5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive

Books break the shackles of time.—Carl Sagan

Last week I did a post on 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable. That was basically all about the CLIMAX, which many of you astutely figured out.

But before your reader gets to the part that’s unforgettable, you have to make them turn all 250 other pages. All of them. And guess what? Two hundred and fifty are a whole lot of pages to turn. You don’t want your reader to do it half-heartedly, either. You don’t want to write a “pity-page-turner.” You want full-contact addiction.

You know what’s the best kind of book to write? The kind that gets little rips in the bottoms of the pages from readers turning the pages too fast.

On every single page:

  1. Make something exciting happen

    Not just anything—no tooth-brushing, people—but something really unexpected but fascinating. Plot twists!

    You know what nobody wants to read? A novel about people being boring. Maybe a big figure in New York publishing can write a novel in which the entire first chapter is taken up by a boring character being bored by themself and failing to do anything about being boring. And maybe they will even be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for it. But you are not best friends with the New York City cocktail crowd, so you’re not going to win any Tavern-on-the-Green popularity contests.

    In order to get attention, you’re going to have to write a novel that’s actually thrilling and entertaining. A novel your reader is not going to have to force themself to read just so they can form an opinion on it because, I don’t know, it’s their job or something. A novel your reader reads because they can’t help themself. And because they can’t help calling up everyone they know and bending the ear of everyone they don’t know about how those guys simply won’t be able to help themselves either.

    A novel that’s helplessly addictive.
  2. Give one of your main characters something brilliant, insightful, hilarious, heart-breaking, or completely baffling to say or do or see happening

    Does it take you five pages to get through a transition scene, just characters sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and trading meaningless banter until Jeb comes back from the barn? Do your characters have a tendency to say, “Hi! How was it?” “Fine. How was yours?” and exchange lots of information about their kids that has nothing to do with your plot? Do their arguments about side issues tend to go on for-freaking-ever?

    Something needs to happen on every page to make your reader’s eyes open wider. She said what? He did what? There was a what? What came through the door?

    Weave in a new subplot thread (this is what subplots are for—to give you material to keep surprising your reader), mention a significant detail, write a fabulous line of dialog, give someone an exciting action, or introduce a fascinating technical subject. John D. MacDonald teaches the reader how to live on a boat off the Florida coast. Dorothy Gilman teaches random retirement-age New Jersey housewife expertise adapted for espionage. John Gardner teaches cocktail party shenanigans of ancient Greece.

    Then subtly shape the page around that eye-opener.
  3. Give your other main character a completely unexpected response

    And just when your reader thinks they know what you’re driving at, throw them off-balance by linking it back to the interaction of the characters.

    He said what in response? She took it how? The what caused what to happen?

    It’s not just that Travis McGee knows how to fix a broken sump-pump and gets himself heck of filthy doing it for a friend. It’s that his friend’s face is grey with fear when he comes in to check on McGee’s progress. It’s not just that Mrs. Pollifax knows what can be accomplished with a bobby pin and a seriously rebellious attitude. It’s that, even though she succeeds, the people she needs to escape come back early. It’s not just that Agathon gets drunk and plays hanky-panky with the wrong political opponent’s wife. It’s that when he does he discovers she’s got a secret agenda.

    Every choice, on every single page, turns out differently from what you’ve lead your reader to believe. Surprise!
  4. Give your reader an experience they don’t want to forget

    This is why exotic thrillers are so popular, so some really incredibly lame authors continue to make huge money with impossibly limp stories: experiences.

    If you happen to know a lot about living someplace other than where your target audience lives, that’s wonderful. Do your research and organize your notes. Meet lots of interesting people and watch them carefully to learn what makes them tick. Then on every page, make it detailed. Make it authentic. Make it real.

    But if you happen to live pretty much exactly the same life as your reader, that’s still wonderful. Think long and hard about what it’s like to live that way. Go around taking lots of notes about it. Interview your friends about what it’s like for them. Stay up late at night drawing unexpected links between your experience of it and your friends’ experiences, links you’ve never seen before, links nobody but you would ever make.

    Then on every page, make it detailed. Make it unexpected. Make it authentic. Make it different from what your reader thinks it is.

    On every single page: make it real.
  5. End the page with something to make your reader curious

    Now, you ought to notice something about these ways to make your novel addictive: it’s a whole lot to pack into a single page. Why, if you did all this on every single page, you’d never have room for anything else! None of the other stuff you’ve written, none of the inessential description, the unimportant actions, the dull dialog, the explanatory exposition, the filler. . .

    Yep, there it is. The lightbulb.

    And you ought to notice something else about all this, too: each one of these ways either pushes the reader away (what just happened? why would that character react like that?), or pulls the reader in (that’s amazing that character did that! I love this experience!).

    However, at the bottom of the page you don’t want your reader satiated, satisfied, sighing with fulfillment. No, you certainly do not. That all goes on the very last page. After satiation, you know. . .you’re done.

    For every single page leading up to that last one, you need your reader desperate to satisfy their curiosity.

    Where is all this heading? What are these characters all about? Why does the weaving in-&-out of the subplot threads feel so threatening, so promising, so intriguing, so inevitable? Push-pull. Push-pull. What’s your POINT?

    That curiosity is why they simply can’t stop themself turning the page.

    Helpless addiction.

30 thoughts on “5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    Excellent! And yes, you want the reader to have a cigarette on the last page, not before. Or else the room gets all smoky.

  2. Victoria says:

    Now I’m laughing out loud, Marisa.

  3. Tahlia says:

    Yay, good one! leave out all the stuff that only the writer needs to know. I’m writing a new novel & at that stage when all these little subplots & hidden characrter motivations are revealing themselves in surprising. It’s an exciting time.

  4. What a great post! This is the first time I’ve visited here–came via Twitter post and very glad I did!

  5. Victoria says:

    Oh, yes, Tahlia, the beginning is so exciting. Just stay in the scene. Every single scene. Your characters are chock full of fascinating little twists and turns worthy of double-takes—that’s what so fun!

  6. Victoria says:

    Well, thank you, Patti! We talk about stuff like this here all the time. It’s kind of an eternal all-nighter for writers—you know you’re welcome to hang around with us.

  7. Prem Rao says:

    Thanks for reminding us that ultimately we should write with the readers in mind! If your book is addictive, you could have a fan for life.

  8. Oh yes oh yes oh yes oh yes oh YES! Love all your points but especially the one about writing because you want the reader to read, not feel they’re having to as part of an exam. It seems a lot of so-called literary novels are like that, though – they’re the antithesis of novels that make the reader care. Personally, when I read, I want to care – and when I write, I want the reader to care. Very much.
    Desk-thumpingly good, Victoria – I’m off to tweet.

  9. Suzie Grogan says:

    First time I have been on here too, and just getting ready for my second time around on NaNoWriMo. At ideas stage and plotting is scaryy! This is hugely helpful and I will keep it all in mind. Readin Carlos Ruiz Zafon at the mo. He is the master of the page turner..

  10. Mr Uku says:

    Brilliant stuff.
    Your article came along at just the right time for me as I’m planning and plotting for NaNoWriMo. I started taking notes almost as soon as I started reading, but I think I’ll just bookmark the entire thing 🙂

  11. Victoria says:

    Yes, Prem, that’s the cardinal rule of writing fiction: ALWAYS about the reader. NEVER about the writer.

    Once you’ve got that one down, you’re a pro.

  12. Victoria says:

    Roz, this morning I started Camus’ The Fall, and by the end of the first page I was totally in love.

    What? Only if I could be certain I would not be a nuisance. You are too kind. In that case, I will move my glass beside yours. The narrator speaking to the reader! Now THAT is literary fiction.

    It’s true: the one thing a writer wants in the whole world is a reader who cares. Preferably a zillion of them.

    It seems so simple.

  13. Victoria says:

    Suzie & Mr. Uku, welcome! It’s so nice to hear from you. And thank you for reminding me of NaNoWriMo—I completely forgot about that. I have one more post in this series to write, one on Hooks, which will go up a week from Monday. (Remind me next week, if you get a chance, will you? I have a terrible short-term memory.)

  14. Angela Perry says:

    This is fantastic! How have I never discovered your site before? Bookmarked and followed 🙂

  15. Solid advice, Victoria. I guess, the only thing I’d add, if I may, is that while we’re shooting off the fireworks, we need to keep in mind that everything in the book needs to hang together organically or via whatever internal logic the story or prose is packing. Otherwise, it’s just fireworks, which may get pages turning, but in the end, there’s got to be substance to make the story live and breathe long after The End. My few cents.

  16. Fantastic advice indeed Victoria. It’s funny – you’d think, as writers, but more as voracious readers, we’d Know this stuff, but sometimes we do get so caught up in pleasing our own selves that we forget all about our readers. It’s nice to have a reminder now and then, and I appreciate the sturdiness of your reminder. It makes me want to Get Busy Now!

    Thanks so much!

  17. Victoria says:

    Thank you, Angela. I’m known only to an elite, highly-discerning handful of dedicated craftspeople. We like to think of ourselves as the creme-de-la-creme of fiction writers. 🙂

  18. Victoria says:

    Yes, Jesus, this is all about page-turning in the middle. Making your novel unforgettable is about the structure that holds it all together.

    Actually, this entire blog is about the structure that holds it all together, and the magazine is about that in great detail. That’s an inexhaustible topic.

  19. Victoria says:

    You’re welcome, Deanna! The thing about writing fiction is that the experience is different for the writer than it is for the reader. Becoming a great writer means looking in that mirror and learning to write backward.

  20. DL says:

    Great advice and kudos on the site design. It looks like you have a wonderful workspace.

  21. e.lee says:

    great post

    it is so true- basically a reader wants a cracking good read, no matter the genre o

  22. Victoria says:

    Thanks, DL. Yes, I love my office. Even when it’s a huge mess, like right this minute.

  23. Victoria says:

    It is true, e.lee. Give me a book that keeps me glued to every single page, and I’ll give you a dedicated reader for life. We all know readers don’t buy books, they buy authors.

  24. Patti Larsen says:

    SO agree with all of the above… I also do my best to end my chapters with cliffhangers (whether minor or major) so my readers are fighting to go to bed but just want to get one more in before lights out… that’s the best kind of book!

  25. Madeleine says:

    Excellent tips. Love them Thanks :O)

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