Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Write a Hard-to-Put-Down Novel

Naomi Musch writes from the pristine north woods of Wisconsin. She spent five years on the editorial board of the EPA award-winning Midwestern Christian newspaper, Living Stones News, writing true accounts of changed lives. While pursuing her fiction-writing endeavors, she spent a year as an editor with Port Yonder Press. She continues to enjoy writing for magazines and other non-fiction venues that encourage homeschooling families and young writers, and loves connecting with new friends via: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and her website

The Quest to Write a Hard-to-Put-Down Novel

Writers and readers link together in a classic chess match. For the writer, it's a game of posturing and outwitting our reader, just to keep him guessing. For the reader, it's a game of clue searching and trying to recognize a ruse. And frankly, a reader enjoys being led on a chase. As long as it's fair, the guessing game will hold him happily in the pages of our books.

To do that, we have to be able to keep our readers curiously and emotionally suspended in our story. If we can't keep them wondering and emotionally entangled, then there's a good chance they'll put the book down.

There are ways to keep readers threaded along:

Avoid stock characters. These are stereotypes, which by their nature are predictable. They'll look typical (the brawny hero) and behave typically (who has a tender heart) and their next move will easily be foreseen (fights the conflicting battle over his love for the heroine and his angst from the past). While none of those parenthetical archetypes is wrong and might even be expected in a romance, there should be some deep, compelling layers in a character that will cause a reader never to forget this particular hero or heroine. They must have personality that exudes off the page -- even if they're the antagonist. Readers should find them relatable in some way.

Plan for plot twists. Think about the word "twist" for a moment, like twisting a dish rag. It gets tighter, tighter, wringing out every drop of liquid. A plot twist should squeeze out more and more tension, wringing out every possible emotional stress on the character -- and by proxy, the reader. Plot twists can be startling, but they also should have satisfying resolutions. Nobody likes the "it was all a dream" routine. To follow a story for hundreds of pages only to have it all become untrue in a moment when the main character suddenly wakes up in a sweat is nothing less than cheating. Some readers find it a good reason to throw a book against the wall. Don't do that..

Introduce engaging minor characters. These characters should be just as fully fleshed and inspiring
(towards love or revulsion) as the main characters. Also, new characters shouldn't just pop out of the mist without a reason to be there. It's always fun to introduce characters that will mess with the main characters goals, but new characters that are introduced should have a very compelling reason to become involved and should be woven in to the story fabric carefully, not just taped in place to solve a problem or to add a false dimension to a flat storyline.

Early in the story hint at the possibility of some disasters and/or personal growth a character might have to face. Foreshadow with scenes that imply the calamity or struggle a character might endure if certain things were to happen... which they won't, right? (Insert evil laugh.) Whether you are a seat of the pants writer who follows new twists as they spring onboard, or if you're a plotter who knows from the very beginning that a certain event is going to turn the story's direction, either way, you can foreshadow these events early on to build in story tension and keep the guessing game going. Remember if you create a shocking twist be sure you have enough compelling evidence in the earlier parts of the story to make it plausible.

Continually mount story conflicts so peril for the main character grows worse and worse, until the black moment seems almost insurmountable. In other words, even if it's a given in chapter one that hero and heroine will end up together, it's your job to keep the odds so stacked against them with angles and obstacles that the reader wants to keep reading just to find out how they manage it. This is the crux of all romance novels. I'm reading Ryan Phillips's cleverly written women's contemporary Ciao Bella right now.

I'm sure the heroine is going to end up with her lifelong best friend Oliver, but Phillips is doing a bang up job of ramping up the tension to get there. She uses great language, unexpected kisses, horrifying discoveries (for anyone with self-image issues) interloping characters, horribly timed disasters -- she really pulls out all the stops in the heroine's headlong crash toward catastrophe on her way to final bliss with Oliver. The path isn't at all obvious, and the characters make my heart bleed with empathy. Stories like this are just what any author intends -- hard to put down! So when you set your protagonist on course, make sure his or her pathway is strewn with mounting conflict.

Read your story drafts with objectivity. That's hard for authors to do, but it's a learned art. You can train yourself to step back and read your story while asking brutal questions such as these: Sure I like it, but will readers find it lagging? Where will they find it lagging? Is the path to conclusion too direct, to obvious? Are dilemmas too easily solved? Better yet, how can I give my main character an even worse time? Have I examined every avenue of conflict and made it as rich as possible? Are there scenes that could be expanded or should be cut? Do I live inside my character's psyche, so that readers will sympathize, or do I just "tell" a lot?  Like I said, this takes practice. Stepping away from the manuscript for days or even weeks is a recommended before giving it a cold read with the scales peeled off your eyes.

The quest to write a hard to put down novel takes well-planned moves, like a chess player always staying a step ahead of check mate. So it is with the intricate moves of writing a great story. It's a game of allowing the reader to think he has the solution solved, only to deftly place him along with your hero and heroine in check. Character dynamics that capitalize on reader empathy, plausibility within the scope of great plot turns, heightened conflicts and well introduced secondary characters, all add up to a page-turner, and a dance-like board match between author and reader that ends with a flourish.

Paint Me Althena

When still life artist Ethan Day discovers a fantasy painting by Althena Bell in a consignment shop, he's sure he's found Ava, his wife who abandoned him and their two little girls three years ago. Finding and rescuing her are one thing, but forgiveness and second chances are impeded by outsiders, and conflict between Ava's search for identity and Ethan's new faith might break the safety net she's fallen into. 


Ron Estrada said...

Great advice Naomi. I struggled with all of these, especially with canned characters. I love a novel that surprises me, so it only makes sense to surprise myself when I write one.

Tracy Krauss said...

These are wonderful tips Naomi. Its why your books are so engaging!

Julie Garmon said...

Good stuff! Thank you.

Naomi Musch said...

Glad you found some inspiration! Thanks for the feedback. :D