Keep your reader hooked.
You want to write a story which will keep your readers gripped right from the start, that will keep them turning the pages right the way through the novel and which will leave them longing to read more of your books.
Brilliant beginnings make for readers who are gripped straight away.
Once you have the outline of your story and have brilliant characters in your mind there is nothing left to do but start writing. Regardless of any lofty ideals about creating a piece of literary genius, the most important thing about writing is to be able to sell your book, to create a readership who will want to read your book from start to finish and be so thrilled with your book they will be literally clamouring to read your next one.
The first line of your book is the only place you get a chance to grab your reader by the throat and make them pay attention. The first line is where you introduce your reader to what the story is going to be about for the next however many thousand words and make them actually care enough to want to find out what is going on. You need to immediately pose a question in the reader’s mind. What is going on here? Who is this person? What is happening to them? The reader needs to feel immediately invested enough in the action to make them and make them want to find out. You literally have a few sentences to create this desire in a reader. If you don’t grab them straight away some might carry on to see if the writing improves, but many will cast the book aside. There are so many good books available now, that readers won’t waste time ploughing through something that doesn’t show promise. That’s a big ask for a couple of sentences, but really that is all you have. Lose the reader at the beginning of your story and their attention will wane and unless the reader is your mother, or someone else who cares deeply about you – they will throw the book to one side and not pick it up again. That loses you a reader for that book and probably all the other books you might write.
So – how to create that ‘Bam’ moment? We’ve all seen it in real life; something that stops you in your tracks and poses the question – ‘who is that? What are they doing?’ Alternatively if we see something horrible again the sight stops you in your tracks. ‘Why are they doing that? What is going on here?’ It’s the same sensation you need to create when writing.
How do you write something that immediately locks your reader into the story. It is definitely not by writing ‘Once upon a time’, or making a banal statement about the weather. The opening sentence doesn’t have to have something hugely explosive happening, but it should have the same effect on the reader. You need to have their attention straight away.
Many people, when they are looking for a book will read the cover blurb. That is the initial hook into making the reader want to read the story, but it is the first line that makes them need to carry on reading. The line has to literally grab the reader by the throat.
Sometimes an attention grabbing first line will spring into your mind when you start to write, but on other occasions you will have to play around with the opening scenes until the right sentence makes its presence felt.
You can learn how other writers grab their reader’s attention by spending time in a book store, pull books from the shelves and look at their first lines. See what it is about that line that grabs you. You will probably find that the best ones are short and snappy, they immediately set the tone of the story and raise questions that you want answered. The opening sentence has to engage readers, build their curiosity, create intrigue and draw them in.
My personal favourite is from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier “Last night I dreamt I was at Manderley again.” Immediately the question is asked, who was doing the dreaming? Where or what is Manderley and why isn’t the narrator there?
‘They’re out there.”’ Is from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey , immediately poses the question – who is out there? Another of my favourites is Penny Vincenzi who manages to grab readers with her first lines – ‘Late, she was going to be late, for the bloody pre-wedding supper.’ This one from Another Woman. The reader is immediately wondering who is going to be late and why is she so peeved about the wedding supper.
Wendy Holden grabs authors with her ‘The Wives of Bath’ this begins with the brilliant ‘Hugo peeled his face from the white-coated chest of an exceptionally pretty woman.’ Perfect! The reader is grabbed straight away wondering just who on earth Hugo is and why his face is stuck in the chest of the exceptionally pretty woman.
Play around with opening scenes, mull over the opening sentences until you have something you feel is right, get that down and then carry on writing.
Once you’ve got the reader’s attention you need to keep it. You’ve got them to invest in your story, now you must stick to the initial promise.
The way to keep your reader invested in your story, regardless of the genre you are writing in, is suspense, build tension, make the reader wonder if the protagonist will ever be able to reach their goal.
You can build suspense and tension by keeping the stakes high in the book. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the character is going to die, or lose everything, but they have to be potentially going to lose or not attain what is important to them. Your characters must be likeable enough for your reader to want the characters to attain what they need to. Your plot will ramp up this tension, the protagonist almost attaining their goal only for it to be snatched away from them time and time again.
Tension in a novel is what will keep your readers wanting to read just one more page. And will get them coming back to you to read whatever you write.
Tension can be created by your narrative as well as the action.
A conflict is essential to the initial tension, this can be anything from a person about to lose their home, to a man trying to save the world from a huge explosion, to someone whose child is missing, or ill, there are so many interpretations, but all are equally valuable to a good plot.
When you are writing, let the tension ebb and flow. A book that is just one crisis after another will exhaust the reader, they want to feel the resolution is close that the protagonist has almost achieved their goal.
Tension can be created both internally and externally for a protagonist, it can be their own feelings, or equally something that happens to them literally. Within the story it is important to have secondary sources of conflict so there is other action going on apart from the main drama, this will allow you as the writer to build the tension and will also give the reader a breather from the main action.
There are three rules for building tension, ideally there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the third successful one, this creates the all important plot arcs that will keep the readers gripped. However, don’t forget, you are the writer, and as long as you understand the rules, you can break them.
When writing it is important that the tension is paces so the big moments of drama build slowly until you reach the climax at the end of the book, when it feels to the reader that the protagonist cannot possibly reach their goal or attain what is important to them.
It is important when writing that your characters are likable, that way they are interesting to the reader even when the plot ebbs.
The best way to learn about plot tension is to read, more and more,see how authors keep raising the stakes, asking questions that you want answered and have to keep reading to find out. There should be a sense of movement within the book, as it travels from one event to the next.
After grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping it throughout the book a writer then needs to finish the book in a way that will resonate strongly with the reader and make them sorry they have finished the book after they have raced through it to find out what happens. Great endings are not easy to do. The writer has already made the decision, usually, if the ending is going to be a satisfactory happy ending, or one that will leave the reader reeling. Both are equally good, but need to be done well to resonate with the reader and make them want to come back to you as a writer. If you want to write as a career then all of the dots have to be lined up.
The best endings aren’t necessarily predictable, unless you are writing romance, girl meets boy, something gets in their way, all is perfect in the end type of book. Even this type of book needs to have the tension ramped up throughout the story so that the reader is always guessing, will they? Won’t they?
The best type of endings involve an element of surprise for the reader. As a writer you don’t necessarily have to do anything hugely shocking, but just incorporate an element of the unexpected in the book. A good twist in the ending of the book will literally take your reader’s breath away. The more you read the more you will see this and be aware of plots that are building to one conclusion only to take you completely by surprise by going in absolutely another direction.
The stronger your tension in the plot, the more unlikely it feels that they characters will achieve all they need to, the better your end will be emotionally when the characters achieve their goals. If the book is character driven the moment of insight or understanding can make for a great ending, as long as it has huge repercussions for both the main characters and those who have more minor roles. Equally an ending for a character driven book where the protagonist didn’t change could be just as satisfying.
It is important when writing to understand your genre and the expectations of your readers. If for instance you are writing romance, your reader will be very disappointed if at the end of your book the hero dies. Readers pick a particular genre because the plot and the endings are satisfying to them. While a writer has huge artistic licence when working on a book you do need to stick to a certain degree to the rules. The whole point of writing is to build a career for yourself and that comes by creating a readership who are happy with what you do, who will be loyal to you because your work is enjoyable to them. So killing off a hero at the end of a romance would not make for good relationships with your readers. Equally if you are writing a thriller where the protagonist is expected to save the world, your readers will be fairly miffed if the bomb goes off and the important person is killed. There are books where this happens, but it is important when you are beginning your writing career to stick to the rules. Only when you really understand them can they be broken.
An ending can set up the reader for the next book in the series. This is a good way of building up a loyal following.
Don’t write your ending before the end. Sometimes it is tempting to tie up all of the loose ends in a book after the grand finale. Oh by the way, the missing dog was found and granny did pass her driving test eventually. There are threads that you can leave, especially if you are writing a series, these can lead into the next book. Otherwise, all of the loose ends need to be neatly tied up before the big climax in the book. Have all of those threads finished while the protagonist seems to be failing utterly in achieving their goal. That way the reader is left feeling sorry for the protagonist, and longing to find out what happens to them when everything is going wrong around them. Then boom, the satisfactory ending, where the reader can heave a huge sigh of relief that all is well in the world.
Make sure that if you are trying to surprise your readers that your endings are not improbable. They have to be realistic in the readers mind, something that is actually feasible rather than beyond the realms of possibility. Don’t for instance have a thriller ending with the muscular hero suddenly deciding he’s going to give up their career and become a ballet dancer, unless of course you are finishing a series.
There cannot be any better advice to a writer than to read, read and keep reading, but read as a writer. Read a book to discover what sparked your attention. How did the writer keep that attention, right through to the end, or what did they do to lose it. Not all books will resonate with you, so be prepared for that and stick to the genre you want to write in.
If you are writing a series, leave something for your reader’s imagination, something for them to discover in the next book or books. Give them a reason to want to buy your next book.
There are things to avoid like the plague when you are writing your ending. Don’t have a twist that is a real chiche. Such as just at the moment the world was about to blow up the protagonist woke up and all the book was a dream.
Equally avoid having ridiculous escapes, such as just as the villain is about to conquer the protagonist an eagle swoops out of the sky and carries them off. Readers want to be absorbed by the plot, they don’t want to be taken for fools and have the writer feel they can fob them off with a stupid ending because they couldn’t think of something better.
Another no no is to have a complete lack of resolution, or continuity into the next series. The protagonist spends the whole novel trying to get together with the man of her dreams, but at the end suddenly decides to move to Alsaka to monitor global warming.
Writing is not easy, good beginings and good endings are not easy. But with a little thought and knowledge you can create the perfect ones which will keep your readers coming back for more.