Reading time for me is precious because I don’t have a ton of it and I’m a slow reader. So when I select a book, I’m very particular. I don’t have time to spare for stories that don’t interest me nor quickly draw me in. There have been books I really wanted to like, but because they didn’t grab me, I set them aside in favor of novels that did.
Many of these novels are ones that received high praise from other readers. For example, my husband absolutely loves Dune by Frank Herbert. I tried reading it. While actively reading, I found it generally engaging, but as soon as I put it down, I didn’t have any interest in picking it back up. The characters were interesting, the world was interesting, the writing was solid, but there just wasn’t anything that snagged me on a deeper level. Truly, I have no idea why. It should have. I still wish it did.
As another example, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is hugely popular. In fact, every single person I’ve talked to who has read it has gushed about how wonderful it is. Everyone loves it ... except me. I’ve tried three times to read it, but I just can’t force myself into it. When I first heard of The Name of the Wind, it sounded like a book I’d like. The title was intriguing, and I heard the writing was lovely and exquisite. I adore lovely, exquisite writing. But the more I read, the more frustrated I got. There wasn’t anything to snag me emotionally, or if there was, it was too far in to get me over that first hump.
Then there are books that I love enough to read multiple times, books that sweep me into them even though I already know what will happen. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, my absolute favorite book, is one of these. I’ve also happily and repeatedly reread The Shadow Rising, the 4th novel in The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan. As a kid, I reread The Young Jedi Knights series by Kevin J. Anderson, Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, and Shadow of the Fox by Ellen Steiber. Now, I lovingly reread the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Knight and the Rose by Isolde Martyn, Loyalty’s Web by Joyce Dipastena, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and I better stop there before this post turns into a list of books I love.
You’ll notice that some of these are quite popular and some are somewhat less known, like The Shadow of the Fox and Loyalty’s Web. But all of them involved riveting me to the page so I didn’t want to put them down and do anything else. They were books that sucked me in so deep I lost track of the world around me and felt a part of the story. I can even remember times I looked up and realized where I was with a start because I’d complete lost connection with the real world.
So what makes a book so good you can’t put it down?
Clearly, the answer isn’t the same for everyone. No book can enthrall every reader, and some books that receive a poor reception have devoted fans. Unfortunately, this means I don’t have an easy, formulaic answer. No one does, and if they claim to, they’re pulling your leg.
The good news, though, is that there are some trends, and they all come down to one main element: satisfying the motivation behind why a reader reads. Crystal clear, right?
How can knowing what readers look for in their experience with a book help? And how on earth are you supposed to know why someone picks up a book? Why do readers read?
Fortunately, we can categorize some of the main things readers often seek when they pick up a book.
Intellectual Stimulation: Whether its the challenge of putting clues together in a mystery or the technical or scientific intrigue of hard science fiction, some people enjoy making their brains work. They enjoy feeling smart and exercising their wits and intellect. For these readers, fascinating characters aren’t necessarily crucial to their experience, though they undoubtedly help. Romantic subplots might seem tedious or a distraction. Superfluous detail may annoy them. They want the thrill of thought and the challenge of new intellectual possibilities, theories, or puzzles.
The Beauty of Language: There is beauty in language. It takes great skill to bring it out, but when done right, it can cause sighs of pleasure. Those who appreciate the loveliness of words, the dark images, the captivating sounds, the epic emotions evoked often also appreciate poetry. Thus, books that snare readers with their elegant prose often have a heavy sprinkling of poetry to their style. Among many other reasons, this is why I enjoy The Last Unicorn so much. It’s also one of the claims to fame of The Name of the Wind.
Wish Fulfillment: Some people read because they enjoy imaging themselves as the protagonist and getting to have or experience all the protagonist does. This, in my opinion, is the primary draw of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I read Twilight for the express purpose of figuring out why it was so popular. I couldn’t. I struggled for years to piece it together to no avail. At last, I came across a blog post that described it perfectly. (I only wish I remember which post so I could share it here.) Basically, it said that people read Twilight because they want to have what Bella has. They want someone as powerful as a vampire or werewolf loving them (or better yet, both). They want to gain the acceptance Bella eventually does, of being a nobody and becoming significant, gaining immortal beauty, and becoming infinitely capable. Even just being wanted by two powerful men. They want to experience that sort of wish fulfillment. It isn’t my cup of tea, but for some, it’s a big deal.
However, wish fulfillment doesn’t have to involve just obsessive vampire lovers. It can be the acquisition of wealth or power, the opportunity to explore or adventure, the simple concept of being attractive to the opposite sex, falling in love, getting vengeance, entertaining fantasies they’d never dare admit to having in real life, or any number of other things.
Escapism: Perhaps the most commonly attributed reason for reading, escapism is simply the desire to escape normal life. This isn’t necessarily because a specific reader is unhappy or unsatisfied, it’s simply that they enjoy experiencing something different.
Sympathy and Emotional Connection: These sorts of readers tend to love character stories and books that involve emotion. Comfort can arise from seeing the suffering of a fictional character and then riding along with them as they overcome their sorrows and challenges. Sometimes a reader loves experiencing the relationships and fulfillment of a fictional character. It can be therapeutic. And sometimes, readers just enjoy getting to know a fictional character intimately like a really close friend.
The Quest for Truth: Whether its a story with a moral or the hunt for the meaning of life, ultimately, stories shed light on life. Wanting to make sense of the world and life is a natural human impulse. As such, authors work out their own thoughts and questions through their stories. Readers have the opportunity to explore those potential truths with them. Some of the most powerful stories involve an exploration of truth.
And if all that weren’t complicated enough, readers don’t just read for one reason. Their motivation can involve many desires, and that isn’t even touching on the less common reasons to read.
Keeping in mind why readers read the genre you’re writing can be helpful in honing a story. Romance often caters to wish fulfillment, escapism, and emotional connection. Fantasy calls to people craving escapism. Hard science fiction and mystery are prime targets for the intellectual reader. Literary fiction is full of beautiful language.
But even if your story has interesting ideas, emotional connection, or wish fulfilling promise, it still may fall flat. So there are a few other things to make sure it has to develop that page-turning power.
Conflict: If you can figure out how to include nothing else, make sure your story has conflict. And I don’t just mean an overall conflict between hero and villain. I mean conflict on every single page, in every paragraph, every sentence if possible. The desire to resolve this and the tension it creates will rivet readers.
Compelling, Layered Characters: Even the most interesting plot and the most intrigue concept is improved with interesting characters. And characters become far more engaging when they appear human. Human hope, desire, dream, fear, hurt, get jealous, and every other emotion out there. We’re messy, complicated, and contradictory. While characters shouldn’t be as random as real life, they need to have enough depth, emotion, virtue, and vice to allow readers to identify with and sympathize with them. A good character helps a reader experience a story and all its shades.
Conflicting Interests: Whether it’s the antagonist or protagonist, conflicting interests increase tension and add riveting appeal. When a character has a reason to take an action at the same time they have a reason to avoid that action, it’s fascinating. It puts uncertainty into the story. Seeing a character torn like this causes readers to want to resolve the resultant pain, and the only way to reach that resolution is to keep reading.
Turning Points and a Solid Plot Structure: Plot structure is like the skeleton of a story. If it’s solid, the story is strong. If it’s weak, broken, or has pieces missing, the story struggles to hobble into a reader’s heart. There are far better descriptions of how to create a great plot structure than what I can provide here, but turning points are a key factor. A turning point is when something changes in the story. The hero finds out important information, the villain captures the love interest, a new clue is revealed, or any other significant shift in the story. But ultimately, these turning points build to the climax.
Increasing Stakes: Stakes are what’s at risk in a story. As the story progresses, the stakes should get more desperate and personal. Maybe the hero is only invested in catching the villain because it’s how the hero gets paid, but when the hero’s daughter is captured, suddenly the stakes get much more intense. Keep ratcheting up the stakes, and with them, the tension will rise as well.
A Peek into the Author’s Soul: Whatever a reader’s main motivation for picking up a book, ultimately, a book is a peek into an author’s soul. Humans are naturally predisposed to seek others, to want belonging and acceptance, closeness and security. A story is one way of glimpsing another human being intimately, of connecting, or sharing something personal. It’s part of what gives a story that little extra something like magic. But unless an author opens open and allows their soul and self onto the page, a reader cannot fully experience that peek into another’s being. Whether it’s into another’s mind, heart, imagination, or experiences, to make a connection with readers and thus create a riveting book, an author must open themselves up.
Think about the stories that have made you want to stay up all night reading. What part of yourself felt a connection with them? Whatever the answer, those are also the types of readers your own stories will most likely attract.