As an author, you have the ability to wield great power. But you know what? You’re probably not wielding it. This power is scary. It probably scares you. It definitely scares your readers. But assuming you want to learn how to write books readers can’t put down–that is a most excellent thing.
What power am I talking about?
I’m talking about the power to glue readers to your pages because they have no idea what’s going to happen next.
Guess What? Your Readers Already Know What’s Going to Happen in Your Book
The idea that what’s gonna happen next? is the most important question in fiction is tossed around quite a bit. You don’t need me to tell you that your readers want at least an element of the unexpected in your book’s ending. Toss in a good old-fashioned plot twist. Mission accomplished.
Because if this is all you’re doing, then you’re not wielding your power to thrill readers to its full ability.
Readers today are smart. They understand how stories work. They see 75% of the plot twists coming waaaay yonder down the road. They know the character archetypes. They understand the Hero’s Journey. They know what the setup for a happy ending looks like, and they know when there’s tragedy in the wind.
In some respects, this is unavoidable. In other respects, it isn’t even a bad thing. (Remember, the best stories are those people will read over and over again, long after they know the ending.)
But it also means the door is wide open for any author brave enough to truly wield the fearsome power of the unexpected over his characters’ lives.
The 2-Part Formula for How to Write Books Readers Can’t Put Down
Want to know how to write books readers can’t put down? Let’s get started.
There are two things that glue readers to the page:
#1: Characters they care about.
#2: Events they can’t anticipate.
Of the two, creating likable characters is by the far the bigger job. Indeed, it’s half of writing good fiction altogether–which is why I’ve written much, much more about crafting characters elsewhere. For the time being, we’ll assume you’ve already accomplished that half of the job: you’ve written an incredible cast of characters about whom your readers feel very strongly. Your readers have invested themselves in these characters; they care what happens to them, one way or another.
So what do you do next?
You color outside the lines. You access true power of suspense by eliminating preconceptions about what your characters will do and what will be done to them.
How to Wield Your Authorial Power Like Brent Weeks
Once again, I’m going to reference Brent Weeks’s marvelous Lightbringer series as a great example. These books have repeatedly shocked me, thrilled me, and caught me off guard. Over and over, the story has taken a direction I couldn’t have anticipated. Why?
Because Weeks doesn’t play nice. He doesn’t conform his plot or characters to the usual assumptions of personal gratification. He’s not out to give readers what we want (because what we want is utterly predictable). He’s out to give readers a raw, edgy, honest, dangerous roller coaster–a book we can’t put down.
He does this by wielding his authorial power absolutely fearlessly.
Readers hold certain expectations, based on past experiences, about how stories should go.
The good guys–however flawed–always end up making the right choices, and certainly they never make any irrevocably bad decisions.
More than that, the good guys are understood to be largely untouchable for most of the story. Sure, the hero may die in the end to save everybody else. He may even get tortured. But he’s not going to get his gorgeous face maimed or his body broken to the point he can no longer perform his awesome routine.
Weeks breaks all these rules, and the results are massively powerful.
Here’s How to Claim Your Power as an Author
Want to take full control of your stories and write books that rise above the predictable pack?
Then don’t confuse “rules” with “preconceptions”–either your readers’ and your own.
Don’t take anything for granted in your stories. To truly wield your authorial power and create the kind of book that surprises readers in all the best ways, you must be willing to question even your own desires for the story. Be willing to go down the scary roads. Don’t go easy on your characters–and don’t assume “going easy” always means what you think it does.
Please note that bucking preconceptions doesn’t mean ignoring good story structure or the practical application of character arcs. Within that framework, however, don’t settle for the obvious or easy answers to your story questions. Take a walk down the road of extremes. You may come back with only one or two souvenirs–but even those can be enough to transform your story and teach you how to write books readers can’t put down.