Cliff-hangers must keep your attention.

I mentioned recently that I went to bed reading a book (Clavell’s Shogun) and read until my alarm went off in the morning to go to work. I had read all night long and never realized it. It captured me, hook, line, and sinker. Why?

I didn’t read much after college. It became a habit. I went into the military and learned how to navigate across oceans. I have navigated the entire Pacific Ocean using only a sextant on one flight from Tokyo to San Francisco (Moffett Field, CA).

I did this by choice. There have been times when I had to navigate by sextant when other equipment wasn’t working properly. Navigating at higher speeds (350-400 knots/hour) can be interesting. My job in the P3 aircraft as Navigator for my first year was enroute nav (across the pond) and tactical nav (low-level over water hunting submarines).

In the book Shogun, Jack Blackthorne was the Pilot-Major (Navigator) of an English boat shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1600. I related to the character and the mission. I felt like I was there. The story became a ‘page-turner’, one that I could not put down. I had to know what was happening next.

Others may not react the same as I did to the character and story. However, I’m sure if you are an avid reader there are books that intrigued you and were difficult to put down at times. What makes a book a page-turner?

A good story creates questions in our minds that need to be answered. To do that, sentences need to be short. Paragraphs need to be short. But, more importantly, the end of each short chapter has a cliff-hanger that chews at your mind for an answer.

As a kid, I went to the movies on Saturdays and watched serial movies. The ending was frightening and always imperiled the hero. We would have to wait a whole week to find out what happened. The same is true today in books, television shows, and movies. Remember Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) outrunning the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or, Brody (Roy Schneider) telling Quint (Robert Shaw) in Jaws that “You’re going to need a bigger boat!” as the huge white shark was about to chomp off the back of the boat.

We love descriptions. It helps define the characters and settings. In a cliff-hanger, descriptions need to be short. You don’t want to lose someone’s attention.

Dialogue is key. Shift the dialogue from one person to another so the story is told from their perspective. Don’t make Caspar Milquetoast characters as heroes in your story. Quint, the boat captain in Jaws, was a complex and emotional character. His inner self was dripped out over the course of the shark hunt.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Ironman (Ironman), Marty McFly (Back to the Future), Michael Corleone (The Godfather), Darth Vader (Star Wars), John McClane (Die Hard), The Joker (Batman), James Bond (007 Movies), and Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones Adventures) are characters people love or hate.

Twisting plots with realism capture the inner workings of our minds. If you are describing a bar scene in Key West, Florida, it should be something like the real thing. Of course, if you are describing a bar scene at Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina on the desert world of Tatooine (Star Wars), then your options are open as your imagination.

What else do you need besides a plot, characters of interest, and realistic dialogue? You need the cliffhangers to get the reader to the next chapter. You need interest at the end of a paragraph to get the reader to the next paragraph.

It’s been said that the cover of a book will hold a person’s attention for 3-5 seconds. If they are interested, they will turn the book over and spend 10-12 seconds perusing the back cover. If they are not captured, the book is put down (or back on the shelf). If they are enticed, they will open the Table of Contents and spend 20-30 seconds reviewing it and maybe portions of chapters that caught their attention. Then the decision is made to buy the book.

Writing a book is the same. The first few sentences must keep the reader reading on to the next several sentences. I can remember a few of James A. Michener’s early books that were dull and drab for the first 50 pages. I knew I was going to enjoy the book once I got past the introductory parts.

Data tells, and stories sell. We need those stories to sell us on the believability of the characters, settings, plots, and twists. If the stakes aren’t high enough, readers lose interest. If the reader doesn’t care if the hero wins or loses, the book will be put down.

Some of us are natural storytellers. Most of us have stories that people will listen to. If we can figure out the plot and what happens in the first 25-50 pages of a book (also a movie), then we lose interest. The stories keep our interest and tie the plots and twists together.

The other tangible in writing is the speed at which the story develops. It can’t be action, action, action, fast, fast, fast all the time. It will wear out the reader. Things will be lost, and readers can’t tie one character or plot to the entire story. There must be ebb and flow.

In movies, we hear the background music and know something is coming (think Jaws). In books, we don’t have that luxury. The building of excitement leads us to continue our reading.

How do we get there? How do we write with emotional characters, diabolical plots, interesting places, twists and turns that take us to the edge of our reality? In Real Estate, the slogan is, Location, Location, Location. In writing, the slogan is Writing, Writing, Writing.

There must be comfort in writing that you can develop interest and keep that interest. Fiction is easier than nonfiction. However, nonfiction can use some of the same techniques. The stories in nonfiction are personal stories of the author or characters in the book.

The Chicken Soup for the ______ books sell because the stories are so compelling. They are nonfiction. When you are developing your plot or storyline, jot down those little vignettes that will raise the mundane to the interesting level.

Speed up and slow down the action, as in real life. We lose interest at slow speed or burn out at high speed. The story needs both to keep the reader interested.

Write your story and when that time comes to ‘declare victory and move on’, a developmental editor can view your manuscript from a higher-level perspective and tell you what’s working and what’s not. Seek out professional help when you need it. There are several types of editors – developmental, manuscript, line, copy, proofreading, and more. Use the right source as needed.

Tell your story on paper as if you were telling your best friend. That makes it believable.

Live Longer & Enjoy Life! Red O’Laughlin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *