By Joe Moore
If you write mysteries or thrillers (or any genre, for that matter), there’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone say your book is a real “page-turner”—that they couldn’t put it down. And there’s nothing more fulfilling for a reader than to find a book so captivating that they can’t stop reading. Naturally, the writer has to develop a compelling story populated with three-dimensional characters and enough conflict and tension to keep a reader’s interest. Those things are givens, and it’s the writer’s job to craft those elements into the manuscript.
But did you know that there are some simple formatting tricks that anyone can do to improve the readability of a manuscript and keep the reader turning pages. And what’s really cool is that you don’t have to change your story at all to benefit from them. Not a word.
Trick #1. Write short chapters.
Whenever a reader gets to the end of a chapter, they must make a decision to read the next chapter or put the book down and go do something else. It’s a natural stopping point or a launching point to the next part of the story. If it’s late in the evening, many times that decision involves continuing to read or going to bed. What you don’t want them to do is put down the book. When a reader finishes a chapter and comes to that late night decision to stop or read on, they usually check to see if the next chapter is short or long. If it’s only a few pages, there’s a really good chance they will read one more chapter. If they get to the end of that next short chapter and repeat the checking process again, they won’t go to bed. They’ll keep reading. And you will have setup a format that they’ll come to expect and rely on.
This tip does not mean that every chapter must be short. What I’m suggesting is to examine each chapter and see if you can split it into two. Or even three. After all, the same information is going to be imparted. It’s just going to happen in multiple segments.
There’s always going to be a need for longer chapters. Just ask yourself if that 6k-word chapter you just finished writing could be broken into multiple chunks. Remember that you want to entice the reader to keep reading.
Now I know that some writers will react by saying, “Well, my chapters end when they end. Short, long or in between, I write until the chapter naturally ends itself.” Fine. Do whatever you’ve got to do to write a great story. This trick may not be something that fits your writing style. But from a physical standpoint, readers tend to keep reading if they feel the next chapter will take just a few minutes to finish.
From a personal perspective, my co-writer and I try to bring our chapters in at around 1000 words. I know, some of you will think that’s way too short. But one of the most frequent comments we get from our fans is that in addition to enjoying the story, the short chapters kept them up late. We’ve had more than a few readers blame us for them not getting enough sleep because they decided to read “just one more chapter”.
Trick #2. Write (or format) short paragraphs and sentences.
This trick is closely related to trick #1, but it involves the visual experience of your book for the reader. It also involves setting up a distinctive and comfortable rhythm and tempo to your writing.
As you read, your eyes not only move along the sentence but your peripheral vision picks up the “weight” of the next sentence and paragraph. You’re reading a single sentence, but you visually take in the whole page. As your mind plays out the story from one word to the next, it also calculates what is coming up next, and causes you to be subtly energized or marginally fatigued. It’s like driving across the desert—if the road stretches in an endless ribbon to the horizon, you become tired just knowing you have a long way to go to get to the next break, or in the case of the book, the end of the sentence or paragraph. But if the road is only a city block or two long before you start down the next stretch of highway, you feel less overwhelmed by its mass (paragraph) or length (sentence). Shorter paragraphs and sentences keep the eye from getting fatigued. They allow the reader take a mental “breather” more frequently thus keeping their attention longer. And it’s also a tool for controlling reading speed.
Shorter sentences move the story along at a faster rhythm and tempo because the eyes moves quicker and your peripheral vision sees less bulk and weight on the printed page ahead.
Trick #3. Eliminate dialog tags whenever possible.
If there are only two characters in a scene, eliminate as many dialog tags as you can without confusing the reader. The dialog itself should help to identify the character as should their actions. Even with more than two characters present, staging can help to reduce dialog tags. Staging and actions also help to build characters. Dialog tags don’t. If the reader knows who is speaking because of their actions, the number of tags can often be reduced or even eliminated.
Trick #4. Title your chapters.
Your book has a title for a reason. It sets the mood or intrigue of the whole story. Consider titling your chapters for the same reason. Like the book title, a chapter title is a teaser. When a reader ends a chapter and turns the page, nothing is more boring than to be greeted with the totally original title: Chapter 23. Or worse, just 23. Why not give the reader a hint of what’s to come with a short title. Don’t give anything away, just use the chapter title as an enticement—a promise of things to be delivered or revealed. Use it to set the stage or create a mood just like the book title. I believe that each chapter should be considered a mini book. Chapters should have beginnings, middles and endings. And one way to tempt the reader to keep reading is with a compelling title.
Tricks like these are never to be considered a substitute for solid, clean, professional writing. They are only tricks. But they work if used in the mix with all the other elements of a great story. And the only way for you to know for sure is to give them a try.
Beyond these formatting tricks, does anyone recommend others that can enhance the reader’s experience?