This is a guest post by Dr. John Yeoman
‘My life began when I murdered my grandfather and was arrested for improper behavior with a tortoise.’
How can we fail to read on? When we write a story, it’s not difficult to hook the reader in the first line. Any intriguing puzzle, high moment of drama or magical touch of wordplay will get them started. The challenge is to keep the reader enthralled in our story beyond the first page.
Try this simple strategy to engage your reader from start to finish. It’s also a tested way to gain a cash prize in a top writing award.
Many a story starts with a thunderclap and ends with an earthquake but it has a long dry desert in the middle. Elizabethan dramatists didn’t bother too much about this. Ben Jonson once remarked that his audience would slip out for an ale after the first Act and only return in the last Act to enjoy the traditional bawdy jig. So there was no need to work hard on the middle, he said.
You can’t afford such complacency in a modern story. Readers will put your story down and never come back. They’ll not buy from you again.
1. Inject Uncertainty
Every episode of your story, and certainly every chapter, must end with a gentle scene hanger. It doesn’t have to be lurid. But it must tempt the reader to turn the page. It’s also a sure-fire way to impress the judges of a story writing contest.
The simplest scene hanger is to maintain a tone of uncertainty at all times. (The term ‘suspense’ literally means ‘to hang, suspended’.) Nothing is ever quite completed. At the end of every scene, the circumstances beg for explanation. The future seems always ominous or, at least, unpredictable.
If the main plot-line appears to be emphatically finished, the reader will simply put down the book.
2. Use Foreghostings
A simple way to achieve this tenor of uncertainty is to drop in ‘foreghostings.’ These are more subtle than ‘foreshadowings.’ They’re hints of future events that the astute reader will spot but the principal characters might not.
Dan Brown has mastered this trick of suspense. His success suggests that maintaining suspense is what readers principally demand of commercial fiction. The Dan Brown secret is very simple: he incessantly shifts the scene to another scene just before the first scene reaches a climax. And in the prior scene he foreghosts each scene to come.
Scene, in this sense, means a single unit of action. To ‘change a scene’ usually means changing the characters and/or location. In Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, there are no fewer than 133 chapters. Each is a major scene. Within those scenes there are often several minor scenes, short episodes that switch back and forwards between characters or locations.
For example, the novel starts with Prof Langdon having been called to give an important lecture at the Smithsonian Institute. He’s racing to get there by 7pm when the lecture begins. The lift is slow. Will he make it?
The question acts as a foreghosting. We know that something odd is about to happen.
He gets to the door at 7pm exactly, straightens his tie breathlessly and walks in with a smile. And he stops. The scene closes with his thoughts: ‘Something is very, very wrong’.
What could be wrong? The reader has to wait for an answer.
The novel then cut to another scene, a teasingly long description of the Smithsonian’s architecture. Meanwhile, the reader is lusting to know: what was so wrong about the lecture room?
3. Cut A Scene Before the Climax
Just when the reader’s patience is at a breaking point, Dan Brown’s story cuts back to Prof Langdon. He’s still looking at the room. It’s empty. His invitation to the conference has been a hoax. But who is the hoaxer? And why has he done this?
Brown’s gambit is to cut a scene just before a moment of high tension, switch to a long episode of dry description or seemingly irrelevant dialogue to tease the reader, and then return to the moment of high drama. It’s like a tango: one step forward, three steps back.
The reader soon learns to expect this formula. Brown’s skill is in persuading the canny reader that, nonetheless, the revelation will be worth the wait. His revelations are usually unpredictable and even more interesting than the reader expected.
Of course, there are many ways to sustain suspense in a story but the Dan Brown tango is a proven formula. It’s a win-win guarantee of story pleasure.
Apply it to a story that’s even better written than The Lost Symbol and you’ll have a winner.
What techniques do you use in your story to keep the tension high?
About the Author: Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course.