Wednesday, May 30

The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My husband and I were talking the other day at dinner about the new Men in Black movie. We both loved the original, felt the sequel was meh, and I'd just read a horrible review about the third. This saddened me, as I'd wanted to see it (mostly to see Josh Brolin play a young Tommy Lee Jones).

Then the hubby said something profound.

"The first movie had the joy of discovery in it that was missing from the second."

And he nailed why a book, especially a series, can fall flat.

One of the ways readers stay interested in a story is by learning new things about the world and characters. The discovery of who they are, what they can do, and how everything works, can be very compelling.

When you're revising (or even during that first draft), pay attention to when you're revealing new information and how often you do it. If you have long stretches where there's nothing for the reader to discover, you risk them getting bored. They're seeing the same things they've already seen or the same solutions to problems, even if those problems are new.

Take my protagonist, Nya, for example. She has a pretty cool ability that's revealed in the opening scene. She can heal by shifting pain from person to person. Readers are curious about this and will stay with me as she pain shifts over the course of the novel. But since this is her power, she uses it a lot. That can get boring as readers know she's going to use it when she gets into trouble. It couldn't all be "and here's where Nya pain shifts to get out of this."

I needed to reveal new things about this power to keep them interested.

So at various parts of the book (typically when I raise the stakes or during a major set piece), Nya discovers either different ways to use her power, or that she can do more than just pain shift. Then she discovers new ways to use those new abilities. These little reveals keep the reader hooked because they keep learning new things about the character.

And it's not just character abilities or secrets. Plot points can be reveals, so can secrets, or even backstory (at the right time) can work as discoveries to hook your reader. Odds are all your act ends and major plot points will have some discovery element to them.

So, take a look at your story (first or later draft):

List the big reveals and discoveries and what chapter they happen in 

How many do you have? Are they evenly spread across the entire story or all they all clumped at the beginning (a red flag for too much exposition or backstory) or the end (a red flag for holding out on the reader)?

How many are plot related? 

This is a good indicator of your pacing, as things are (or are not) happening to move the story along. Few plot reveals or discoveries suggests a lack of personally motivated goals.

How many are character related? 

This is a good indicator of how your growth or internal conflict is moving along. If the character isn't learning/revealing new things about themselves, they might not be growing. Few character reveals suggests nothing is changing about that character and they're not trying or learning new things.

How many are backstory/world building related? 

If you have a lot here (or the balance is way off in favor of this), it's a red flag that your protagonist might not be driving the story. The focus is more on telling the history of a place or person, not so much on what the characters are doing. Some backstory reveals are fine if the reader wants to know that history or it bears heavily on plot or character arc, but if a lot of the reveals or discoveries are cool aspects of the world or situation, it could indicate you have a premise novel on your hands.

A good mix of all three should give you enough reveals to show the reader something new all through the book. While you don't have to get a reveal into every chapter (but nice if you can swing it), long stretches between discoveries could indicate a pacing problem. (or a plot problem if nothing new is ever revealed). If your story goes three or four chapters and nothing new is revealed, you might consider rethinking those chapters.

Keeping readers hooked is about making them want answers to their story questions. What happens next? What else can they do? How will they get out of this? What's the deal with X? Why is Y doing that? Learning new things keeps them interested and wanting to know more.

Are you revealing enough in your story? Are there any discoveries you could show that would strengthen your story? 

Looking for tips on plotting and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great post! I'm starring it in google reader for reference since its time to start my sequel. All of these things are great to remember.

    Hopefully the nature of a novel lends itself naturally to this, but maybe not. I know if I'm not learning new things as I write (definite pantser here) I get bored and stop writing. However, I'm trying to learn to plot more so the revision process is easier and this post will help me stay focused on details.

  2. Janice, you are arguably the best writing coach ever to blog on the web. Love your posts and thanks for this one.

  3. Ditto on what Richard said. I am learning sooooo much! Thanks, Janice!

  4. The topic of sequels had been in my mind for a while. I guess that the whole discovery element might factor into this. Once the world's established, it doesn't have as much of that charm.

    However, I think I pinned down another reason for the "second book slump". My theory is when the status quo of the first book is disturbed, some readers don't like the end result.

    "How dare you changed the setting on us! And we want our old hero back!"

    Or something like that.

  5. I was honestly just going to ask you to do a post on flow if information in stories.

    I'm a natural plotter who's pansting a conspiracy based set-up, so obviously when to reveal information is important.

    But I'm a bit curious about how you distinguish between your different categories. So my *big* revelation of the story takes place at the midpoint. It is a detail about the world (So worldbuilding) which is directly related to who the characters are, (A character revelation about themselves) and also reveals the point of the conspiracy (So more tangentially a plot revelation.)

    The other problem I'm finding is that so much of my early plot is revelation based(Ie my characters go through a series of adventures finding information)that I'm seeing a troubling disconnect to my (more standard) adventure-based climax.

  6. Thanks, that's a great insight. I can see it really helping to keep the story from falling flat in the middle (like the novel I'm reading right now).

  7. Great post, and something I'll definitly try to remember where I'm working on my manuscript. I've been trying to slowly reveal things about the world, and I noticed one of my beta readers pointing out little reveals I hadn't really paid attention to that told them more about the world in an unexpected way.

    I also notice this a lot with the next story my fiance and I are plotting out. We're running it as a table-top rpg, but he's definitly gotten the hang of revealing new bits of information about the world as we go, as well as raising the stakes during each session.

  8. Great post Janice. These are important points to consider for a first book and to determine if there is enough story for a second and third book. I've been noticing that I enjoy the second and third books in a series more when new settings and characters are introduced.

  9. The joy of discovery angle explains very well why some middle books are just as exciting as the ones on either side. First one that comes to mind besides yours is The Mage Storms trilogy in the Valdemar series (Storm Warning, Storm Rising, Storm Breaking). Each of the three books has their own set of stakes, and in each one, new discoveries are made about the characters, the world history, the plot, and even their understanding of how magic works. No slump there.

    I'll have to keep that idea in mind for when my hubby and I finish book 1 of the trilogy we're doing together.

  10. So good! I'll be back here often when I hit revisions. I'm currently in a "back story" section of my book, but I think I'll spread out the information a bit more. Thanks for the awesomeness! (I may not comment daily, but I definitely read all of your posts). *hugs*

  11. Excellent advice. Again, you've nailed it! I couldn't help thinking of the Harry Potter series as I read this, and how well Rowling does this. There are many new discoveries in each book, each chapter... no wonder the world was hooked.

  12. You have me thinking about how my reveals are paced, which is great. (And since people are listing other authors who pull this off really well) Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest books are great because, while the characters are questing around discovering new settings, they're also discovering how to work together as a team. There's a moment in book four, where the main character, Lief, suddenly realizes that when Barda reams his out it's because Lief just scared him by almost getting hurt. Yeah they're short books, but I'm still impressed that the author was willing to wait awhile to point out that particular aspect of her character.

  13. I've read so many posts about ways to pace your story and figure out if it's balanced, but this has to be the most interesting and plain darn fun way of measuring the pace of a story. It's good for diagnosing pacing issues, but also info-dumping, passive characters, a fault or lack in the plot.

    I've read posts that dealt with similar issues, but very rarely did they address so much with so few words.

  14. Charity, I've heard a few pantsers say the bullet point list works well for them. It's just enough to remind them what needs to happen and keep them focused. Might be a nice way for you to stay structured and still allow the freedom your pantser side prefers ;)

    Richard, aw, thanks so much!

    Amelia, thanks! You guys totally made my week ;)

    C0, good point. If you try to change too much you can also loose readers. It's all in the balance.

    Kathie, have you looked at ways to tie in the reveals to the adventure aspect thematically? I've noticed a theme can often help connect different arcs. They go on adventures to get the information, but the adventures themselves mean more if you look at them on a different level.

    RE Hunter, you're welcome! Best cure for flat middles is a good mid-point event. I like to really shake things up then. It gives you a place to work toward on the way up, and something to recover from and cause trouble on the way down. Fixed my boggy middles :)

    Sbibb, nice! I love when that happens. I really think my years of RPG'ing are why plotting comes so easily to me. It really trains you think think on your feet and look at options in any situation.

    Natalie, thanks! Same here. It's not unusual for me to lose interest around book 3 or 4 if all it is is the same basic story rehashed.

    Jaleh, I haven't read those, thank for the heads up! Trilogies are tough, especially that second book. But the reveals do make it easier. (if only I knew that when I write MY middle book lol)

    D.B. Smyth, hugs! comment or not, good to have you here :) Lots here for when you're ready to revise.

    Jo-Ann, exactly! It works.

    Chicory, very cool. One nice thing about reveals, is that they're handy when you have a plot lull. If there's nothing "going on" it might be a great spot for something to come to light.

    Astiko, aw, thanks! I do try to look at things in a different light. You never know what will make a topic click for someone.

  15. Very good suggestions--this was one of the things I took away from my first couple of mediocre-to-bad novels. When planning my current serial story, I outlined major plot arcs and then integrated major character development points throughout, so I could know how the characters would grow as the story progressed. Organic growth is still viable (and necessary) of course--but this gives you a much stronger foundation for both revealing important things and making sure the reader has a carrot every 20-30 pages.

    That said, you have to play your cards right. Reveals--and thereby mysteries--can often become so overwhelming that your work turns into Lost. An enviable position no doubt. But by the finale, there was simply no way they could please everyone.

  16. Cosmicvinegar, oh totally. Too much cam be a mess. Sounds like we have similar processes. I like organic growth within a framework as well. Best of both worlds :)

  17. I'm working on a sequel too and started plotting. This helps a lot. Thanks!

  18. I hadn't thought about looking at how reveals are spaced, but now it makes complete sense. Especially loved the idea of trying to make the character use the same power in new ways.

    I normally make a 'conflict-chart' for revisions, but looks like I'll also be making a 'reveal-chart' now. Thanks for the great post, Janice.

  19. What I really like about them, is that you can use them during the quiet moments and still keep the tension high and that sense of forward story momentum. Reveal charts! I love that.