I went to a fantastic writing workshop last night taught by bestselling YA author Jessica Brody that offered some fantastic nuggets of wisdom about how to keep your readers turning the page and hungering for more. The fact that I got lost coming home in the streets of downtown Los Angeles at 11 p.m. and felt like I was in a bad Corey Haim movie is a whole other story for another day, but I digress . . . These simple techniques can be applied to any type of story in any genre, and can make all the difference in making your book one that they can't put down.
HIDING THE BALL AND CREATING SUSPENSE
Jessica said that one of the best ways to get your reader engaged right away is to "hide the ball" - that is, to start in the middle of an action and write around it, but never actually reveal to the reader what is actually going on. It keeps them guessing. You plant the seeds of what is going on all around them - what they are seeing, smelling, small pieces of backstory that led to what has occurred, etc. If you can write your entire first chapter this way, the reader will be anxious to read the next because now they are dying to know what has happened, and if they guessed correctly.
It's always best to cut in the middle of the scene so that it ends before the resolution. This way, the reader continues to be propelled forth along with the character to find out what happens next. She often likes to end with a line of dialogue that sets you up for the next scene, whether it be in the MC's interior monologue or another character speaking. Sometimes she will not even say who says that line of dialogue, which adds further intrigue. Ending with a character's dilemma or the character figuring out something about themselves or the situation they are in allows the reader to be in sync with the MC, because you don't want your reader to be ahead of them or your story can become predictable.
Ever read a book that seemed like a fast read that you just couldn't put down? The length of your chapters can make a huge difference in the pacing. Short chapters lasting 4-6 pages in length can create the illusion of speed, especially if each one ends with a cliffhanger.
PEPPERING YOUR STORY WITH LITTLE MYSTERIES
Adding mystery to your story keeps the reader going even through the slower parts. The "A" story is your character's story (i.e. the logline of your book). The "B" & "C" stories are the secondary stories that involve who your character meets, their relationships, the subplots, etc. All of these stories should converge with your "A" story, showing us your character's world. For example, in Jessica's book "My Life, Undecided", her MC is volunteering at an old age home and meets a crotchety old lady. Uncovering the mystery of why this woman is so bitter keeps the reader not only intrigued in that "B" story, but also serves to showcase to the MC what she will turn out like if she doesn't make some changes in her own life. Plant seeds along the way of things that will show up later and prove to be important.
Pick up a few of your favorite novels and see if you can find these techniques applied throughout!