metal teeth found floating in a river. The visuals are striking and foreboding. It leads you to assume that something terrible has happened to one of your beloved characters.

 

For instance, the metal teeth found in the river once belonged to a drug lord. This scene with no dialogue easily gets the point across that something has happened to the DEA agent Hank who is the brother-in-law of the main character Walter White.

 

In another episode it opens with a completely different scene of a stuffed animal floating in the pool. There is a lack of information and the viewer is left to assume that trouble has followed Walter White home. It is assumed that the drug cartels have finally found him and killed his family.

 

After you’ve watched these scenes you get a few options. Either the question around the mystery footage is answered in that episode or it’s resolved at the end of the season. Either way the scenes serve to get you interested in what’s going to happen next. By doing that, the show could get you invested in a different plotline altogether without having to answer your questions. It’s effective and keeps you engaged until the end of the episode and even into the next.

 

Apply this technique to your books.

 

A woman has been clean for six months but a recent setback in unemployment and the death of her child is tempting her to use drugs again.

 

BAD WAY TO END THE CHAPTER:

 

She grabbed the needle and jabbed it into her arm. Drugs flooded her body and numbed her to the pain of her loss.

 

GOOD WAY TO END THE CHAPTER:

 

She saw the needle sitting on the counter. Calling her, goading her to inject herself with a drug induced amnesia. She knew she shouldn’t.

 

[END]

 

Start of the next chapter: The woman was sprawled naked on the floor with a grin on her face and a needle dangling out of her vein.

 

These are the hooks you need to incorporate into your writing. You want to lure the reader in and make them curious about what will happen next. That curiosity, that mystery, that suspense is what’s going to keep people turning the pages. If you’ve stated your characters objective at the end of the chapter, GET RID OF IT! Don’t tell us that a character is going to go into a bad part of town to break up a gang war. Keep their intentions a secret so that we’re actively engaged in figuring out what this person is doing.

 

These hooks will not work with obvious plot points. If the reader has already predicted how your scene is going to end or what’s going to lead to the next scene, then putting a hook at the end of the chapter is worthless. You’ve already given away too much information.

 

For instance: A police officer arrests a criminal. Your hook is obviously not going to be “BUT WILL HE BE ABLE TO PUT HIM IN THE SQUAD CAR?”

 

Even if the criminal escapes, that’s a terrible hook. If you want to make it work, end your scene or chapter on the arrest. Then start the next chapter with glass scattered on the ground, an officer holding his bloody nose, a pair of empty handcuffs on a leather seat.

 

Get the reader engaged by giving them less and less information as the story goes on. Feed them clues to keep the mystery alive and then save all of your answers for the end or critical plot moments. Writer’s talk too much. Learn to talk less and let the reader fill in the blanks.

 

So go over your writing, see if you’ve given away too much information and cut it. It’ll make your writing much more enjoyable and you much more successful.

Wilmar Luna
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