The #1 Tip for How to Write Books Readers Can’t Put Down

The #1 Tip For Writing A Book That Thrills ReadersAs 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.

Or not.

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?

The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks is an excellent example of how to write a book readers can't put down.

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.

You Know You Are a Writer When You Feel Bad for Being So Mean to Your Characters

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is there anywhere in your story where you could upend preconceptions to create a stronger, more unexpected story? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. “There are two things that glue readers to the page:
    #1: Characters they care about.
    #2: Events they can’t anticipate.”

    ^ I agree with that so much. Creating characters the reader cares about is the most important thing you can do to find success in writing fiction. You don’t have to be a great writer, or great plotter, or great anything. Just make the readers give a damn about what’s going to happen to the characters you’ve created and they’ll keep reading.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, I’ll forgive a story for a less than stellar plot if I love the characters–but it rarely works the other way around.

  2. Some real gems here. It’s a tough balance sticking to proper structure while also delivering the unexpected on a regular basis. Things which worked before have diminishing returns, so there’s a need to keep coming up with new twists. And it’s not always easy to predict exactly what readers are guessing. But, as you point out, even if they know what’s on the horizon that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the delivery is spot-on.

    I think my own current story could be made stronger if I started allowing less predictable and more costly things happen to my own characters. But I it’s hard, I just love them so much! 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For me, it always comes to being honest in my writing. Sometimes I just have to step back from a scene and look at it through a logical lens. What would *really* happen in a situation like this? For example, we often write our heroes into torture scenes–and then go easy on them because don’t want to deal with the plot ramifications of what that would *really* be like.

      • This really spoke to me because I went through a phase of this in my early drafts where I have my protagonist all grown up, get taken by an enemy, tortured and then come back like nothing happened. How unrealistic! No wonder I got stuck and put it on hold for a number of years.
        As I got to writing the next draft I realized oh no it wouldn’t work out that way. He’s going to end up traumatised and working out of that can be an interesting plot in itself.
        That said, I still feel like I go too easy on my characters and can definitely work on them more.

        I also found the opposite to be true. I wanted to have a soldier character be a deserter until my beta reader pointed out the real life consequences of that crime. To suspend disbelief I’d be required to off that character or exile him, but since I have a couple exiles that survived, he would have to be the one who couldn’t make it back. Since the character is a much needed POV character, I realized I couldn’t do that drastic of an action. I’m having to brainstorm a more realistic crime (1. that fits his personality and his motives: idealist who abhors whatever he deems unnecessary violence. (even if it is necessary) 2. serious enough if he got caught he could be put to death. 3. the only witness is his former best friend who is the one able to give the sentence but chooses not to (instead discharges him immediately with a death threat to never return. 4. He doesn’t face punishment for the crime, but it becomes a stumbling block in the future when the said ex- friend and his life cross paths. 5. the crime can’t be so serious that point #4 breaks the suspension of disbelief for the reader. )

        I’m still brainstorming that one out. Would it be a better to just go vague on the nature of his crime (it’s all just backstory) and just leave it up to the readers to make up their reasons?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Depends how important it is to the story. If it’s important, then it will need to be explained at some point, although not necessarily right away.

  3. Sunny V Shine says

    This is great.
    I think that probably the best thing we can do as writers is to write stories that are both surprising and predictable –especially in a series.
    If you don’t know what I mean by that, take a good TV show like Andy Griffith. People who watch and love that show love it because it’s predictable. We know all the characters well enough to know how they’ll react in most situations, and yet they still surprise us. Andy almost never fails to say something at the end of each episode that I never saw coming, but it’s never outside his character. It’s still something he would say.
    In a way, it’s predictably unpredictable which I can imagine is very hard to accomplish.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Andy Griffith Show is a fabulous example–and one of my all time favorite shows. The essence of humor is the juxtaposition of surprise and honesty, and this show did that so incredibly well.

    • I really enjoy the Andy Griffith show. A friend from work got me into watching episodes in the breakroom. The humor, situations and the characters really make it.

  4. Those are some good points, K.M., though I don’t think a lot of people would like it if the protagonist dies or have their spirit be broken, let alone a character that the protagonist is close to die. I am sure that if I wrote off Vance, who is Amelia’s best friend, a lot of people are going to be mad about that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’d be surprised. 🙂 Especially these days, lots of readers appreciate hard-hitting realism in their stories.

  5. I never knew that. That would be cool if I did something that was realistic and a lot of people were impressed, but there’s also a lot of people that aprecciate mystery, since mystery is pretty popular.

  6. What are the most realistic mysteries that people like to read? I’ve never read a realistic mystery before, and I have the first book in a series called The Mysterious Benedict Society. I might try to read the rest of it when I get back to my home state. I’m currently in a beach house in Panama City, Florida. I live in Alpharetta, GA.

  7. David Baldacci is one of my grandma’s favorite authors as well as Vince Flynn. Is it true that sometimes realism is appreciated in some books, like superhero stories?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. There always needs to be at least some element of realism to ground the story and allow the reader to suspend their disbelief.

  8. Does that mean I can kill off a character that isn’t (very) necessary to the story? Or maybe someone that the protagonist isn’t very close to?

    • A death can be a very useful plot device to show the various character traits of your characters… That of the killer (if the deceased has been murdered), or the way that others react to the death; the remorse or otherwise. The grief of others can be used to set scenes, or to change moods dramatically.

      Sometimes the sheer shock of someone dying, after you’d built them up to be loved by the reader, can be used to explain why another character begins to act differently.

      I’ve just used the death of one ‘nice’ character, to turn another ‘sweet and gentle’ young guy into a single minded vengeance machine.
      He gloats over the suffering of the man who murdered (and facilitated the rape of) his girlfriend, as he dies horribly at the young man’s hands… It was such great fun to write, and gave the novel an edge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely–although if the character is unnecessary, you might first want to consider whether he belonged in the story in the first place. He needs to be necessary to the plot up *to* the point where he dies.

  9. My character StarGirl shot twice, first to prevent Vance from being shot, and the second was a do or die situation, though it was Raven, StarGirl and Raven’s families and friends that were going to die as well as Raven, so she had to act.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.