Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Perils of Pauline and other ways we tempt readers

I learn so much from The Kiddo. I think that's a real blessing that parents have -- seeing the world through their children's eyes.

Take, for instance, the lesson she taught me about chapter hooks.

The Kiddo has been glomming Trixie Belden, and to encourage her to read silently (and thus get hooked on reading as a means of battery-free entertainment), I've let her "talk" me into allowing an extra chapter at night, if she reads it to herself.

Usually, there's no problem, as Trixie will have gotten herself into some scrape or another. The Kiddo will leap on the book and eagerly read away, eyes wide, lips compressed, looking for all the world as though she's been strapped on a roller coaster. You can always tell when Trixie's out of harm's way, because then The Kiddo will settle back.

But the other night, I glanced at the clock and saw it was later than usual. So after I got to the end of the chapter that I was reading aloud, I closed the book. The Kiddo didn't argue.

"What?" I asked, amazed. "No begging? No pleading for just one more chapter?"

She yawned and shook her head. "They didn't tempt me to read any more," she confessed.

I pondered on that comment for several days. That is exactly what a chapter hook is: a temptation to read just one more page to see how things work out. It reminded me of the old black and white silent cliffhangers I've seen bits of in documentaries. The films were designed in serial fashion so that they could part kids from their nickels week after week.

Of course, we have to be a trifle more sophisticated in our cliffhangers. Today's smart readers will catch on quickly that we put Pauline in peril just to get them to flip the pages.

I've been thinking about what makes ME stay up until 2 a.m. to finish a book. Here's my sucker-list.

1) Short chapters. This one sucks me in every time. I'll have consumed another chapter (and gotten snagged by another chapter hook) before I know it. I actually use this in my own writing, because I prefer to limit my chapters to a single scene or two at the most, and that usually isn't sustainable for more than ten or twelve pages.

2) Heroine in hot water. Yep, I still fall for Pauline in Peril ... she may not be tied to a railroad track with a locomotive about to flatten her, but if she's in danger and I care about her, I'm going to at least read the first few pages of the next chapter.

3) An unexpected plot twist. If the story zings off in a way I didn't anticipate, you can bet I'll read right on, and who cares if the clock's struck midnight?

4) A fast-paced plot. We can knock Dan Brown all we want, but he understood how to keep the reader flipping those pages. He programmed readers to expect the plot to move ahead in blitzkrieg fashion, and they wanted to see what came next.

Again, today's readers are too sophisticated for a whole series of Paulines in peril, and if you end a chapter with a heroine in hot water, it better be real trouble, not something that is easily fixed. Otherwise, even the most unsophisticated reader realizes that you're just pushing her buttons to get her to read on, and she'll know, instinctively, that you never intend for your heroine to be put in harm's way.

My advice to myself? Shake all those strategies up in a bag and use them randomly, so that the readers never knows what you're going to hit them with next.


Mac said...


I tell EVERYONE their 5KW chapters are ridiculous. I FINALLY find someone who agrees with me. If I can't close a scene in 1400 words, I figure the action or dialogue is bloated.

Regards, Mac

Linda G. said...

I like your randomness idea. While we (of course) manipulate our readers, it's best not to be TOO obvious about it. Who wouldn't rather be seduced than coerced?

Jessica Lemmon said...

Cynthia, about how many words do you have per chapter? And yes, you're keeping me flipping through NOT ON HER OWN and now I know why!

I love it by the way, and I've only just begun reading it!

Stephanie McGee said...

Mixing things up is a pretty good strategy to follow with just about every aspect of writing. Great post!

Matthew Rush said...

Great advice! Thanks Cynthia.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Keeping them guessing is great - now if I can just figure out how to put that into practice! :)

Cynthia Reese said...

Mac, I agree! Even if I love a story, if it's midnight, and I flip the pages to the next chapter, it had better be less than four pages to keep me engaged.

Linda, what a wonderful way to put it -- we writers are in the business of seduction, aren't we?

Lemonny, hmh, words per chapter: I usually wind up with no more than 2K, I think, and my chapters are usually around 12 pp. I have LOTS of little chapters. Thanks for the compliments on NOT ON HER OWN!

Stephanie, too right on the mixing it up -- I have to remember to apply that to every aspect, whether it's sentence length or which senses to use, or character POV.

Matthew, thanks! You use short chapters to good effect in your work!

Susan, it IS harder than it seems, no? That's writing for you -- it's hard work to make things look effortless!

Patty Blount said...

Hm. You've answered a question I did not realize I had until I read this post. I have about 30 pages per chapter in current WIP and it feels horribly disjointed.

Now I know why.

Love this: we're in the seduction business.

And NOT ON HER OWN was wonderful!

Michelle said...

Hi Cynthia,
I passed some blogger awards on to you... see the post here:
All the best,

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

What a cutey your Kiddo is! I love that thought, "They didn't tempt me to read more." This could be developed into a slogan. Something along the lines: remember the temptation, temptation is the hook, or what's tempting your reader.

Loved your tips on how to plant hooks.

Great post!