Answer: Lots of glue!
But seriously, there are some books that adhere to our hands and we lose sleep and abandon personal hygiene in order to finish. Why is that? How are some books able to grip us and not let us go while others are a slog?
The reason varies from book to book and some narratives are just plain magic, but there are some principles that un-put-down-able tend to have in common.
Before I get to those tricks, I do want to acknowledge that not every novel needs to be un-put-down-able and that this advice applies most squarely to certain kind of books from a particular (and some might say Western) storytelling tradition. Not everyone is setting out to write something like the The Da Vinci Code, nor should they.
But it still pays to get your reader invested in your characters and their stories, and yes, this goes for more literary writing too, even if the techniques are a bit different. (I’ll also cover that in this post). Even if your novel takes you in a different direction, these principles have seeped into readers’ expectations and they’re worth bearing in mind.
Caveats out of the way. Here’s how to keep your reader turning the pages.
Orient the reader with mindset, motivation, plan, and stakes at the start of chapters
A character’s motivation is the reader’s north star in a novel. When you introduce something that the character wants and how they plan to get it, it’s almost like a clock starts ticking and the readers starts waiting to see if they’re going to succeed or fail.
Even better if the thing they want has heightened stakes (i.e. significant clear consequences if they succeed or fail).
Chances are you know about inciting incidents and the way these prompt the protagonist to want and go after something big. Even before your inciting incident kicks off, you can introduce a mini-quest so we always see the protagonist(s) going after something in every single scene, which will give your opening more momentum.
If you orient the reader at the start of every chapter around these four key elements, the reader will be primed to invest in what’s happening.
Show characters going after the things they want
Remember that clock that started ticking when the thing the character wants is introduced? Much like the piggy bank in Squid Game, the reader’s sense of investment swells every time the character tries to do something to get the thing(s) they want.
The more the character invests and risks, the more skin they put in the game, the more the reader will invest on their behalf. We see and feel how much the character cares and grasp what they ultimately value in part based on what they’re putting on the line to get the things they want and how they go about it. (Squid Game is a masterclass in mining this principle for tension).
Don’t reduce your characters to passengers in the novel, and be extremely careful not to view kids as powerless to shape their destiny when you’re writing children’s books.
Orient scenes around characters who are doing something to try to get the things they want, even if they fail at first.
Make the characters bump into conflicts as they go after the things they want
We’ve all read snoozer novels where two characters sail effortlessly into romance, perfectly understand each other, easily patch over any differences that arise, and glide on a smooth path to breathless kisses and marriage proposals.
It’s boring and doesn’t feel remotely real.
As we all know from real life, even two characters who share the same goals and love each other deeply eventually bump into conflicts that need to be overcome.
When protagonists go after the things they want they should encounter obstacles. How they choose to go about surmounting those challenges tells us a great deal about what makes the characters tick and forms a huge amount of the intrigue in fiction.
Make it as difficult as possible for your characters to get what they want. Ratchet up the scale and intensity of the obstacles over the course of the novel, sort of like a video game, with the big boss in the end. (This can be an inner journey as much as an external journey, like overcoming addiction or coming to terms with the past).
Don’t be easy on your characters. Make them work for it. The more the characters have overcome to try to get the things they want the more victories will feel earned and the tragedies will feel wrenching.
- Embrace conflict in a novel
- John Green and dynamic character relationships
- Don’t be too easy on your characters
Bring chapters to a definitive point
Once you’ve shown your protagonist going after the thing they want in a chapter, try to bring the events to a mini-climax that serves as a natural bridge to the next chapter.
For instance: A character finally reaches the treasure chest, only to discover that it’s empty, or a character finally summons the courage to kiss their crush but something interrupts them.
Think about chapters as mini-novels unto themselves. The character wants something, they go after it, they encounter obstacles, they either do or don’t get the thing in a climactic moment. The end of the chapter prompts a new open question that serves as a jumping off point for the next chapter.
If you can assemble your chapters as a series of intriguing mini-novels that build upon each other and ratchet up the intensity, your reader will be swiping through the pages as fast as they can.
What about literary fiction?
Sure, you more literary-inclined writers might be saying. This is all fine and good for thrillers and science fiction where there’s a character going on a physical quest. What about novels where things are quieter and there aren’t cliffhangers at the end of every chapter?
You might be surprised by the extent to which these core elements are woven into beloved literary novels too.
How does Chapter 1 of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison begin? With mindset and motivation:
It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!
It’s a complicated and nuanced desire, and he plays with time in an interesting way by orienting the reader around what he will eventually discover rather than what he wants from the outset. But the overall principle is here: it’s priming the reader around the thing the character ultimately wants.
The second paragraph establishes and raises the personal stakes and reinforces the motivation:
[My grandparents] stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. But my grandfather is the one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”
From there, the narrator puts the advice into action and is brought into inner conflict with his surroundings.
Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct — just as my grandfather had been.
The scene culminates with the narrator being forced to participate in a horrifying spectacle in front of the town’s rich people and receiving a cruel trick as a “prize,” which serves as a jumping off point for his college years:
I awoke with the old man’s laughter ringing in my ears.
(It was a dream I was remember and dream again for many years after. But at that time I had no insight into its meaning. First I had to attend college.)
To be sure, so much of what makes Invisible Man is in Ralph’s Ellison’s genius and the masterful voice and perspective. But when you pause and look deeper into literary novels, especially the ones that feel very readable, you’ll often find many of the same storytelling principles almost hidden in plain sight beneath the voice and style.
Do you have any tips for making novels un-put-down-able? Let me know in the comments!
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Art: Walther Firle – The Fairy Tale