26 Tricks to Keep Readers Reading

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Image by Cayusa

Image by Cayusa

Unmet desire. That’s how author Steven James defines tension. Unmet desire drives your hero, drives the story, and drives the literary agent and the bookstore browser. The desire to know what happens next, the desire to feel something – this is the D in AIDA that leads to the A. Action.

The second A in AIDA

Action in this case is taking the time (and/or spending the money) to finish reading your book. Which means you have to create a page-turner. Something un-put-down-able.

Here’s the best advice I found.


The Mindset

Who cares?

James Scott Bell advises you to constantly ask yourself this question as you write. Adam Gidwitz suggests you picture someone you know who is in your target demographic. Someone with a relatively short attention span. Predict their reactions to each scene in your mind. Ask yourself what would make them turn the page.

The Structure

Elizabeth Sims has a brilliantly simple method for plotting an un-put-down-able book, which she calls the HCM method (HCM = Heart-Clutching Moments). List all the HCMs in your story – pivotal points like chases, escapes, kidnaps, revelations, and love at first sight. Then, think of more. Find opportunities to dramatize what you previously only summarized, or left out entirely.

Construct your story around these moments, rather than on a loosely-constructed storyline.


Milk it

Get the most out of every scene:

  • Put chapter breaks just before or just after HCMs to create cliffhangers
  • Carefully delay some action – like making Pandora argue with herself for hours before opening the box
  • Use surprising but logical plot twists. Victoria Lynn Schmidt notes the art is in making the reader wonder what could possibly happen next, without making them incredulous after it happens.


Don’t be a drag

Don’t let those pages get cold:

Steven James warns you to avoid these tension killers:

  • Background exposition
  • Repetition – use your fight scenes, explosions and tender moments sparingly
  • Waking up from the scary dream and realizing it was just a dream – is a deflation, not an escalation

Tips on dialogue from Elizabeth Sims and Jessica Page Morrell:

  • Avoid using dialogue for information dumps – cut it down as far as possible
  • Don’t use dialogue to rehash or comment on events – show those events instead
  • Do use dialogue for tension – power struggles, mind games, etc., wherein strong emotion runs underneath, but is never explicitly stated
  • Try blending dialogue with action – like during a car chase instead of over a quiet dinner
  • Dialogue should mostly be short sentences with lots of fragments and white space – avoid conversations that go on for pages

Plus, remember:

  • Perfect people are boring. Show readers your hero’s emotional needs, wounds and skeletons in the closet
  • Don’t waste time – begin the story at the last possible moment

Dig deeper

Most good stories have both an internal and an external struggle. Make sure you’re inside the hero’s head, wanting and fearing everything he wants and fears.


Give ‘em Hell

To keep raising the stakes, you have to train yourself to think of the worst possible ways to hurt your hero. What will cut him deepest? What will complicate matters most? You can’t save the life of a minor character just because you like them (or worse, because you don’t want to put the hero through the pain of losing them). Here are some ways to say “no more Mr. Nice Writer”:

From Jessica Page Morrell:

  • Introduce new characters, settings and circumstances that throw your hero off-balance
  • Throw a devastating curve ball just when the hero is about to accomplish his mission

From Elizabeth Sims:

  • Add an unpredictable character – someone who’s “not all there” and may do something dangerous at any moment

From James Scott Bell:

  • Can you raise the stakes with outside events, like oncoming war or a natural disaster?
  • What’s the worst thing that can happen in the hero’s professional life? Family life? Love life?
  • How are the people the hero cares for most effected by events?
  • Think from the villain’s perspective – how else can he thwart the hero?


What the heck is AIDA? If you missed the original post, read it here.

man reaching

How to make your book “un-put-down-able.”

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.

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  1. I was trying to read and commit all this to memory. Great tips.

  2. Blargh. I may stubbornly ignore the limitations set on dialogue… at least until I come to my senses. I love dialog for the human interaction inherent in it.
    The rest gives me less frustrating food for thought. Good advice, on the whole, and I will keep it in mind. You do seem to have a knack for posting on things I am struggling with when I am struggling with them. This is a case in point. Action has always been a weak point for me.

  3. This is a fantastic post! I love what you’ve written here, and also that you’ve included a wealth of excellent and relevant links.


  4. What great advice. Thanks for sharing all this. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the essentials for a good story while we get tied up in writing waffle that fills the page but doesn’t move the story along. Not that it’s wrong to write the waffle (the existence of back story is important, for but only implicitly and must exist mainly in the writer’s imagination) just as long as it gets edited away at some point….

    • Oh, good point. We do seem to make up a lot more history and setting than we actually end up including. Who knows what parts of our favorite fictional worlds are unknown to us because the authors (rightly) cut out those extra details.

  5. Glad you liked my suggestions, especially the HCM plotting method. In developing it for an article for Writer’s Digest I originally called it the OMG plotting method, but the editors didn’t want anything that readers could possibly consider cursing. So it became the HCM method.

    • Well, “OMG” was better than “WTF,” haha. I’m tempted to change it to OMG in this post to pay homage to your original idea.

      No matter what it’s called, I think your method is brilliant. Thanks for letting me borrow it – and thanks for stopping by!

  6. Pingback: AIDA aftermath: 4 ways the last few blog posts have changed my novel « BeKindRewrite

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  9. Great post! Love the Steven James advice included. I had the pleasure of meeting him last year. ^ ^

    Stori Tori’s Blog

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