Wednesday, May 30
The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations
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?
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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