As a writer, your competition is not with Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, JK Rowling, or whomever is at the top of the NY Times best seller list. It is with them too, but your most difficult competition is much closer to home. Every time there is a new post on Facebook or an extra episode on Hulu, that is a second your reader is potentially putting the book down and not returning. If they do not return, that is the moment you have lost the war for attention. It’s easy to lose attention to football, Walking Dead II, Angry Birds, Transformers, The Black Keys, Pinterest, the Game Show Network, or any other myriad of things that people like to do in their spare time. Competition is steep, so play dirty. Here are some tips for how to engage your reader’s attention and keep it:
Use hooks. A hook gives a tantalizing glimpse of information that makes the reader want to know more. For instance: “Johnny didn’t suspect, as he sat in the forest, that his life was about to change for the worse.” How does it change for the worse? I have to find out! A hook is also a promise to reveal this information eventually, so be sure you pay up. The amount of hooks in a book is often directly proportional to the age of the audience. Adult books have some hooks, Young Adult books have many more, and Children’s books have the most. At the very least, placing hooks at the end of the first few chapters can really help the reader propel themselves into the next chapter. Hooks also keep your reader thinking about the unanswered questions after they have put the book down to check Facebook really quick.
Think about chapter length. The shorter the chapter, the faster the reader feels like they are moving through time and space. It is easy to manipulate this perceived flow of time to serve the narrative. Exciting action scene? Very short chapters. Homey scene in picturesque setting? Make the chapters longer. Manipulate time to keep readers interested and engaged in what is happening. If your readers feel like the story is moving forward, they will be less likely to want to check Facebook in the first place.
Try threading. Threading is similar to foreshadowing, but something less tangible and therefore harder. It is the use of items to link images and themes in the reader’s mind. Each threaded item has a meaning, such as the milk in John Fante’s Ask The Dust. Every time the reader sees milk, they think of all the other times milk has appeared in the story and that image takes on a meaning. In this case, milk is the connection between life and death. Threading can give your novel the air that you are purposefully weaving a story toward something worthwhile. Readers will want to find out what that is, and marvel at your craft while they get there.
Remember, it is your Novel vs. Facebook and a million other things, and we all know how much time we spend on Facebook. Use anything you can to keep a reader’s attention. Fight dirty.