Blog | writing craft | craft | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines
November 3, 2016
Snagging the attention of a reader so that he or she will sit down with your short story or book can be challenging. We all know that short story illustrations and book covers play a part in grabbing reader attention. This part is often out of the author's hands. The same is true with things like the back of the book blurb. Grabbing that first interest is often a team effort, which is great. We can use all the help we can get.
But once the reader begins reading, only one person can keep that reader connected and turning pages: the author. Kids have so many things pulling on their attention these days. So how do we keep a reader reading past that first paragraph? Here are six tips for doing just that.
1. Make it work past the hook.
There are literally entire books written on the topic of writing an attention grabbing opener to your story, article, or book. We know how important it is to make that initial connection, but what comes next is just as important.
As a writer you need to make good on the promise of the beginning.
If your story opening makes your book sound like it will be full of action and adventure, but you quickly slow down and flatten out, you'll lose that reader. Like the fish who is hooked but can't be reeled in, your reader will be the "one that got away." So ask yourself: what does my opening seem to promise to the reader? Does my story make good on that? Or do I start with a boom and then immediately slow down or stop the action?
2. Make the reader believe in your world.
As a fiction writer, I'm constantly writing things that aren't technically true. The world of my book doesn't actually exist. Oh, sure, something very like it exists, but that specific world with those specific people came out of my head, they’re not of the real world. As a result, I need to make the reader believe in this world that doesn't exist. I do that through specific detail given in action.
For instance, if I want the reader to believe my characters are actually in the kitchen, I'll have them interact with kitchen objects. Maybe my character will grab a cookie from a pan only to get scorched fingers that she waves and yelps over. The smell of that cookie and the feeling of the hot pan will be part of my making that kitchen setting real. This need for small, specific detail for world building becomes even more important when you're creating a fantasy or science fiction world, but try not to stop the story to just stand and look at stuff. Instead, move your characters through the world, having them interact with it just as real people interact with the real world, through the five senses. The more you do that, the more the reader will believe in your world.
3. Time for the ticking clock.
One thing that will help hold onto a reader is adding some element of tension to the plot. Make us anxious to know whether things will work out, and work out in time. This is a great place for a ticking clock. Now, that "ticking clock" might be connected to a very high-energy story such as a character who must free his little brother's leg before the tide comes in and drowns him. Or it can be connected to a much more normal event, like the character who absolutely has to finish the toy rocket she is making for her little brother for his birthday, and she has to get it done before he gets home from soccer practice. Also, once you get the "ticking clock" going, don't be afraid to speed it up a little. That rocket that had to be done by the time soccer practice is over, well, surprise, mom and little brother are on the way home *now* because soccer practice was shortened when the coach caught a soccer ball with his nose. A ticking clock adds tension but speeding up the clock is absolutely riveting.
4. Be careful with what they say.
Dialogue can be a very engaging part of your story, but only if it is doing the job it's supposed to do. Dialogue is in a story to move plot along and reveal character. It isn't there to do the job of narrative action. That means you really want to avoid dialogue that reads like this:
"We better pull that stake out of the ground," Mary said.
"Okay," said Paul. "I pulled it out. Hey, look at what's bubbling out of the ground. What is that?"
"It looks almost like blood," Mary said. "Maybe we better get out of here."
"Okay, let's run," said Paul.
"I'm glad we ran so fast to the garage," panted Mary. "Did you see how the ground was starting to move? I think we found the vampire."
Do you see the problem with this? Instead of letting us see the scene and move through the world, we're being told everything, which results both in flatter, less believable storytelling, but also weird, unnatural dialogue as well. So let the dialogue do the job of dialogue. And narrative do the job of seeing and action.
5. Watch your words.
Word choice is one of the best ways to keep your writing tight and exciting. Don't automatically choose the first verb that comes to mind (as it will often be the most common and least evocative choice). Instead think about the exact action you're conveying. What is the best verb to do that? If your character moves through the crowded room, we get nothing from the word "move." But a character who slips through the crowded room without disturbing a soul is doing something far move evocative.
Now picture a character who storms through the crowded room, knocking spectators aside without pausing. See how different this person is from the first one? How about a character who weaves through the crowd, nodding at each person with an apologetic smile? Or a character who bounces through the crowded room like a pinball ricocheting off the bumpers? See how much characterization and action you can coax out of a few word changes? And every single one of those was about someone moving through a crowded room.
6. Be careful who ends up in your story.
Create characters who get things done. This is one reason so many children's stories employ characters who are "larger than life." It's because characters like that get things done. And they'll do it in surprising ways. A character who merely bobs along through the story, buffeted by the choices made by everyone else might be realistic but probably won't help you much in creating an engaging story that holds the reader's attention from beginning to end.
Some truly masterful writers can accomplish much with "quiet" characters but it's really difficult, so think hard about whether you're one of those masterful writers or if you're simply crafting a slow moving story that will make your readers bail. If you are writing a "quiet" story, be sure to have it read by honest critiquers with experience in children's books (writing them, preferably, but at least reading lots of them). Ask specifically about how engaging the book is and how well it held interest. Because keeping the reader engaged will keep them with you from beginning to end, which is the goal of every writer.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.