Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ask O: How do I keep readers flipping pages?

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

Remember the first time you forced your weary lids to stay open for just one more chapter because a novel grabbed you so tightly in its clenching grip that you just “couldn’t put it down”? For me it was in junior high. The Chronicles of Narnia. At the end of each chapter—no matter how determined I was to turn off my lamp and let my eyes droop into blissful sleep—my yearning to know what would happen to Lucy forced me to plow ahead. And once I entered the next chapter, I was hooked.

A budding writer, even at a young age, I decided to figure out the author’s tactics for keeping me awake. Surely C.S. Lewis garnished some mysterious strategy to banish me from the land of slumber. But how?

I uncovered a few simple methods—which I’ve transformed to tools for my own stories ever since.

Scene and Chapter
It may seem logical that a chapter should follow this pattern: beginning, middle, end. By the close of a chapter, the reader should feel satisfied. A sense of, “Ah, that’s what should’ve happened.” Right? Well, I’m not so sure. This may be true for a scene, but a scene is not the same as a chapter. Confused?

First what’s a scene? A scene can be defined as a dramatic unit that happens in one geographic location. Like a mini-plot, it has an introduction, rising conflict, a climax, and a resolution. Beginning, middle, end.

But does a chapter have to follow this same pattern?

I think not. In fact, if we model our mate Clive Staples, it shouldn’t. Back in my junior high days (when I wore a girl mullet—but that’s a different story), I discovered a masterful strategy hidden within the Narnian pages. Here's what we find:

1. Scenes are almost never completed at the end of a chapter.
2. Each scene normally begins in the middle of a chapter.
3. The high point of suspense is hooked at the end of the chapter.
4. The beginning of the next chapter resolves the scene’s conflict.
5. Following the resolution, another scene begins in the middle of that chapter.

Pretty cool, huh? (Not the chart—my feeble creation—but Lewis’s scheme.) Keep in mind, a scene definitely needs that sense of resolution, but only allow your reader the luxury of breathing for a moment. Quickly pour on the conflict to keep those pages flipping.

The Question not The Answer
This little method wasn’t the only nugget I unearthed from Lewis. Alongside the above strategy, another way our friend Jack (what C.S. Lewis’s best chums called him) kept his chapter endings dripping with suspense was by ending with a question rather than an answer. Just look at the end of chapter one of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucy has entered through the wardrobe into Narnia, and she meets a strange creature with goat’s legs and man’s torso. We read, “‘Goodness, gracious me!’ exclaimed the faun.”

What? Why is the faun surprised? We expect Lucy to be shocked by this woodland fellow, but the fantastical creature is instead astounded by her presence. This opens a door to all the questions in the book, doesn’t it? The answer to why the faun is surprised to see a “Daughter of Eve” leads to great adventures and even the restoration of Narnia itself! So exciting!

And what’s more, the faun’s surprise also makes a young reader (me) sneak another chapter past bedtime. No questions are answered at the end of chapter one, but lots are raised.

Tune in next week for Part 2 (had to keep you in suspense!).

Happy writing and don’t forget to leave your questions in the comments or on Ocieanna.com


  1. I love this, Ocieanna. It makes sense to me and something that could easily be incorporated into the "auto-pilot" of novel writing - become second nature you might say. I love good formulas and this is good.
    Jan Cline


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