The trick to keeping your readers engaged is to keep your writing engaging. How is this accomplished?
Opening is everything.
Have a good opening, especially with chapters. Don’t use your character brushing her teeth or tinkling while waiting for the shower water to get hot as a means of opening your chapter if that’s how the previous one started. It doesn’t work that way. Readers are mystical things. We’re easy to please… until we get annoyed. Starting every chapter the same way as the previous is a surefire way to get us there.
Short and sweet, fewer and neat.
Write a whole bunch on what you’re trying to say. Then delete 50-75% of it. Pare it down until you use the fewest words that pack the biggest punch, and trust your readers to connect the dots (but be reasonable—most people don’t want to become philosophers when reading fiction. Or, rather, most people don’t want to become philosophers just to understand your story).
Make sure there’s enough progression to keep your readers interested. Thrust them out of the daily busywork, and propel them into the next scene where, months later, the king comes and kills all of his own people because his jealousy over their simpleton lives ate at his ever-busy heart. Something.
Action, Action, Action!
If you don’t move forward with the plot, then add a bit of interesting action. Like the 5-year-old peasant who taught himself how to shoot the arrow that killed the king who slaughtered his simpleton friends and loved ones. Or Love Interest’s ___ist comment that made Romance Hero reevaluate the pursuit.
Focus on the right thing.
The most important piece I can offer is to keep in mind the overall Plot of your book. The plot isn’t about the way the waiter delivered the king’s meal, it’s about the king growing discontent with the demands and necessary ugliness of his responsibilities, or the moment where the boy started tying strings to sticks.
So, let’s not dedicate pages or even chapters to focusing on the king’s gown preparation every morning (though, talking about the newest addition to his train can add dynamic—victorious kings cut off a rivaling king’s train and add it to their own).
Your readers don’t need to see the minute details, but what they need to see is the finished product. When most people wake up, they get dressed and shower. You don’t need to show readers this; they trust your characters had to urinate and used toilet paper, or maybe even a wet wipe. And washed.
The point of the last two paragraphs is to warn you not to get focused and fixated on minutiae (trivial details) when they’re IN THE MIDDLE OF A WAR AND GUNSHOTS ARE BLARING PAST THEM, CANNONS JUST TOOK OUT THEIR VOLVO, AND THE MAN RIGHT NEXT TO MC CAUGHT A LEAD BULLET WITH HIS TEETH WITHOUT ANY OF THEM CHIPPING, TALK ABOUT HARDCORE!
The final point of the last three paragraphs: prepare your readers with what they should expect to see, and then show them the final product (not the process!). The MC is tasked with digging a quarry. Then, the hole in the quarry was deeper than anyone else’s. We don’t need to see his routine EVERY day until he completes his task. Unless that’s the point of the book.
Give your readers movement, or something new in every chapter, so they don’t feel like they’re rereading the previous one. Why do many agents pass on a book? Because the story sounds identical to another without enough differentiation. Why would a reader stop reading? Because each chapter is the same as the last and nothing has happened.
Ending is everything.
End your chapters STRONG. A good amount of them should be cliffhangers that leave your reader thumbing through pages all night without realizing it until the blue hints of sunlight stain the morning sky.
Or, end the chapter in a spot that makes the reader take a breath, a satisfied sigh, triumph.
Don’t end your chapter in an odd place, or in the middle of a scene, leaving readers feeling confused and irritated. Because readers are naturally irritable people.
Satisfying, believable actions.
It’s like having the stereotypical blond trip over nothing when she’s running away, or doesn’t look where she’s running and smashes her skull into some obvious object, or refusing to shoot the man who has a knife to her dog’s throat (I pity d foo who’d put a knife to my dog’s throat). Give your readers something they can gobble up, not something they’d spit out.
Make your story and dialog believable. Or, at the very least, plausible (think Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock The Proposal). There are times where believability is OK to be shattered—IF it fits with the character or story and is done right. Because if it doesn’t fit or isn’t done right, then it is both unbelievable, and unacceptable.
Humor is okay.
Keep humor in your story, but only if you’re good at it. I can’t tell funny jokes, and by the time I construct a brilliant comeback, the chance to deliver it is three weeks gone. However, my characters somehow excel here. Sometimes. Other characters are naturally unfunny.
The bottom line.
Avoid monotony, know the overall point of your story, don’t spend pages on insignificant scenes or detail, give your readers something fresh to consider, make sure your request to suspend disbelief is reasonable, be concise and—the advice I always, Always, ALWAYS recommend—write for yourself but edit for your readers. You may wish to indulge in minutiae because it’s important to you, but your readers don’t need the distraction. Use it like salt, not like water.
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