I want to be clear: what this should really be titled is, “What Keeps Chuck Reading.” Your mileage may vary, and as such, you should drop down into the comments and tell us: what is it about a book that keeps you reading? I wanna know. All writers everywhere want to know. We hang on your every word. Like spider monkeys from a banana tree.
Every story’s got a hook. Maybe that hook is an idea or a conceit. Maybe it’s a character. Might be a driving question or a fundamental piece of the plot. Might be all of those things swaddled together and tucked away in a delicious narrative burrito. Whatever it is, it is a thing that grabs the reader by the nipple rings and refuses to let go. The hook alone is never enough to keep a reader reading, but it’s what often puts them on the path — a great hook lives in the first couple pages. Fail to hook ‘em and you’ve already given them the excuse to stop reading. And I assure you, every reader unconsciously seeks a reason to ditch your story and move onto the next one. (But that’s a list for next week, innit?)
A good story should always be raising questions — not asking them directly, but instead forcing the reader to ask them. “Wait, what’s that weird symbol they keep seeing on the walls? What was that sound? Something’s up with that top hat-wearing fox that keeps following them, too. Where the crap are they going?” This is why too much exposition is a story-squasher: exposition provides answers and answers rob the reader. Answers must come, yes, but only at the right time — and, if the answers come before the end, it helps to raise further questions to replace those we lost. It’s a cruel game the storyteller players, like teasing a kitty-cat with a laser pointer. “Go here! Now here! Now back over here! Ha ha ha ha stupid cat you’re so adorable the way you chase an insubstantial red dot on the floor like it means something. Silly jerk.”
Building on that last one, you can have small questions peppered throughout a story (and, quite seriously, they do best when they lurk on every page), but you can also keep the attention of readers by introducing a single large mystery — in this way every story is an equation with some numerals replaced with variables, and the audience hungers to fill in the variables and complete the equation. Your best example of this are the questions put forth by murder mysteries: “Ye Gods! Who killed Professor Jingleberry?” Further, the mystery there is rarely as simple as one assumes: the mystery evades answer and as it does so mutates and swells and swallows whole new questions. The mystery must evolve, you see, sure as a beast in the wild must adapt to stay alive. Memetics over genetics. An evolving persistent mystery is another way to set your hooks in the mindflesh of the reader.
Give me a great character and I am like Yoda on Luke Skywalker’s back — I will cling to that character even as he does flips over fallen Dagobah logs and Jefi-kicks over R2D2 and quietly relieves his bowels in a murky well of swamp mud. That was in the deleted scenes, by the way. Shut up. What I’m saying is, a great character is one reason (and for me perhaps the best reason) I will keep reading.
We stop and lolly-gag at train wrecks, car crashes, and any episode of Jerry Springer where spurned Baby Daddies are chucking chairs into the audience. We love damaged people. We are fascinated by them. Don Draper? Tony Soprano? The Golden Girls? (Okay, never mind that last one.) We are like the one half of a relationship that wants to fix our damaged other half: it’ll never happen, but oh do we persist…
Let’s say you see a guy over by the salad bar. He’s wearing a trenchcoat and sunglasses inside. Hands in pockets. He keeps shifting nervously from foot to foot. He eyes up the door, the employees, the security camera. You’re not going to take your eyes off that guy. Because you don’t know what he’s going to do. Is he going to cram a mouthful of lettuce in his mouth and run for the door? Is he going to pour Thousand Island dressing down his pants? Is he going to scream, “THE BEES, THE BEES” and then fling Baco-Bits in some old lady’s eyes before stabbing her with an olive fork? You can’t take your eyes off the guy because he’s unpredictable. So too with a storyteller and his story: the less a reader trusts the story, the more the reader is inclined to keep his gaze unswerving.
And yet, some measure of predictability will keep us hooked, too. We sometimes read to experience expected outcomes — in the romance genre, the audience remains with the story to see how the couple finally hooks up. The mechanics of the romance remain unpredictable (in theory — the romance genre is often quite rigid), but the aspect of the romantic culmination is entirely known. In certain horror films, we want to see how the victims are going to die, but that they die is not a fact we question. Unpredictability leads into predictability, walking a weird tightrope between the two. And over alligators. Because fuck yeah, alligators. Am I right? I’m totally right.
The unreliable narrator is a combination of the aspects of mystery and unpredictability I’m talking about — if I can’t be quite sure what he’s telling me is “true” in the context of the larger narrative, I’m compelled to follow along and try to suss out the truth, to sniff out the lie like it’s a great big game of Balderdash.
Psychologically, we humans crave safety and stability — really, we don’t like conflict. Sweeping blanket statement, I know, but I think most folks want to make it through their day without the shit hitting the fan. That’s something you can capitalize on as a storyteller because, of course, good storytellers are dicks. Engineering constant conflict in the story keeps the readers chugging along because they want to get to that point of safety and sanity — they want to make it through the bad stuff and discover an oasis of good (palm fronds, mojitos, Tastykakes). It’s like they’ll do anything to get that pebble out of their boot. Use that! Be a dick! Put a pebble in the reader’s boot and watch how he’ll dance to shake it out.
Just as your book may contain many small questions and one large one, so too can it contain many small conflicts and — say it with me — one large one. Big, sweeping conflict — whether it’s a family falling apart or a galactic struggle between the forces of order and chaos — has a way of pulling us all into it the way a tornado eats barns and cows.
If you write in your own voice and the prose sings — meaning, it goes beyond utilitarian language (and I’ve nothing against utilitarian language) — then that is one way you’ll keep me entrenched in your fiction.
I like a story that moves. A story that has ice skates and a rocket up its poopchute and it has no interest in looking back to see if I’m playing catch-up. A story that moves swiftly doesn’t have to promise to me that things are going to happen because, ta-da, things are already happening. A book like The Hunger Games doesn’t waste much time before getting us into the action — yes, it takes time to get us to the actual games, but the interim is chock-a-block with event and movement and strong motivation. Time is at a premium for most adult human beings. A story that wastes our time is a story that gets wasted.
I also like dialogue that doesn’t waste time: I don’t mean to suggest that dialogue should be quippy and filled with constant “wit,” but it also shouldn’t take up massive real estate on the page. Dialogue that’s sharp and zips along like a coke-addled jackalope is the kind of dialogue that’s so easy to digest you find yourself sliding along the prose fast as a fat guy shooting down a zip-line.
A great antagonist — a true villain, a genuine malefactor — is “conflict” but given a face and a name. If you need proof that a great antagonist will keep people reading, I need only mention: Hannibal Lecter.
Aww. Poor widdle kitty cat dangling from the twee bwanch! Will he fall? Will he manifest the magical gyroscope cats reportedly possess and land on his feet? Will a hawk swoop in and carry him up into the clouds? Tune in next week to find out! Behold, the power of the cliffhanger: one of the great motivations for a reader to tell his loved ones, “Yes, yes, just five more pages. I need to see what happens! No, I know, I know, it’s Grandpa’s funeral, but Jiminy Christmas it’s not like he’s got anywhere to be. LET ME KEEP READING OR IMMA BLUDGEON YOU WITH THIS BOOK.”
A story that becomes something other than it seems — that pivots hard and shows you a whole new face — is a powerful thing, and compelling enough to drag me into its turbulent waters. Fight Club is a great example of this: you think it’s about one thing (the titular club for fighting which nobody talks about) but it keeps zig-zagging and not only exceeding its premise but leaving it behind entirely.
I’ve said in the past that every story is an argument, and that’s useful in terms of gluing a reader’s eyeballs to your story. By putting your argument — really, your theme — on the chopping block, you’re telling me you’re going to prove to me in the narrative that This Thing Is True. You’re saying, “Love is doomed,” or “All people are shit” or “Chickens and cats are assholes,” and then with that thesis in mind you’re going to go about the tale and answer the charge you’ve made. But, like with all aspects of the fiction — mystery, conflict, theme — you don’t want to give away the ghost too soon. Storytellers string the reader along, and so it is with theme: you want them to be sure that somewhere along the way you’re going to botch it.
Similar, but different: a writer makes promises and then we keep reading to see if you’re going to fulfill those promises. Remember Bob Ross, the PBS painter? Big Afro? Happy trees, happy clouds? At the fore of the episode he’d tell you, “I’m going to paint a beautiful little meadow here,” and then for 25 of the 30 minutes in the episode, it looks like he’s painting with dog shit. You don’t see one happy fucking tree or cloud in sight. And you think, “He’s going to dick this up. Finally, I’m watching the episode where Bob Ross crashes and burns and cries into his own Afro and whips out a Tec-9 Skorpion and shoots up the studio.” But then in the last five minutes he whips that painting into shape and suddenly: the prophecy is proven true, nary a happy shrub or stone out of place. Stories can promise things — think about heist stories, for example — that the audience will hunger to see fulfilled.
Rising tension and releasing it over and over again is like fishing — you let the fish swim with the bait, then you yank on the rod (okay, no, not that kind of rod-yanking, settle down), and then you let the fish go again, and steadily you amp up the tension until you reel in whatever it is you’ve caught. If you’re like me, it’s probably a boot. Filled with electric eels. Stupid fishing. Point is, that ebb-and-flow of suspense is a prime mover to keep readers a-readin’.
I like a little fun in my reading. Doesn’t need to be a laugh-a-minute cackle-riot, and fun doesn’t even need to be outright humorous. But a little bit of fun here and there keeps reader-peepers open.
I want to feel like the very act of me reading the story matters — like, if I don’t read further, I’m somehow holding the whole thing up. I like a story with urgency, with a ticking clock and a chain of consequence and causality. I like a story that forces me to do the pee-pee dance as I can’t put the book down for 30 seconds to go and relieve myself on the houseplants. I want that feeling that the story is the boulder and I’m Indiana Jones. This kind of urgency lives in plot and character: a television show like 24 certainly has that kind of urgency (and the aforementioned cliffhangers) down pat.
A confident author with clear vision and purposeful language will keep me reading. It’s the author’s way of grabbing me by the throat and dragging me up the stairs with her. Put the “author” in “authority.”
I’m fascinated by auteur theory, where the author lives on the pages of all his work: I like to catch glimpses of James Joyce or even Stephen King, and that’s one reason I’ll keep reading. When I know that the author is writing from a place of honesty and personal purpose, I’m compelled to keep digging deeper into the creator’s psyche. Like a trail of clues into the cave that is the writer’s mind.
The reverse is true, too — all readers are looking for a piece of themselves in the work. They want the work to be a mirror wherein they catch glimpses of their own stories. This may seem solipsistic or Narcissistic but look at it this way: the author writes to explain his world and the reader reads for the same purpose. We don’t want to see our stories reflected back because we’re like preening peacocks: we want answers. We want truth that relates to us, that speaks directly to who we are and what we want and all the things that block us from our path.
Sometimes, I don’t know what keeps me reading. I just don’t. It’s some magical combination, some bizarre narrative alchemy, all of which persists beyond the known scope of human thought. It’s got all the things that the reader thinks equates to a good story: great characters, sensible plot, a story with depth, cracking dialogue, spaceships, dragon-boats, steampunk llamas, puppies, kittens, scenes of bondage and discipline, vampire mummies, botanical tips, hummus recipes, cheerleaders, and whatever else it is that adds up to a compelling read. Because that’s the goal, of course: to compel readers. To hypnotize them into staying with the book. You’ve got to pay them back for the time they’re giving you, and the way you do that is — well, by giving good story, that’s how. The best story you can write. Because at the end of the day, that’s what keeps them reading: you giving the story (and by proxy, the reader) all you’ve got to give.