There you are, minding your on business. Maybe it’s the end of the day, and you’re looking for a way to relax. Maybe you’ve been wanting this for sometime now. Or perhaps you were just about to eat and you see it sitting there, you think “I’ll just look at it for a bit while I eat.” Next thing you know hours have disappeared, a hundred questions burn in your head, you’re anxious, stressed, hopeful, crushed, full of emotions you can’t cope with. But most of all… you’re trapped.
It all started with that simple act of opening the cover of a book, and reading that first line. It might have been innocent curiosity that made you pick up the book, or maybe you knew full well what would happen and dived in regardless. Either way, the pages start turning, the story starts rolling; and you find your hands inexplicably glued to the book with invisible story glue put on by the fictional characters you are now obsessed with.
All sense of time disappears, except for the ticking time bomb the heroes face. You can’t move because the book is attached to your face, to peel it off would be to peel off your own skin. There’s no turning back now, the story has you. It feels physically impossible the put it down. And you can’t escape. This is what I mean when I say I’m under “book arrest.” Or when I cry out “I can’t! This book is sucking my face off!” when some mortal says I need to do some silly mundane thing like breathe or sleep. What is this sleep you speak of anyway? How can you sleep when your heart is being ripped out, or when something finally went right?
But there are times when you are forced to step away, and those are the worst. Because the story and characters are still stuck in your head. All the questions are still there, but you have to wait ’til later to find the answers. It’s torture! Your mind goes over it again and again, as you wait for the next chance to snatch up the book and hide away. And woe to the poor soul who doesn’t know the story and asks you what’s wrong. For they are in danger of being flooded by a very emotional gibberish onslaught of story points, conflict, and names they don’t understand; but makes perfect sense to you. They might tell you to calm down, that it’s “just a story.” But it’s a story told extremely well, and that’s the point! We want our stories to be engaging, drawing our interest, and peaking our curiosity. The first page, the first line even should make our reader wonder at what’s next, and keep wondering on down the chapters. You can use little things as well as big things to accomplish this. So you don’t have to have the world ending on the first page to get the readers attention, although sometimes that works too.
For example, I was about to have lunch when I saw a book called Chomp. Mom had been reading it to the little ones lately and I was curious about it, so I started flipping through. I got hooked, and an hour and a half later, long after I’d finished my food, I had to force myself to put the book down.
The author does a very good job of leaving us wondering at little things by not explaining them right away. He strings us along, answering one thing but bringing up another, all the while building on the main plot. So by the time our little curiosity’s are satisfied the bigger things are in full swing, and there’s no escape from the wonderful story he has crafted.
I have a slightly more dramatic first page in one of my works-in-progress. Which involves my main character being kidnapped and forcefully dragged from her home. The chapter ends with her drowning in tears as her burning village disappears from view.
Which ever way you start, you want to win your reader’s interest and time. Then pull them in so deep they can’t escape! Muahahaha! There are many way to accomplish this, and the simple answer is boiled down to good story telling. But that’s not exactly to most helpful answer.
In my little experience I have noticed a handful of things that contribute to a well crafted and time sucking story. (I won’t have much time here to go into depth, but I’ll do what I can.)
2) Surprising the reader.
3) Building sympathy.
4) Intriguing characters.
5) Plot twists and turns
6) Dramatic changes
We will start with these six, though I’m sure there are more we can look into later.
Conflict. One of the main drives of a story. If there were no conflict there’d be no resolution needed, no challenge and therefore no growth. Without conflict you’d have a very flat story, like an ending without the struggle that made it worth it. This also may be true of low conflict stories. Think of it this way, the easier it is to resolve, the easier it is to forget.
Surprising the reader. If your characters and story is predictable, a certain amount of interest is lost. A story is much more interesting and engaging when it makes us bolt up and say, “What!? Where did that come from??” You can have your story loaded with surprises and shocks, that might work well for a mystery. Or you can just spice it in where it’s needed. If you’re having trouble coming up with something surprising, try taking the first thing you think of and put in aside. Then think of something else and set that aside too. Keep digging through layers of answer until you find something much more surprising than the first thing you thought of.
Building sympathy. Who wants to read a story about a cold-hearted robot you hate who seeks to kill everyone? Yeah, I don’t want to read about a Dalek either. But what if the Dalek were lost? Cut off from the rest of its race and unable to fulfill the one thing it was made for, to receive and carry out orders? And what if the Dalek was also infected by the loving touch of a girl, and is now sick, corrupt and confused. although it’s the opposite kind of corruption for us. See, we need to be able to relate and feel for the character. We need to care about what happens to them. Otherwise, why should we read a story if we don’t care if they make it or not? All the other times I had no problem cheering on “Exterminate! Exterminate the Daleks!” But in the case of the lost, lonely soldier I could not. The killing machine was feeling things he shouldn’t feel, he was broken and dying. And you see a different side of these monsters as he looks into the light of the sun as his dying request. You can’t help feeling at least a little sympathetic for the sad lost Dalek, even though he killed hundreds earlier. Because who hasn’t felt lost and confused at one point or another?
Intriguing character. Another way to keep your reader from escaping your story, is to use your characters to hold them in. There are many ways to make your characters interesting, one of the most important things is to make them real. Now a lot can be said on this, but one thing to remember is that real humans are pretty crazy. They come in many, many shapes, personalities, motives, oddness, and are sometimes pretty stupid. We are often never what we seem at first glance. The things that make us happy, sad, worried, excited, annoyed, laugh, are different for everyone. Besides making them real, make them interesting and intriguing. Don’t be afraid to give your characters a wide rage of personality from each other, or to make them much more than the average Joe.
Plot twists and turns. This goes along with surprising the reader. One book, or trilogy really, that comes to mind when I think of a twisting, turning, don’t-know-where-it-will-go-next kinda story is The Chaos Chronicles. It is an excellent story told by the wonderful author John C. Wright, and when I read it, it was basically… a roller coaster. John is very good at throwing twists like they were bananas and dropping monkey wrenches in the works of what I thought was going to happen. I gave up guessing and just held on tight to see where the story went next. By the time I got to the last book, I couldn’t put it down. At one point I woke up, went to my morning job, read all day, and was still reading as I was putting on my point shoes for dance that evening. Question is, what can we do to get surprising twists? First of all, if you don’t want to add a twist or it doesn’t fit, don’t worry about it. But if you’re like me and you like to be swept away, here are a few things we can do. When you’re building up for that big revel, lead the expectation in the opposite direction. When you lean towards one way, then turn around and have it go the other way it provides shading and contrast. Making the twist even more surprising. Another thing you can do is ask, “what can go wrong?” Then make it happen! Don’t be afraid to push your characters, even if it takes a lot of brain storming to find the solution. Don’t hold back, make this dramatic. Which leads me to me last point…
Make Changes Dramatic. Don’t go half way. If you’re going to pop a surprise, then knock their socks off! Some stories have more dramatic turns then others. *cough cough* Chaos Chronicles *cough cough* If everything is the some level of intensity all the time it feels just a little more flat. But if your highs are even more high and your lows even more low, it brings in more texture.
There is much more I can say about all of these, but most need their own post. And these are just some of the things I think make a story really catching. Now keep in mind, some stories can do without all the dramatic twists, shockers and chaos. But even in those, you can sprinkle in surprises. And remember to have plenty of conflict, interesting characters we can care about, add in some contrast, and most important… don’t let the reader escape!