Monday, November 11, 2019

The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The need to know is what keeps readers interested in your novel. Don't let them down.

My husband and I watch a lot of movies, and we often discuss them over a meal afterward. Years ago, we were deciding if we wanted to see Men in Black 3. We both loved the original, felt the sequel was meh, and had read not-great reviews about the third (we did end up seeing it).

Then my husband said something profound (as he often does) that really related to writing and keeping readers hooked in a novel.

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

Which totally nails why a book, especially in 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.

What are your readers discovering about your novel?

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 Healing Wars 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 readers 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.

(Here's more on Tah-Dah! The Best Place to Reveal Your Story Secrets)

So, take a look at your novel (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.

(Here's more on Is Your Novel All Premise and No Plot?)

A good mix of all three should give you enough reveals to show readers something new all through the book. While you don't have to have a reveal in every chapter (but it's 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? 

Originally published May 2012. Last updated November 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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.

  20. Sometimes an article comes along at just the right time. This is one of those times! I've been struggling to figure out why my second novel in a trilogy feels flat - I think I may have just diagnosed the problem thanks to this article.

    I'm also having an issue dealing with backstory in the novel. It takes place right after the end of the first novel, and I'm trying to write it so that it would make sense to a new reader, but that means that I'm having to include lots of backstory and worldbuilding and even though I try to weave both in, it's bogging down the story.

    Maybe adding in more reveals will help keep ongoing readers engaged while also reminding people of what happened in the last book and getting new readers up to speed.

    1. And this is why I re-run old posts and update them. Every time I do I hear from a writer just like you who needed the info. I'm so glad it found you.

      Book two backstory is tougher than normal backstory. I've found having a new reader read just that book is useful for catching things that don't make sense or where you might need to add more from book one.

      Here's a link to my backstory posts. Hopefully they'll help you as well:

  21. Janice, the current project I'm working on has places of backstory in the beginning chapters that does give the reader discovery. However, I'm wondering if I should spread out these scene to further along in the story now that I've read this post. What indicators would help me with these decisions?

    1. Beta readers saying the pacing, tension, or narrative drive dropped are your best indicators. They're good at pointing out where they felt like skimming.

      You can also check the scenes and determine if there are things in there that would keep a reader interested. Not all reveals are backstory related, so if readers are still learning new things, your backstory might be fine where it is.

  22. This is why so many movie sequels fall flat on their faces. They either have nothing new for the viewer to experience, or else the writer is forced to come up with new stuff that often seems at odds with what we learned in the first movie.
    It's usually better if the writer already knows what new stuff they're going to reveal in the next book while they're still writing the first book.

    1. Exactly. We don't always know that, and things do change as we write, but if we think about it beforehand, we can at least plan for a few "reveal growth" moments and brainstorm what new things we can add going forward.

  23. janice, i am so happy i came across your books and decided to give them a try; truly, your writing books have helped me think more and more about the story i want to write and how to make it of a great quality, even as an amateur author - thank you so much, hope all is well !!

    1. Thanks so much! You just made my day :) Best of luck with your writing.