When thinking about our favorite books, these are usually the ones you simply cannot put down and read over again with equal levels of delight. Our favorite stories are ones that hold our interest and captivate us from start to finish.
The middle of a story is often the hardest to keep interesting, there is a reason it’s called the “murky middle.” However, sometimes the issue might be getting things going, i.e. sinking a lot of words into world-building or establishing a premise.
If you can capture the reader’s attention at the start and hold it through the middle, usually you won’t have too many issues getting them to the end. However, don’t rest on your laurels. You owe it to the reader to keep things engaging until the very end.
It’s not uncommon for novice writers to wonder how to maintain a reader’s interest. Especially when we’re starting out, it’s important to write a lot without our inner critic, even if that means writing badly. Writing in abundance will hone your skills as a writer, but at the same time, it can lead to meandering prose.
1. Start with an interesting premise
If the concept of your story steps way out of the box, you most likely are headed in the right direction. An interesting premise will hook a reader for sure. Staying true to that interest will hold the reader’s attention from start to finish.
If ever you feel details of your story aren’t intriguing, look back at your story concept and think of scenes that align with the really cool premise you’ve already cooked up. Or if the opposite is true, where you have really cool scene ideas and a lackluster premise, consider changing the focus of the novel or teasing a unique idea to become a larger component.
2. Write what excites you
If you’re excited, your reader will be too.
Our passion and excitement shine through what we write. If you are about to sink the time into writing a novel (which is an extraordinarily time-consuming thing to do), you best better have interest in what you’re writing.
If you find the story boring before you even have it all written, maybe take some time to reimagine the story into something that truly excites you and invigorates your passion.
3. Increase the tension
When in doubt, blow something up! An easy way to increase interest is to increase the tension of your story. The way you do this is to raise the stakes and make things more difficult for your characters. This could come in the form of adding more problems, decreasing the likelihood of success, or increasing failures.
You could create a ticking time clock. You could kill off a character. You could use the mystical relic to only discover it’s useless. Whatever extra drama you decide to throw in, make sure that it connects to the character’s motivation and goals. This is me essentially saying, don’t blow something up simply for shock value. It might be enticing to set fire to a village, but unless there is a good reason that fits the scope of the story, it will end up feeling cheap, confusing, or overly theatrical to the reader.
4. Give the reader questions
Adding “questions” is just another word for adding suspense.
Are they going to make it out alive? What is she hiding? Who is the real father? What’s in the box?
Readers will form questions naturally when you keep vital pieces of information from them. Let characters have their secrets and let the reader discover breadcrumbs along the way. However, don’t forget to answer the questions.
There is a general rule to have one large overarching question that corresponds with the book’s central plot or theme (i.e. whodunnit? Will they achieve their goal? Will they find love? Will they defeat the bad guy?).
Suspense is a dish best served in small bites a reader can savor. Don’t leave them famished by withholding all the answers until the very end. Sure, it can be satisfying to tease the reader, but give them answers to smaller questions as they feast upon your narrative. Better yet, the answer to one question could make the reader have several more.
5. Include rises and falls in action
A long string of intense action or an avalanche of plot twists might leave your reader feeling fatigued or the literary version of whiplash. Giving readers too much can overstimulate and deafen the impact of your interesting plot beats.
In writing, we have a useful little thing called scene-sequel structure. This uses sequences of action and then reaction as the building blocks of your narrative. Not only does this structure do wonders for pacing your story, but it helps balance interest, thus keeping the reader engaged.
If you find your narrative is too active and jarring, add a bit of sequel (i.e. reaction). If it is too slow-moving, add more scene (i.e. action).
6. Tighten the pacing
There is a common adage for scene-writing that is “get in late and out early.” This is a pacing rule that means your point of view character should only be present in the scene for what really matters.
This means cutting the “hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” Or the “Well, that was a good chat, I really must be going.” Instead, open the scene in the meat of the action and end it just after a big revelation occurs.
If you find a scene lagging, try cutting out the first and last few paragraphs. In an initial draft, we often include erroneous details that can be cut without any dramatic impact on the plot.
It might also help to treat every scene as a mini plot arc. Start with an establishing shot of the current state, introduce a problem or question, include a try/fail cycle, and end with a resolution. This can be done briefly.
For example, a character is walking a dog in a park (current state). The dog spots a squirrel and runs off (problem). The owner tries calling out for the dog, but still cannot find it (try/fail cycle). The owner remembers the dog loves the park’s fountain and heads over that way, only to spot the dog being looked after by the story’s romantic interest (resolution). This scene could then segue nicely into the “meet-cute” or stir some already established intrigue between these two characters.
7. Kill your darlings
A great way to keep your story interesting is by crafting a tight plot. This doesn’t have to be done perfectly in a first or even a second draft. When revising, look for things that don’t advance the storyline and remove them. This could be full scenes, sequences, lines of dialogue, or even characters.
You might be keen to hold on to them because of some internal bias. It could be a lovable character archetype or a scene with a dramatic flair. Yet, this cool thing might not fit nicely into your plot. Save what you’ve created, but for the sake of your story, kill the darling and move on.
8. Increase the reader’s connection to the characters
Emotional connections will always win out
Nothing engages a reader quite like being emotionally invested in the character. You want readers to weep for their losses and stand up and cheer for their successes. How we get readers to connect with a character is through their heartstrings.
Human nature automatically places ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. We want the story to read like a portal into their thoughts and feelings. To establish said portal, we need our character to have genuine human characteristics, such as likes, dislikes, wants, dreams, desires, flaws, and a distinct voice.
If you find your story is lacking in interest, look at your character. Do they have well-defined and complex fears and ambitions? Think about what challenges test them and what victories satisfy them. What stands in the way of their goal and how they ultimately achieve their goal is where you’ll find the intrigue to keep your story interesting.