Urgency to Keep Reading: Does Your Novel Have It?

Photo credit: Gerg1967 on Flickr
A couple months ago, I entered the Pitch+250 contest over at Adventures in YA Publishing (a great contest by the way, that I recommend to all who have a query-ready MS). At the end of the contest, I received a scorecard ranking my entry by category, and one of the categories, I noticed, was “Urgency to Keep Reading.” 

I’d had a general sense for this aspect of writing before, but I’d never really put a name to it. Ever since I noted that category on the scorecard, however, I began to pay much more attention to it while reading. 

So what is the urgency to keep reading?

Whenever you see statements in reviews or blurbs like, “I couldn’t put the book down!” or “I was on the edge of my seat!” the reviewers are talking about the urgency to keep reading. It’s the element that has readers saying, “Just one more chapter” three chapters after they should have stopped, and it makes people stay up all hours of the night to finish your book. 

And I truly believe that it’s essential to the success of any novel in any genre. 

In order to create the urgency to keep reading in your novel, there are a few things you can do: 

  • Leave unanswered questions (until the end). Unanswered questions are a great way to keep readers interested. While you don’t necessarily need to string along the same question throughout the entire book, answering one question in a way that opens up several other questions is a great way to develop the plot, while still leaving readers to wonder how these new questions will be answered.

  • Put your protagonist in danger. Now, when I say “danger” I don’t necessarily mean risking your protagonist’s life (although it could be). Your protagonist could be in danger of losing a job, or a friend, or a dream—whatever it is, make sure it’s something that is dear to them. In some genres, this might mean your protagonist is in danger of losing his life, but in others, it could be a relationship or opportunity that’s at risk. The point is to raise the stakes so that the readers are not only cheering your protagonist on, but afraid that they may fail to save whatever it is that they are trying to keep.

  • Keep your protagonist from reaching his/her goal (until the resolution). This is a big one. Regardless of your genre, every novel must have a protagonist trying to accomplish or reach some kind of goal. The plot itself is then the character’s journey to try to reach said goal. In some novels, that goal may evolve along the way, but the important thing is that whatever the goal is, it is out of reach throughout the large majority of the novel. By making your characters fail, often repeatedly, to reach that goal, you keep your readers hooked because they’ll want to find out how your character will manage to succeed. 

If you incorporate these elements into your novel, you’ll be well on your way hooking your readers, and keeping them interested throughout your book. 

What books can you think of that successfully utilized the urgency to keep reading? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Want to keep your readers glued to your book? Here's the secret to writing a novel they can't put down. (Click to tweet) 
Is your book gripping? Writer @Ava_Jae shares the secret to writing a book your readers won't be able to put down. (Click to tweet)


Jen Donohue said...

I know I had an urgency to keep reading Thomas Harris' Red Dragon. I bought it for a plane ride, and while I was driving home from the airport received my only speeding ticket to date.

Ava Jae said...

While I feel for you for that speeding ticket, that's actually really funny. Thanks for sharing, Jen. :)

Shay Dee said...

Ooooh! I think I will have to enter this! One of my goals this year was to enter comps. I'm assuming that by pitch they sort of mean an extended version of a #pitmad tweet?

What stage did you get to Ava?

Hmmm. The Road by McCarthy wouldn't let me go and actually, some WIP's I've been beta reading have been pretty awesome!

Ava Jae said...

Definitely enter! I tried twice, and one time I made it into the first round and was cut, and another time I was a semi-finalist and I got a critique as a prize, which was fantastic. :)

As for the pitch itself, I believe it's close to that. It has to be less than 100 words. If you want details, you can contact Martina or Jan on Twitter (@MartinaABoone and @janlewis77) and they'll definitely answer your questions.

I haven't read THE ROAD, but I've heard a little about it. And also, I love when beta MSes turn out to be fabulous. ^_^

David Fuller said...

I like this, especially the "keep your protagonist in danger" advice. As a writer, I sometimes fall into the habit of letting the characters have "down time" that doesn't introduce new problems. I like to write these scenes but they always fall flat upon rereading them, especially to outside eyes.

By the way, I took a look at this with regards to how Tolkien pulled it off in The Two Towers. Every time I reread it, I'm struck by how he increased the mystery, tension and danger just by the way he structured that part of his story (and I'm not talking about the movie version -- Peter Jackson adapted it very well, I thought, in terms of making an exciting movie, but he made enough changes to it that it really doesn't work the same way, nor should it). If I can post a link here, I'll add it:


Ava Jae said...

Thanks for the link, David! I'll try to take a look at it when I get the chance. :)

The down time scenes can be a little tricky. On one hand, you need to let your readers (and characters) rest, but on the other, you don't want them to be so relaxed that the readers become bored. I've found that the key to writing interesting down time is to include some tension in every scene. It doesn't have to be life-threatening tension, but even just tension between characters or nervousness over something can do a lot to revive an otherwise flat scene.

David Fuller said...

Yes, I think the key is to have enough tension of some kind, whether relating to the main plot or a sub-plot, so the reader always feels that something is actually happening and could at any point get worse for the characters. :)

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! Great point, David.

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