Most novelists want to write a page-turner—the sort of book that’s so engrossing that it’s often labeled un-put-downable.
Most novels don’t get this label, for a variety of reasons.
- Bad writing
- Boring writing
- Lack of proofreading
- Feels generic
- Reader mood
But let’s assume you’re a good writer (you are!) you’ve got an interesting storyline (you do!) and of course you get your books professionally proofread! Assuming all that, why might someone put your book down?
I’ll start by telling you why I put a book down the other day. It was a romance. The writing was strong, the story grabbed me right away, and I liked the characters.
The hero, who was very much a reserved, slightly emotionally restrained sort of fellow (just the way I like my heroes) had a moment. His heart, which up until that scene, had been described as frozen, had a bit of internal reflection where he felt that cold, frozen heart thaw a little in the presence of the heroine.
Good stuff, right? It was actually great stuff. But I haven’t picked up the book since. Why?
Because that heart-thaw moment happened less than 10% of the way into the book.
With one tiny sentence, I lost all interest in the story. Had that scene come half way through? I’d have been all about it. Or better yet, maybe 2/3 of the way through? I’d have relished it. I’d probably have gotten The Tingle.
But because it came so early, I hadn’t gotten to know the characters—heck, the characters hadn’t even gotten to know each other—there was no emotional payoff. When I went to pick up the book again, I just…didn’t. The hero already felt on his way to love, and the heroine wasn’t far behind.
In other words, all the anticipation was gone. Anticipation requires tension, and:
Readers put books down because authors release tension too early.
In the example above, could the author have course-corrected? Yes, and she probably did. She’s an excellent writer, and I’ll likely revisit the book some day to see where she went with it.
But not all of us writers will get so lucky and get a second chance from readers, which is why it’s so important that we keep a tight grip on tension until the exact right moment.
Here’s your key takeaway from this post:
Novels need tension, because readers crave anticipation.
Much as we writers all want to believe our stories are wildly unique, let’s be real: in most genres, readers already a pretty good sense of where the story is going before they pick it up. The serial killer will get caught, the vampire will succeed in reversing the curse on her family, the hero will realize that he’s in love with his business rival after all, the 50-something widow will realize her heart’s not locked-up after all, and she’s stronger than she realizes.
But if the ending was all we wanted, we’d just read the last chapter, and only the last chapter. We don’t do that. Why?
Because whether we consciously realize it or not, books are all about the anticipation—the journey. When a writer releases the tension too early, you kill that anticipation. Annnnnd, the reader puts the book down.
So, how do you keep the tension? How do you ensure the reader is gently buzzing with anticipation until exactly the right moment when you deliver the payoff?
Truth bomb: it’s not easy! In fact, maintaining tension and slowly releasing it at the right pace, at the right time, is one of the hardest pats of being a writer, and I believe it’s what separates the greats from the forgettable.
Do I consider myself a master of tension? No. I wish. But here are a few tips I keep in mind as I write:
- Image tension as an upwards trending line as you build tension and reader anticipation. Every time you release the tension (by bringing the hero’s closer to “end game”), the line dips downward a little bit. You don’t want your story to have any major downward trends until the 2/3 mark. Little ripples are okay—after all, the hero/heroine (and reader) need to feel like things are moving forward and changing. But save any “ah ha” realization moments (where that line dips down) for the last half of the book. Your story’s “line” should resemble a mountain more than it does a wave.
- If you’re writing a romance (most of my blog readers, that’s you!), let your characters be confused, maybe even clueless! In the scene I mentioned above with the heart-thawing, it would worked so much better for me if the hero had felt something “funny and unfamiliar” in his chest. We readers would know that it’s that damn heart thawing, but we’d still get to savor the delicious anticipation of him figuring it out. Same goes for the heroine who can’t quite figure out why she got goosebumps when she accidentally brushed hands with the guy she hates. We know that it’s because she doesn’t actually hate him. But don’t let her know too early!
- Think of your manuscript like an unevenly matched game of tug-of-war. Imagine your hero pulling one side of the rope, the source of conflict on the other. Your hero should be pulling just hard enough to keep the rope taut, but slowly losing ground, being pulled towards that center “losing” line until the second half of the book when he/she starts to pull a little bit harder (unless you’re writing a tragedy! Then your hero will lose the tug-of-war game!)
As with a lot of my writing advice here on the blog, when in doubt, think of what you want to read, when you lose interest in a book. Proceed accordingly!