Keeping Readers Engaged Throughout Your Novel

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The other day one of my Facebook friends wrote a post about her disappointment with a novel she was reading. It had gotten off to a great start, but she lost her interest in the middle, and she wasn’t sure if she should continue reading it or not. Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge, and, as her post proved, the best hook is useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.

Pacing is an important part of good storytelling, but excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, or trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl and bore the reader. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions that may help.

Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis. I only include backstory which is relevant and necessary to move the story forward, and I’ll typically reveal it through dialog. However, most of my backstory remains in my notes.

If it’s been said once it usually won’t need to be repeated. Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. Should circumstances warrant it to come up again, try to say it in the narrative. An example might be, “as she rounded the corner and hit the accelerator, he reminded her of what had happened to his mother.” In this instance, a fast-paced narrative would have been ruined if redundant dialog had been inserted. Should it be necessary for him to tell his story to a different character, consider adding a spin. Maybe his mother was driving drunk, but he hasn’t revealed that detail until now. Otherwise try to paraphrase it in the narrative, and consider adding some emotion. “His heart wrenched as he once again described his mother’s death.”

Fine details aren’t always useful information. Readers usually won’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, so unless that dress gets caught on something as she’s trying to escape you don’t need to spend time describing it. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “She soon spotted the perfect dress. Royal blue with lace trim to show off the diamond pendant Jake had given her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.

I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something new about the character(s) that we didn’t know before. And if a chapter, or even a scene, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter should have a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s just filler material which will bore the reader, and he or she may end up tossing your book aside without finishing it.




And Now for The End of Our Story

The EndEvery story ever written has two things in common–a beginning and an ending, and it’s at the end of the story where we, as storytellers, deliver the punch lines that impact our readers.

Regardless of your genre, most readers want, and expect, a happy ending. One that ties up all of the loose ends and leaves them satisfied. And, most often, that’s what they get. In my genre, romance, it’s pretty simple. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, but there are conflicts and obstacles to be overcome, and once they’re resolved everyone lives happily ever after. THE END. But then again, some of the most well-loved and compelling romance stories ever written didn’t end with the couple living happily ever after. Who could forget Gone with the Wind? After thinking she was in love with Ashley Wilkes for all those years, Scarlett suddenly realizes she’s been in love with Rhett the whole time, but when she finally tells him his response is, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” He walks away and slams the door behind him, leaving her to ponder her next move. This ending left us wanting more, and I believe this is way, after more than seventy years, the book and the movie still have a following.

By the way, I don’t know if this is actual fact or urban legend, but I recall hearing somewhere that Margaret Mitchell wrote the ending first, and then went back to write the rest of the story. Some authors do write their endings first, and it’s perfectly okay to do so.

Another famous ending comes from the movie, Casa Blanca, which was actually wasn’t based on a novel, but on a play called, Everyone Comes to Rick’s. It too is a love story with a twist. Boy meets girl. Girl ditches boy. Boy meets girl a second time, only now she’s brought her husband along. So, along with some unforgettable dialog, (“Of all the gin joints in all the places in the world, she had to walk into mine.”), we all root for Rick to get Ilsa back. Instead the story ends with him putting her on the plane, along with her husband, and sending them away for good. Then the final scene ends with Rick walking away with Louis Renualt and saying, “You know, Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Once again, I’ve heard rumor that there were two endings shot for Casa Blanca. In the alternate ending Ilsa stays behind with Rick, but it was decided that the other ending would have a stronger impact on the audience. They were right. Seventy years later, Casa Blanca remains one of the best-loved films of all time. 

Sometimes stories aren’t about happy endings. Sometimes they’re about doing the right thing, even when doing the right thing isn’t so easy to do. The same can be said of real life.



Knowing When to Quit, Part 2

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In my earlier post about how to avoid overworking your story I talked about redundancy. This time around I’ll discuss another way to overwork a story — and that is by creating over the top scenarios or plot lines, which don’t connect well with the earlier story. This can be especially problematic when you’re writing a series. There comes a point when your story, even if it’s a series, has to end. Otherwise it may become absurd or even bizarre.

I’ll give you a good example: Star Trek.

I grew up watching the original Star Trek. The characters, human and alien, were so believable, but by the third season the series just wasn’t that good, and the ridiculous story lines for some of the episodes hurt the integrity of the series as a whole. The network, NBC, then cancelled the show. It went into syndication where its following grew. The movies came along about ten years later. The original characters were back, but they were older and they’d changed over time, which kept them interesting. After that came Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. This created a plethora of interesting new characters and a lot of potential for exciting new stories. Next came a series of movies with the Next Generation cast.

Sadly, it was all lost, at least for me, when they started making movies with younger versions of the original characters. Prequels can also be problematic, but when I saw the first prequel I was very disappointed. It took place in a “parallel universe,” so much of the back-story, established in the original series, was gone. It was too confusing, and it certainly wasn’t the Star Trek I’d known and loved for decades. Other Star Trek movies have since followed, again set in this, “past parallel universe,” but I’ve  decided to save my money and skip them. I won’t even bother watching them on Netflix.

This is what happens when you run out of ideas. You lose the integrity of your story, and you may even lose your following as well. As storytellers, the two hardest words for us to write are, “THE END,” but write them we must. Otherwise, in the words of my college painting professor, you’ll turn your work into mud.




Watch Out for Exclamation Points!!!

Exclamation PointsFilmmakers have certain advantages over writers, particularly fiction writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware that the villain is lurking inside, waiting to pounce. As the protagonist gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The boom of course, being when the bad guy leaps out of nowhere, landing right in front of the protagonist, who now either has to fight or run for dear life.

We writers unfortunately don’t have the luxury of having background music, so we have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension, thus creating the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, the sentence, “he leaped out of the closet at Joe.” with just a plain old period at the end looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, “he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!” would look a whole lot better. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

Using exclamation points in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers. So, instead of saying, “He heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe.” Try something like, “He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer. He held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room. He stood by, unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder and louder as they came closer and closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.”

By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension an exclamation point becomes unnecessary.

So what about dialog? People shout when they are excited, surprised, under stress, or angry. I will, on rare occasions, use an exclamation point in dialog, but if I do, it’s only when a character is having an “aha” moment. I think of exclamation points in dialog as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long, long way. Most of the time I use tags, such as, “It’s over here,” yelled Jody, or “Look out,” exclaimed Bob.

Good storytelling is all about conflict and drama. Just don’t shout at your readers!



Knowing When to Quit, Part One

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Back in my college days, when I was majoring in art, one of my painting professors made a profound statement that I’ll always remember. He said, “Every painter needs to have someone standing behind him to shoot him when he’s done, otherwise he’ll overwork the painting and turn it into mud.”

It’s extremely difficult artists to look at their work objectively enough to know when it’s finished. And once we finally realize we’ve overworked something it may be too late to salvage it.

Fortunately, when it comes to writing, there are warning signs that we can look for. One of the biggest, and most obvious, would be redundancy. I’ll use my Marina Martindale novel, The Deception, to illustrate my point.

As I was nearing the end of the story I’d resolved the main conflict, but as I tied up the loose ends one of the antagonists threatened to go after my protagonist for a second time. This left me with two options. One was to write a sequel. Tempting thought, as I loved my cast of characters. Unfortunately, in this instance, the conflict would have been too similar to the conflict in the first book, which would have made the sequel redundant. All I could have done was rehash the same story. How boring. So, rather than waste my time, and my reader’s time, with a bad sequel, I decided to write a definitive ending and leave my novel as a stand alone book. I did it by killing off the antagonist and ending the feud once and for all.

Does your story feel like it’s getting stale? If so, then go back and look at your conflict. If it keeps repeating itself, or if the results of your character’s choices are always the same, it probably means your story has become too redundant.




Writing Fiction? How to Keep the Drama Flowing

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As you fiction writers no doubt know, your plot lines revolve around tension and conflict, regardless of the genre. The conflict is what keeps the drama flowing and keeps your readers involved with your story.

I can still recall my old high school drama teacher talking to us about soap operas. She said soap operas were really nothing more than stories about real life–exaggerated. Those soap opera writers must be doing something right, since all of the soaps on the air today have been around for a good thirty-to-forty years, if not longer. The following are but a few examples of real-life exaggerations to keep the drama flowing. They must work, as they’ve been using them on soap operas for decades.

In real life people catch colds or the flu. In a soap opera a character catches a rare, if not unknown disease, resulting in blindness, deafness, coma, paralysis, or memory loss until some doctor, typically a young intern, discovers the miracle cure.

In real life family members have arguments. Someone may end up storming off afterwards, but before long everyone makes up. In a soap opera the person who storms off ends up seriously injured in a car crash and remains in a coma for weeks.

In real life boy meets girl. They’re attracted to one another so they start dating. In a soap opera boy meets girl, they’re attracted to one another, but then another lady, typically his ex, her best friend, or even her sister, is also attracted to the same guy, and she does everything humanly possible to thwart the relationship.

In real life a boy may ask a girl out, but she’s not interested so she says no. He may ask her a few more times before he gets the hint and moves on. In a soap opera he turns into a stalker and kidnaps her. She ends up being held captive for weeks in some remote cabin out in the middle of the woods that no one can ever find.

As these examples demonstrate, fiction writing is all about considering the possibilities outside the normal routine of everyday life, while maintaining enough of that normalcy to make your story believable.




It Takes a Team to Write a Book

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Back in the 1990s, a well-known political slogan went, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, there is a version for authors, and it goes, “It takes a team to write a book.” So, who’s on the team?

First and foremost would be the author him or herself. After all, the author is the star of the show, and the captain of the team. Some of you may have an image in your mind of an author, in some isolated house on the seashore, working away at his or her typewriter, pounding out perfect prose with the very first draft. If only it were really like that, but it’s not. In my case it’s me, in my office, working with my team.

The first person on my team is my beta reader, Geneva. She’s an avid reader, but not a writer herself, and she’s honest. Sometimes brutally so. That’s what qualifies her for the job. Every couple chapters or so I call Geneva and read it back to her. If something isn’t working, she’ll tell me–and in no uncertain terms. “Cut this,” she’ll say, or, “No, that’s not accurate.” Granted, not all of you will have someone in your circle who is willing to give you such candid feedback. If that’s the case, check with some of your local writer’s associations, and try to find a critique group. Critique groups will typically meet once a week, someplace quiet, like a coffee bar, and they’ll read, and critique, each other’s work. They can be a real asset, and it can save you the time, and the hassle, of having to do a major rewrite later on.

So, if the author is the captain, the editor would be his or her first officer. I’ve posted, many times, on this blog why every author needs an editor. Simply put, your editor will go over your work and correct those gaffes, punctuation errors, inconsistencies, grammatical errors and other problems that you, the author, cannot see. He or she is the person who separates the pros from the amateurs. My advice is to find someone you feel comfortable working with. I’ve been working with Cynthia, my editor, for sometime now. We have a great relationship. She fixes the problems, without changing my voice. She also likes to make snarky comments in the sidebar. Over time I’ve learned not to drink coffee while I review her changes, lest the coffee go up my nose.

The next team member is the proofreader. He or she goes over the final edited version of the manuscript to catch the errors that you, or your editor, my have missed. Typically these are the tiny errors, such as a missing quotation mark, that can be easy to miss.

Depending on your genre, your team may also include photographers or illustrators. Some of you may be tempted to use your own visual art, but I would advise a word of caution. Unless you’re a professional, or you’ve had some professional training, leave it to the pros. Drawing, painting and photography are disciplines that take many years of training and practice to master, and an amateurish photo or illustration can make you look like an amateur as well. Also be cautious using stock images, especially for your cover. Another author may come along and decide to use the same image for his or her cover.

Finally, the last member of your team is your publisher. You have many options here, and I have a page on this blog that discusses those options in detail. Each has its pros and cons, and it’s up to you to decide which would be the best for you.

Some of you simply may not have the means to hire all these professionals. If that’s the case, and you can only hire one person to work with you, make it your editor. He or she is the most important member of your team, and would be the one you simply can’t work without.



How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

Reunion Loew Cover NookMy day today got off to the best start ever. My latest novel, The Reunion, just got another five-star review on Amazon. One comment made so far by all of the reviewers is how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashback scenes can greatly enhance the story, and can be a terrific tool for telling the back-story. Poorly done, however, they can be a distraction or a hindrance, blocking your story flow and annoying the reader. Here are my suggestions on how to apply flashback scenes.

Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four are flashbacks, and the flashbacks end after Chapter Six.  The story is set in the present time with the characters in the here and now. Therefore I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.

Make sure your flashbacks are relevant to the present time. Since The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance later in life, the purpose of the flashbacks was so readers could see them meet for the first time, consummate their relationship for the first time, and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. Interestingly enough, I decided not to show their original break up as a flashback. That back-story is instead told in dialogue when leading lady Gillian describes their break up to a friend. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the back-story.

Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a cliffhanger. This will upset and annoy your reader to no end. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a chapter, with the flashback starting at the next chapter. This way my reader is prepared for the flashback scene.

The following is an example of how I set up one of the flashback scenes from The Reunion. It includes the end of Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene, which immediately begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder length pageboy. She started to reminisce about the past and her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

 She took a few more deep breaths, and as she did the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.


Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the wall clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she muttered to herself as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas.

This particular painting was one of those projects that simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it got. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

“So what’s up, Miss Hanson?”

The voice behind her was that of her professor, Dr. Kinney. Kinney was a good instructor, but he could be hard-nosed when he wanted to be.

“I just can’t seem to get the lighting right on this one, Dr. Kinney.”

“Obviously. So now you’ve overworked it to the point that it’s turned into mud. A half hour ago this painting wasn’t that bad. You should have quit while you were ahead.”

“Should I come back later tonight and try to fix it?”

The university kept the art studio doors unlocked until ten o’clock every night so students could comeback and put in extra time, if it was needed.

“At this point, Miss Hanson, it would be a complete waste of time. As it stands right now, you have a few aspects that are still working. As I just said, if I were in your shoes I’d quit while I was ahead, especially if I had any aspirations of passing this class. You’ll get your new assignment next week. Perhaps you’ll have better luck then.”

As her professor turned away to announce that class was dismissed, Gillian let out a frustrated sigh…


How to Create an Interesting Villain for Your Stories

villain-001It seems like I spend so much time thinking about the good guys when I write my fiction that I sometimes forget the bad guy needs love too, so to speak. Since plot lines revolve around conflict there has to be a source behind that conflict, and that would be the antagonist, more commonly known as the villain.

There are different approaches to creating a good villain. One way is to have him or her truly evil and completely irredeemable, sort of like a Count Dracula. Your readers will hate him and root for the good guys to wipe him out. That would be the sort of villain you can kill off at the end of the story, and your readers will leave feeling relieved and satisfied.

A more complex, and interesting, approach would be to create a “conflicted” villain. Instead of a purely evil Count Dracula, you could create a villain more like Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire of Dark Shadows fame. Barnabas had been a good guy until the vampire curse was placed upon him. Once that happened, he was left despising what he had become. He both hates, and deeply regrets, all the things he’s had to do along the way in order to survive. Thus he becomes a “hero-villain;” an antagonist whom the audience could root for, because they too wanted to see him cured of his affliction and end up with the girl, be it Maggie, Vicki, or his true love, Josette. In the interim, they sure get to see him wreak a lot of havoc.

Some storytellers like to take chances by having their protagonist, or hero, go bad. That can be a tricky approach. If you’re going to attempt it you need to have a character with plenty of redeeming qualities, otherwise your readers won’t be able to make a connection and they will not root for him or her. By the end of the story he or she will have to renounce all the bad things they had done earlier, and as well as be willing to do whatever has to done to make up for the sins of the past. If not, your readers will not be satisfied with the ending, assuming they stayed with your story until the end.

Another way to conclude your story would be to end a tragedy with tragedy, especially if your hero-villain has done some really nasty things in the past that he or she really can’t walk away from. At the very end of the Star Wars saga Darth Vader renounces the emperor and turns away from the dark side of the force, but in so doing he has to sacrifice his own life in order to save Luke. It certainly made for a dramatic, and satisfying, end of the conflict.

So there you have it. With a little imagination, and a few character quirks, you can create develop interesting and memorable villains who can keep your readers engaged. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.