When I set out to write a novel, I ended up reading more than I ever had in my entire life. I read non-fiction material to educate myself on the time and place of my story, but I also read a lot of novels in an attempt to understand what makes a good one. I read with the question in the back of my mind: “Why do I want to keep reading?”
Reading takes time that you could spend doing something else, so why would I choose to read a book? My two main reasons are education and entertainment, and if I can get both at the same time, all the better. I am a firm believer in “work hard, play hard”. When you have work or responsibilities to take care of, buckle down and get it done. But a balanced life is also important, and there’s nothing wrong with relaxing and enjoying yourself at the appropriate times. I have heard that reading books is much better for your mind than watching movies, for entertainment. Now I am a believer. After reading about ten books from different authors, it was almost like reading started to become easier. My mind more easily conjured up places and people, and the story started to come alive more freely. I would say that reading is somewhat of a skill grown by practice. As a bonus, sometimes I come in contact with something in my daily life that I would have no clue about, except that I read a well researched novel which talked about it. When you read an author who really does their homework, you can learn a lot. But I’m getting sidetracked.
One of the big things that makes a story interesting is high stakes. In writing language, there is an obstacle or problem that the protagonist must overcome or solve. If they can’t, the consequences are scary and very negative. The hero is spurred into action from a desire to prevent something bad from happening. If the reader empathizes with the main character, then the reader also wants to see this conflict or tension resolved. I find it amusing that most of us prefer to avoid conflict, high risk, and danger in our real, everyday lives, yet we find books and movies quite boring without them. We actually crave these elements in our entertainment, or it’s just not entertaining. I for one will admit that when I am in the middle of a book and the author has done a good job of creating high stakes and setting things up so that the hero might fail at any moment, I get sucked in and can’t stop reading. Plot twists like the tables being turned or the good guy encountering a new obstacle or challenge just makes it even better.
In order for the reader to care about the story, they need to care about the main character, or at least the cause he or she is fighting for. If the reader has something in common with the main character, it helps them to empathize or feel for them. It seems obvious that being human and having some vices and flaws is something just about everybody has in common, and many authors use this angle to create more appealing characters. We admire good guys who struggle against their own weaknesses and even bad guys who are skilled and dedicated to their own goals. A bad guy with at least some redeemable qualities, or who truly believes in his own cause makes for a more interesting story. By “bad guy” I mean antagonist. In some stories the antagonist is not necessarily bad, but they hinder the hero in some way or have conflicting goals. I find myself rooting for a hero who is honorable and willing to make a sacrifice in order to do what is right. I want to keep reading to see how he manages to overcome all the obstacles in his path.
Another thing that keeps me engaged is something happening. I get very tempted to skip paragraphs if the description of place or situation go on for too long. By “something happening”, I mean either action or conversation. And by conversation, I mean conversation with some conflict. I’ve read some conversations that are truly yawn-inspiring, and others which cause me to forget to breath. There is certainly an art to drawing out conflict for 300 plus pages. Delaying the resolution and keeping things interesting is a challenge. Keep things moving but avoid accomplishing the end goal until the right time. But action and conversation both give the reader the impression of immediacy – of being there where the story is unfolding, rather than sitting on the couch reading about something far away.
The main thing that keeps me reading is wondering what situation will face the hero next and how will he or she manage to overcome the odds. If the story has been dull and lifeless so far, that anticipation simply is not there. I can tell the difference when I have to renew a library book twice in order to finish it, versus the book I finished long before the first due date. Sometimes I give up and stop reading a book because it simply doesn’t engage me or suck me into the story. The characters and the things they are facing are simply not interesting to me.
What I’m talking about here is highly subjective. The Twilight series is a huge success, but when I tried reading two chapters from one of the books, I nearly went insane from the “he loves me, he loves me not” thought process that went on and on. Obviously a lot of readers out there really get into these books, but they must be in a different demographic than me, as in very young and female. I mentioned characters and causes the reader can root for. Taking the Twilight example, I really don’t care if human Bella gets together with vampire Edward or werwolf Jacob, or waffles between both of them for hundreds of pages. I do care about a CIA super spy who’s running around trying to stop a bunch of sneaky, well organized terrorists who have planted suitcase nukes in cities all over the United States. That’s why I say this is subjective, and there are different audiences who like to read different genres.