How to Get People to Read the Next Chapter

by JoHarrington

When the end of a chapter creates a natural break, how do you convince readers to keep on reading to the end?

My nephew told me something interesting yesterday. He was talking about his reading habits (outside of school) and mentioned how rarely he actually finishes a novel.

He reads to the end of the first chapter and enjoys it immensely. But that break is his cue to put the book down.

A world of distractions is out there. Friends on Facebook and Twitter. YouTube videos to watch. Time creeps on and he's forgotten what was so great about that abandoned story. Another recommendation comes in and he picks up another book instead.

He has a whole pile of half-read novels. It seems that their authors missed a lot of tricks to keep him engaged with their tale.

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Recognize the Danger Point at the End of Chapters

The gaps between chapters act a little like commercial breaks on television shows. They are your chance to walk away.

"I'll just read to the end of this chapter and then I'll *insert action*."   How often have you said this yourself?

I'm always doing it.  I'll read a chapter in bed before going to sleep.  I'll get to the end of the chapter before cooking/doing housework/nipping down to the shops.  It's never enough to simply read a few paragraphs, but that chapter finale is license to move.

But now you are the author.  You don't want your novel to end up in someone's slush pile, simply because a break took too long. You want people to remember enough about that last chapter to have to know more.

Of course, if your story is badly-written and tedious, you've failed before you start. Nothing is going to overcome that.  But even the greatest novelists need a few tricks up their literary sleeves to keep their readers rapt.

Let's explore three of them here.

It is the worst of lines, it is the best of lines. That all important first line can determine whether anyone reads on.
Do you want to write a novel or short story with suspense, action, intrigue and realistic drama?

Tip One: End your Chapter on a Cliffhanger

A few tips may be gleaned from the Victorian novelists. They had much more to contend with than someone putting down a novel to grab a drink!

The absolute number one tip for enticing readers onto the next chapter is to leave the previous one on a cliffhanger.

You know what a cliffhanger is. The device is so well-known and well-worn that the word has even entered our lexicon!

The reader learns to care about a character. That person is then endangered, or shocked, or comes to a realization, or makes a discovery, or whatever else will have the reader holding their breath until they know what happens next.

Then the story stops.  The reader has to come back after the break or purchase the next installment, in order to have their curiosity assuaged. Or they have to read on through the following chapter.

Cliffhangers have been around for thousands of years, but they were popularized during the Victorian era. This was a time when newspapers and magazines serialized stories by such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

We read them as novels now, but they were written with a very different readership in mind. Installments (now better known to us as chapters) had to be so exciting that people would want to buy the next edition just to find out what happened.

Here is how they ended some of their chapters:

  • "As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white waistcoated gentleman was right or not, I should perhaps mar the interest of this narrative (supposing it to possess any at all), if I ventured to hint just yet, whether the life of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no." (Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)
  • "You can marry me privately today," she answered. "Listen--and I will tell you how!" (Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins)
  • "The thing takes shape, Watson. It becomes coherent. Might I ask you to hand me my violin, and we will postpone all further thought upon this business until we have had the advantage of meeting Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry Baskerville in the morning.” (The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

The latter serialization had readers queuing halfway down The Strand on publication day. They were desperate to discover how Sherlock Holmes would solve the case!  Now that's what I call a page turner!

Learn More About Cliffhangers on Wikipedia

A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma. The phrase is believed to come from the end-of-episode situation in adventure silent films of the early 1900s days, with the protagonist literally left hangi...

One of the Most Famous Cliffhangers of All Time

Books on Writing Cliffhangers

Buy these textbooks to grab the ideas being taught in comprehension class. 'Rip the Page' especially has just as much for adults to enjoy as for the target audience!

Tip Two: Add Pseudo-Chapters or Snippets

We do this in Wizzley. You are reading one right now. A little introductory bit which means that you're already in the next section!

I'm a great believer in enjoying a good book, then rewinding at the end to discover how the author did that.

For our purposes right now, we are looking at the moment when you simply could not put a novel down.

This isn't that situation when you're stuck on a long 'plane flight, or lounging on a beach and can't be bothered to actually move. This is when your entire life has to go on hold - and you will not be disturbed (barring actual life and death scenarios) - because you HAVE to know what happens next.

Those authors definitely knew how to get you onto the next page and, indeed, all the way to the end without stopping.

It's happened to me twice this year. Nick Sagan's Idlewild series achieved it for about the sixth time running (and I even know exactly how that one ends). Connie Willis's Blackout wiped out a whole day. It then had me scrambling to order the sequel in from America, at a higher price, because it hadn't even been released in my country yet.

They patently got it right.

Glancing through, I notice the usual tricks - cliffhanger chapter endings, great first lines in the next one. But there is something else too.  Both authors add pseudo-chapters in between each part.

Nick Sagan's writing style follows a formula. First we get a transcript from a transmission. It's short. It's all in capitals (thus looks urgent). It reveals an important clue for the rest of the story.  Then we get a flashback. It's again short. It's in italics, which underscores the fact that it's going to be short. It provides a context for the rest of the story.

Only then do we get to the actual chapter.  That sequence continues, in the same order, every time a chapter ends.

You might as well read the transmission. It'll take whole seconds and it's going to provide food for thought.  Then you might as well read the flashback for all of the same reasons. (All of this with the paused action from the last proper chapter lodged in your head.)  But both of those things are going to give you something eye-opening to contemplate. 

How will this affect the characters?!   You read on to find out, because those two pseudo-chapters have already delivered you into the next proper chapter anyway.  It's an endless cycle, which takes you all of the way to the final page.

Connie Willis does something slightly less elaborate, but still enticing.  All of her chapters, in both Blackout and the sequel All Clear, begin with a quotation. Each one is very short. It's perhaps a single line. It might even be a solitary word. But it sets the scene for the whole chapter to come.

Here's an example from page 301 of All Clear, after the previous chapter ended with everyone going to St Paul's:

That won't be there in the morning.

- FIREMAN, ON SEEING ST PAUL'S SURROUNDED BY FIRES, 29 December 1940.

So you finish the previous chapter on a cliffhanger.  You might as well read the quotation, as it's both there and short.  Oh my! That's going to happen to the characters?!  And you read on.

Works from Three Authors Mentioned in this Wizzle

Buy these books. Just buy them. Then prepare to lose the rest of your day reading them. They are three of my favorite authors and I'll recommend them until I'm blue in the face.

Tip Three: Remove the Chapters

If there are no natural breaks in a book, then you eradicate the danger entirely!

I love Terry Pratchett.  I can (and have) read his DiscWorld series over and over again. They never get old.  I never tire of them.

They don't contain chapters.

It took me a while to actually notice this. He does move between locations and scenes, which would ordinarily prompt a new chapter.  But he merely misses two lines and carries on going.

This forces the reader to glimpse the first line of the next bit, before they have chance to put the book down. That's fatal. That means that you're not pausing to just do whatever. You're reading on.

When you consider it, that's genius!  He has removed the danger point and created a narrative which keeps on moving.  There are many reasons why DiscWorld is so popular, but this tactic probably contributes to it.

This could have made Terry Pratchett lazy as a wordsmith. After all, he doesn't need any tactics to drag his readers into a new chapter, if he's already deposited them there. But that is not his style.

Instead, he hits them with a double whammy!  The end of one section is a cliffhanger, or it makes you think, or it's amusing. The beginning of the following section has an interesting first line. With only a tiny blank space between them.

Who wouldn't read on, in those circumstances?

Let me demonstrate with an example from the DiscWorld novel Maskerade (p73):

'There were snores from under the bed. Gradually, to Nanny's relief, they turned into a purr.

Then she sat bolt upright. She was some way from the cowshed but....

"He's here," she said.

 

Granny breathed out, slowly.

"Come and sit where I can see you. That's good manners. And let me tell you right now that I ain't at all afraid of you."'

It should have been the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. All of the devices are there - cliffhanger ending, enticing opening. But it's all on the same page, so the reader is as attached as a fly in fly-paper.

Terry Pratchett uses this trick from beginning to end. It is the reason why so many people read his books in one long sitting.

More Creative Writing Guides

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The End?

To recap then:

  • End on a cliffhanger; then begin again with a hook;
  • Chuck in a relevant quotation or other pseudo-chapter device;
  • Or dispense with chapters entirely.

But most of all, write something engaging and wonderful.  None of the cheap tricks in the world will compensate for a badly written story; but they might turn a mediocre one into a page turner!


To be continued...

Read More About How to Write Creatively Here:

Original characters can make or break fan fiction. Discover tips and tricks for writing people who complement the canon.
Things can be written in many different ways. The words that you choose will create a mood that subtly works on your reader, like background music in a movie.
It is the worst of lines, it is the best of lines. That all important first line can determine whether anyone reads on.
The canon personae are already established. Your original characters need your help. Your imagination breathes life into both.
Updated: 07/11/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 10/16/2012

:D So big question - who was the best Dr Who ever?

Greekgeek on 10/16/2012

Yes! Being raised on old Doctor Who, I am utterly unable to compose without cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. Unfortunately, they also taught me cliches and melodrama, which I'm still trying to eradicate.

JoHarrington on 07/14/2012

The best way to learn how to write is to read. If you have read something wonderful, then you go back to work out how it was done.

Thank you for the compliment. <3

dustytoes on 07/14/2012

I'm a reader and not a writer, but I certainly enjoy reading your insights! I agree that you have great info here, and on your other well-written pages that can be of use to other writers.

JoHarrington on 07/12/2012

I'm glad that you liked it; and hope that you enjoy the others too.

kaazoom on 07/12/2012

Great advice Jo. I'm off to read your other articles about creative writing.

JoHarrington on 07/09/2012

Very good luck with it. And please drop back and let us know when it's available to read. We'll be able to say that we knew the writer before you were famous!

MHeart on 07/09/2012

Thanks for the tips, I'm currently writing an ebook for the kindle so this is very useful!

JoHarrington on 07/07/2012

Win! \o/

Sam on 07/07/2012

You will be the first, promised - if I ever finish it ;-) SY


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