Grabbing the Reader’s Attention

Posted by: Todd Hunter

What causes a reader to pick up a book and not want to put it down?

The best way for a writer to know the answer to any writing question is to ask it of themselves, as a reader. This situation is no different. So, what makes a book so riveting that you don’t want to stop reading?

Personally, I’m a fan of any book which keeps the action moving, and I’d venture to guess this is the case for most readers, regardless of genre. As soon as things begin slowing down, I start losing interest. If things drag on for very long, I put the book down more often, and in some cases will put it aside for weeks or months at a time. So, if we assume most readers want action to keep moving, how do we (now back to being writers) do so and keep the reader’s attention on turning those pages.

  1. Start off on the right foot (or maybe the left) – In every footrace, there’s a starting gun. In your writing, you have to capture your reader’s attention immediately if you expect to keep it for the rest of the piece. There are multiple ways to do this, but some things NOT to do would be to describe every unnecessary detail of the scene, give every piece of back story you developed the story with, or have your main character wax nostalgic about their personal struggles. Action helps, but if you toss the reader right into an action scene without some setup, they’re likely going to be confused or worse, unwilling to buy your book (many readers will check out the first few paragraphs of a book before buying).
  2. Keep things moving (downhill doesn’t count) – The death bell for any novel is when the story stalls out. Interesting characters and situations have to stay interesting. Conflict helps. Anytime your characters look like they’ll reach their goals, put an obstacle in the way. Continue this pattern, making the stakes higher and the obstacles harder to overcome throughout the story, and you’ll have your reader’s attention. Life (and fiction) is more exciting when there’s more at risk and everything to gain.
  3. Don’t distract the reader (ooooh, shiny!) – Side plots can be interesting, but if they distract the reader, your pages might as well be a flashing neon sign, hard to look at and something to pass by completely. Readers read to relax, to get away from their every day lives. As such, keep things simple and uncomplicated (note: do not “dumb down” your writing). Plots should NOT have ever-overlapping threads which a reader has to stop and diagram out on a white board to comprehend. The same holds true for the number of characters a writer puts in a story. If the reader has to constantly stop and look back through material they’ve already read to remember a character (out of the twenty in the story), they’ll get frustrated and will most likely set your book down. If they do happen to pick it back up later, they’ll need to refresh their memory on your characters and will probably put the book away again during the attempt.
  4. Start funneling the reader toward the end (clean out the motor oil first) – Readers like to relax, as mentioned. They also like to believe they’re going to reach the end of a book eventually (they have their own lives after all). An author needs to be able to give readers the sense that closure is coming if they just read a little farther. Granted, some books (usually based on genre) can pull this off easier than others. A mystery can’t make it obvious who the killer is too soon, for example. But overall, the closer the reader gets to the end, the more the action should pick up in anticipation of the climax of the story.
  5. A satisfying ending (try not to read too much into this following “the climax”) – Notice I didn’t say “a happy ending.” Not all stories need to have a happy ending (a few of mine don’t), because life isn’t predictable. There will obviously be those who disagree with this, based on the fact that readers want to escape their own lives (real life doesn’t always have happy endings either). But regardless of whether your have a happy ending or not, the reader must feel like the main character achieved their main goal. Otherwise, the reader is going to feel cheated. Although they’ve made it all the way through the book (which was our main goal through all of this), they’re likely not going to bother reading your next one. People like closure, and a satisfying ending is the best way in which to give one to your reader.

So, as you can see, it takes a lot of work to keep a reader’s attention throughout the entire novel. But through time and practice, it will become second nature to you as a writer. Hopefully these suggestions for grabbing a reader’s attention are helpful to you.

***

Excerpt from the first chapter of HEROES DIE YOUNG (and no, this isn’t the beginning of the chapter…did you really think I’d violate my own guidelines above?):

I turned my gaze down the entry corridor and saw carnage I wouldn’t soon forget. Rulusian bodies lay on either side of the hallway, burn marks from energy weapons as black patches on a background of dark green skin. The putrid scent of scorched flesh was in the air. I passed an open doorway on my left, and looked inside at crew quarters. More Rulusian corpses lay amidst sparks and clouds of smoke.

I lifted the transmitter again. “You’re sure there isn’t anyone on this ship?”

“Affirmative. All scans show nothing but yourself.”

“This damage is far too recent for my liking.”

“Did the crew abandon ship as we had thought?”

I grimaced. “Doesn’t look like it.”

I continued down the corridor toward the bridge. Dark blast marks lined the doorframe and floor, where an access hatch had been blown open. Smoke particles lingered in the air and I detected a faint chemical odor while my eyes watered. I took slow, cautious steps through the opening and became witness to even more carnage. Ten more Rulusians were collapsed against the wall or slumped over consoles, all roasted by weapons fire. I definitely didn’t need to meet up with the people who had done this. I didn’t get into the scavenging business to be a hero. Everyone loves heroes, but heroes have a tendency to die young.

I glanced at the console screens as I stepped around the short end of an oval-shaped outer wall. All of the displays flickered with minimal power from backup systems, while I stepped over a pair of corpses. I stopped at one and attempted to bypass the lockout. The sweat fell off my face onto the screens and formed little pools which slowly worked up enough courage to slide down the panel. I realized my attempts were useless and walked to a single access hatch at the back of the bridge.

“Jeanie, which bays contain contraband?”

“All of them.”

A huge smile spanned my face. This was a dream come true.

Unfortunately, I only had three bays open and there was no way I was dumping the crystals. Perfect opportunities like this were the exception and after these weapons were sold, I’d likely have run some more regular cargo. Even in such a huge universe, it wouldn’t take long for word to spread that I couldn’t be trusted to complete a delivery.

“Get ready to pull three containers in. The winches should be adequate.” I had a loading arm installed, and even though it was a lot more accurate, it was slow and cumbersome. There was still a bonus to keep in mind.

“Acknowledged.”

The door into the cargo hold opened easily, which I found odd as I walked inside. The air was stale and dry in my lungs as the floor panels clanged and echoed with each step. The door closed behind me and I glanced down the corridor at six bays on either side. The best thing would be for me to drop the first three bays and ignore the possibility of a better catch in the others.

A computer console beside the bay door monitored the ambient conditions inside, while a marked service panel underneath drew my attention. I shoved my Mark II into its holster inside my jacket and knelt down next to the panel. The cover came off in no time and I set it aside. A lever on the right, and two dimmed lights next to it looked like what I needed. Even though I’d never jettisoned cargo manually from a Rulusian freighter before, there were plenty of bays to find the proper technique. After I pulled the lever, the lights flashed in sequence a few moments. Then a miniature explosion sounded off inside the bay.

Just to make sure I hadn’t destroyed a perfectly good cargo container, I lifted my transmitter again. “Do you see it, Jeanie?”

“Pulling in the cargo now.”

“Two more on the way.”

I moved on to two more bays, going through the same process. As the third bay jettisoned, I heard another floor panel echo farther down the hold.

I pulled out my Mark II and stood, just as a floor panel at the very end of the hold flew up. A woman with bronze skin and black hair jumped up out from the crawlspace underneath, a disintegrator cannon in her hands pointed right at me. I fell to the floor just before her first shot hit the bridge door behind me and showered sparks down onto the grill. I fired a three-shot burst and she dove down in the crawlspace again, while minimal damage was done to the aft bulkhead. It also gave me the opportunity to run toward the bridge door, where the impact mark from her first shot still glowed. Eager for cover, I ducked around the corner into a small alcove as another shot hit nearby. Sparks fell at my feet while I pressed my back firm against the cold hard metal. My heart beat faster than it had in quite a while.

***

Questions on the HEROES DIE YOUNG Excerpt:

  1. What line (from this excerpt) spawned the title?
  2. Who’s the real bad boy (or girl) in this excerpt? Aston or the mystery woman? Why?

A free e-book of HEROES DIE YOUNG will be given to the blog commenter who gives the best answer to the second question above (as decided by me tomorrow morning).

And as a special bonus, I will choose one blog commenter to win a free print copy of HEROES DIE YOUNG. Just tell me why you deserve to win it more than anyone else (again, winner decided by me tomorrow morning).

***

T. M. Hunter is the author of HEROES DIE YOUNG, the latest science-fiction sensation from Champagne Books. His Aston West short stories have been featured in the e-mag Ray Gun Revival with his short story “Little White Truths” a top ten finisher in the 2007 Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll. He (and Aston) can often be found over at AstonWest.com.

Thanks to Jennifer and the entire Wild on Books crew for having me!

If you enjoyed this blog, make sure to check out my regular Monday blog posts on writing over at Aston’s MySpace page.

I live for comments (and love to give books away)! So, please stop in and say hi. Be sure to enter yourself to win a free copy of HEROES DIE YOUNG, and I’ll be around at various times throughout the day to respond…

31 Responses to “Grabbing the Reader’s Attention”

  1. Todd Hunter Says:

    Again, I’d just like to thank Jennifer and the Wild on Books crew for having me guest blog today! For those who’ve made it this far, thank you!

    Feel free to ask me any questions, comment on the blog, or just chat about something random.

    And of course, remember that I’m giving away free copies of HEROES DIE YOUNG to two lucky blog commenters. Be sure to enter for that! 😉

    I’ll be around throughout the day, so everyone get out your favorite snacks and beverage of choice (I know I have), and let’s have a little fun!

  2. Kimber Chin Says:

    Great tips on grabbing a reader’s attention.

    The happy ending not required
    doesn’t, of course,
    apply to my happy, happy world of romance
    (because the definition of romance
    is to have a happy ever after)
    but the others are spot on.
    Good things to remember.

    SO looking forward to reading Heroes Die Young.

  3. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Kimber! :)

    I’ve spoken with other romance authors on the topic of happy endings, and they agree with you. Personally, it would seem to me that if a reader went into a book knowing that the ending was always going to turn out happy, it wouldn’t be worth reading. That could just be me, though…
    :)

    Good fuel for conversation…

  4. Brit Blaise Says:

    I already have the book, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. It’s my reward for getting my work done!

    I think the Aston’s the bad guy. Why else the big smile on his face in the middle of the carnage? If those beings were important to him, he wouldn’t be able to smile.

  5. Todd Hunter Says:

    Aston can be a very, very bad man…but that’s what makes him so good. :-)

    Thanks for stopping by, Brit!
    Hope you enjoy your copy of HEROES DIE YOUNG!

  6. Brit Blaise Says:

    What was your inspiration for this story?

  7. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for asking!

    The inspiration for this story actually came from a dream I’d had (long ago). It served as the premise for the end of the first chapter, with some slight modifications.

    When I woke up from that dream, I immediately wrote down notes about what I’d seen, and began asking myself a lot of ‘why’ questions.

    Why would he be on the freighter? Why was the freighter derelict? The list continued.

    From that list spawned the rest of the manuscript.

    I still keep a notepad next to the bed…

  8. Brit Blaise Says:

    Dream release…since we are most always the center of our own dreams…

    What characteristics of the hero are most like your own?

  9. Todd Hunter Says:

    I believe both Aston and I are people who don’t like to get involved unless we’re strongly motivated to do so.

    That, and we both suffer from a need for self-deprecation.

  10. Brit Blaise Says:

    I just did about post about you being here today on myspace.

  11. Todd Hunter Says:

    Woot! Thanks! 😀

  12. Kim Says:

    Great tips for keeping the readers interest.

    I enjoyed what I read here today.

  13. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks Kim! Glad you enjoyed it!

  14. OFG Says:

    I’ve always loved dangerous men, that must be why your MC immediately appealed to me! :)

    I SO agree with your take on the ‘happy ending’. If I can make my reader glad she or he read the book, whether the ending is happy, sad, or someplace in-between, I’ve done my job.

    Those of you who haven’t picked up a copy of ‘Heroes Die Young’ need to do so! Aston West and Todd Hunter have done their jobs.

  15. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, OFG!!!

    Glad you’ve enjoyed HEROES DIE YOUNG…and I’m glad to see another vote for not-so-happy endings. I was beginning to think it was just me. :)

    On that note, I’m going to head off for a quick lunch break. I shall return shortly, so feel free to keep commenting, asking questions, and such. I’ll be sure to catch them all when I get back…

    (Yes, it’s early for lunch…I like to avoid the crowds, much like Aston 😀 )

  16. Todd Hunter Says:

    It’s been a great morning, everyone! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the questions and comments so far. If anyone has anything else they’d like to add or ask, feel free.

  17. Cathy M Says:

    1. “Everyone loves heroes, but heroes have a tendency to die young.”

    2. I am guessing the woman, since she is taking the- shoot first, ask questions later, approach.

  18. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Cathy!

    Consider yourself entered for the free e-book!

  19. Jennifer A. Ray Says:

    Todd, that excerpt from HEROES DIE YOUNG looks great! Very intriguing…

    I have to agree that if the pace of a story drags, I find it hard to read and am more likely to put it down.

    Also, having read horror, mystery, sci-fi, and thriller genres for most of my life, I agree that a good story doesn’t necessarily need a happy ending. I think I’m one of the few people I know who actually liked the ending to the Matrix trilogy. I thought it made sense for both characters and story.

    Of course, the one exception would be romance. People expect and need a happy ending in their romance novels. Outside of that genre though, anything goes, as far as I’m concerned.

    Thanks for blogging with us today, Todd!

  20. Todd Hunter Says:

    Looks like two votes for romance requiring a happy ending, and two for it not…I think we might have a brawl brewing… 😉

    Thanks for having me today, Jennifer!

  21. Cheryl Says:

    Great read!!!! Love Aston’s character.

  22. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Cheryl! He’s a great character to write about, too!

  23. Sandra Cormier (Chumplet) Says:

    Hey, Todd!

    Busy day for you today, huh?

    You have some great advice about moving the story along. I’d like to add that if you open up a book at any random page and it’s still interesting, you’ve done a good job.

    Regarding the happy ending vs. satisfying ending — romance requires a happy ending. If the lovers aren’t together in some capacity at the end of the story, it becomes a love story, women’s fiction, thriller or what have you.

    They’re all great genres, but the romance genre seems to have that one rule that sticks.

    Good luck with your book, Todd!

  24. Todd Hunter Says:

    I guess that means I’m going to be shut out of the romance club… :)

    That’s great advice on having an interesting story wherever you open the book to.

    Thanks for stopping by, Sandra!

  25. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by so far. We still have many hours left today, but I will be taking my dinner break. So, feel free to post your questions and answers (your entries for the free book contest)! I’ll be back in a while to answer them all.

  26. susan lee wiener Says:

    I’d luv to win this book for my most-deserving hubby. He loves books like this! Many thx.

  27. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Susan! Consider yourself signed up for the free print copy!

  28. lestopath Says:

    Hi Todd,

    I enjoyed the tips for grabbing the readers attention-I plan on going back and reading some of the past blogs on this site regarding similar subjects- I especially appreciate you advising other authors not to “dumb down” Just because I like to read “brain candy” doesn’t mean I don’t expect exceptional writing, great plots and enough of a challenge to make the book worth my time.

    I’m afraid I fall into the happy endings side of the fight -The lovers have to be together at least for the moment…

    There are some Science fictions that i feel can have satisfactory endings…as long as i don’t feel bereft or need a does of serious chocolate at the end..Many of Sheri Teppers books leave you feeling resolved, thinking deep thoughts, pondering possibilities but don’t really have the characters contained within that need the happily ever after scenario

    I have never read your books but I am intrigued by the excerpt- I do tend to lean toward para -normal romances, vampires and the like-(my sons friends still tease me about needing a dose of alien vampire sex when they come home from college)

    Thanks to Brit Blaise-another author i need to try-for sending me the my space link :}

    here’s my take on the questions
    1. Everyone loves heroes, but heroes have a tendency to die young

    2. Although Aston is an admitted scavenger, he appears to be scavenging a ship that he believed the crew had abandoned. The copper skinned female aboard a green skinned Rulusian ship, with such recent death and destruction on board screams “Bad Girl” -Especially as she fires her weapon…of course there is the possibility that she was a rulusian captive/slave that was not detected by the invaders (since Jeanie didn’t detect her either) which might just make her an innocent as well :}

  29. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for the comments, lestopath! I do like the analysis you did of Aston vs. the mystery woman! :)

    Consider yourself signed up for the e-book contest!

  30. OFG Says:

    Don’t feel bad about being shut out of the romance genre! You’re in good company… neither of mine ends well for anyone involved.

    In fact… neither of mine ended well for ANYone involved! :)

    Who’s the ‘bad guy/girl’? Aston, of course – or so it would seem at first glance. But all things aren’t what they seem. The girl could be bad, or she could be a saint having a bad day, couldn’t she? The best characters are a lot of both, depending on the circumstanced.

    And why should I win a copy of HEROES DIE YOUNG? ‘Cause I want one! And I want it autographed. 😀

  31. Todd Hunter Says:

    Thanks for the comments, OFG! Consider yourself entered for the e-book and print copy!

    Competition’s heating up, just before I head off to bed for the evening. Everyone keep commenting, and I’ll be back in the morning to pick those winners!

    Thanks everyone who came by, and thanks again to Jennifer and the Wild on Books crew for having me!

    :mrgreen:

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