How to Get Readers into Your Story—and How to Keep Them There

We’re continuing our look this month at Fatal Flaw # 2—Nothin’ Happenin’. Last week editor Rachel Starr Thomson explained the pitfalls of front-loading scenes with too much narrative, and this week editor Linda Clare continues with the discussion, helping writers see what can be done to get readers quickly into your story, and how to keep them there.

In the opening of many novels, we see a character alone on stage, riding a train, plane, car, or donkey. Many times this character is gazing out a window (unless, of course, she’s riding the donkey), thinking. Some call this “driving to the story.”

Many times this type of “sittin’ and thinkin” scene is so loaded with backstory that readers don’t know when the real story begins—or worse, they don’t care. Let’s look at some ways to fix this kind of Writing that comes across as “nothin’ happenin’.”

The Wilson Principle

To hook your readers and get the story going quickly, your POV character needs someone to interact with. If you write only her thoughts, she has no one who will disagree with her. There is no variety or stimulating action. Just the character sitting, thinking. While an occasional scene opening this way can have a place in a novel, writers risk losing readers’ interest by taking this approach.

In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks finds himself marooned on a desert island. He has no one to talk to, no one to interact with. That’s why he invents Wilson, the volleyball. He draws a face on this ball and gives him some seaweed hair. Voila! Tom Hanks’s character has a sidekick.

In the film, Wilson becomes someone for Hanks to confide in, get angry at, and set off a range of emotions. In your novel, getting at least one more character on stage with your POV character gives this same advantage. Readers are enlivened through the possibilities of dialog, body language, and physical action. You can sprinkle a touch of backstory here, but you no longer must rely so heavily on character memories, which, especially in chapter 1, have little significance to readers.

When you write a scene, note the number of other characters on stage. If your main character is alone, she’ll either have to talk to herself out loud or else play out the purpose of the scene through her thoughts. People are the usual choice to join your character, but pets or even a personified volleyball can provide a way to include dialog and action in your scene. Use the Wilson Principle to keep your audience engaged.

Create a Red Wine Disaster

Another way to start in the middle is to open the scene just before the conflict heats up. If you picture a lady wearing a white evening gown, sitting alone in a restaurant, you might not be very interested. If the same lady orders red wine—still not very unusual. But what if the steward trips as he’s bringing the wine glass on a tray? Now you might be mildly interested, especially if the waiter bobbles it around. If the wine arcs out of the glass, you suspect something is going to happen. And if the wine heads directly toward the white gown, you know there will be conflict and tension (and a wine-stained dress!).

With this illustration, it’s easy to see that the real action starts just before the wine hits the dress. Readers won’t know how she will react, and they’ll be reading to find out.

Beginning your scenes just before something big occurs will tantalize readers to keep reading. You’d think readers would want to know as much as you do about the character and as soon as possible. But the opposite is generally true. Readers are willing to trade information for excitement, for the “what will happen next?” feeling. You can use the Red Wine Rule to keep much of the action out of your character’s head (and memories) and act out that action directly onstage.

A word about dreams: Many writers start a novel based on a powerful dream. That’s fine, but when you allow your character to chronicle a dream, you force readers back into the character’s head. A dream has to be a memory (read: backstory). If you must include a dream, keep it as brief as possible and try to have your character tell someone about it rather than simply narrating to readers.

The “No Crystal Ball” Rule

Another way writers sabotage their scenes is by interrupting the action and inserting knowledge the POV character cannot possibly know at that time. You can spot this flaw by looking for some future time reference: “Later, Meg would realize she already knew him.” or “In a few moments, Sylvia would learn just how much she hated broccoli.”

This kind of foreknowledge is meant to add tension, but in reality it only yanks readers out of the real-time scene. If you wish to foreshadow knowledge the character will later learn, use hints of body language or show the character trying to pinpoint why something seemed familiar, ominous, or surprising. Readers would rather “live” the story as it unfolds. Use the “No Crystal Ball” rule to stay in the moment.

Now let’s look at an example of overwriting that breaks all three of my “rules”:


Sylvia O’Grady shifted uncomfortably on her seat. She could see her reflection in the train’s windows, her dark hair silhouetted by a setting sun and the rolling hills of Central California whizzing past outside. Madeira and scrub oaks dotted the golden landscape—so very different from her hometown in Indiana. She sighed—she’d likely never see the Midwest again. But no one in California would have to know about her impediment either.

She’d grown up with three brothers, and she knew how to defend herself. Tom, Sam, and Harry had always protected her, but they were all off fighting in Woodrow Wilson’s war. Her mother had cried the day her sons enlisted in the US Army. Sylvia had cried too, but made sure they didn’t see her. Tom especially was quick to call her a sissy. After all, he was a Golden Gloves champion in the welterweight division. Sylvia had learned from Tom how to throw a mean right hook, which came in handy when mean old Johnny Smith had pulled her pigtails in Miss Dodge’s third-grade class.

All the O’Gradys had attended the same one-room school, unless Papa needed them to help out with the harvest. Then Tom and Sam would be absent for a couple of weeks, until all the hay was baled and bucked. Papa had only finished third-grade himself, so getting an education wasn’t a top priority. As the train pulled into the station, Sylvia would soon learn that getting an education and teaching her new students at Dullsville Primary School were two completely different things.

The first thing you might notice about the admittedly poor example is there’s no dialog. No one else interacts with Sylvia as she reminisces. Now let’s look at another version:


Sylvia O’Grady shifted uncomfortably on her seat. She could see her reflection in the train’s windows, her dark hair silhouetted by a setting sun and the rolling hills of Central California whizzing past outside. She felt a tap on her shoulder.

“’Scuse me, miss, is this seat taken?” A tall, lanky young man with the brightest blue eyes stood in the aisle.

“No, I mean, please thit down.” Her cheeks flamed. She wasn’t even in Dullsville yet and already her secret was out.

“Thanks.” The stranger sat beside her and extended a hand. “Roberts,” he said. His smile was wide and easy. “Greg Roberts. And you are?”

She couldn’t keep her gaze off him, but she concentrated on keeping the lisp out of her speech. “S-s-sylvia. S-s-sylvia O’Grady.” It sounded more like a hiss, and spittle flew from her lips. She gasped and held her handkerchief to her mouth. The man must think her an animal.

But Mr. Roberts’s eyes twinkled. “I’m pleased to meet you, Sylvia O’Grady. Where are you headed?”

Now Sylvia could smile. “Dullsville. What a name for a town!” She pointed out the train’s window, where Madeira and scrub oaks dotted the golden landscape.

“I agree. And what will you do there? I doubt you would ever be considered dull.”

“That remains to be seen.” Sylvia chuckled. “I hope to teach third grade. Where are you going?”

“A teacher, eh? A fine occupation.” Mr. Roberts stretched his long legs into the train car aisle. “I’m a salesman, pots and pans mainly. But I’m starting over in Marysville. Not many seem to need new cookware back in Indiana these days.”

Sylvia clapped her hands. “Indiana. I was raised there. What a coin-thidence.” She winced. That darned lisp. She’d likely never see the Midwest again either, but she kept it to herself. “My three brothers and I all grew up on our farm.”

Mr. Roberts swiveled to face her. “Are your brothers older or younger?”

“Older.” Sylvia bit her lip. She didn’t want to sound impertinent, but she was so curious. “Begging your pardon. You look very healthy, Mr. Roberts. Why hasn’t Uncle Sam gotten hold of you?”

He looked puzzled and then slapped his knee. “Oh! You mean the war. Well, see, I had to look after my dear mother, God rest her soul.” He shook his head. “You don’t know how I’ve longed to join up and knock the stuffing out of some Kraut.”

“But if your mother has passed, couldn’t you enlist?”

He seemed taken aback, but then pointed to his eyes. “It’s the old peepers, I’m afraid. Put a rifle in my hand and I can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

“My papa’s eyes have grown so dim, he makes Mama do all the hunting these days.”

Mr. Roberts leaned close—so close she felt heat creep up her neck. “But I’ll wager he’s very proud of his daughter the teacher.”

Sylvia turned away. If only it were true.

The second version cuts out the back story and replaces it with a live-action scene. By getting Mr. Roberts on stage right away with Sylvia, we employ both the Wilson Principle and the Red Wine Rule. By sticking to the moment (“No Crystal Ball” rule), we’re able to act out the scene with lots of dialog. Readers still learn the important background info—that she has a lisp, that she is a teacher, and that the story takes place in Central California during World War I.

Your turn:

If the scene wasn’t taking place in a confined area of the train, how could this scene be further animated? At the end of the scene, an interior thought is used to foreshadow the trouble Sylvia has with Papa. Do you think there’s a better way to present this information and why or why not?

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  1. The woman in the white dress should be waiting for someone who has an enormous impact on her future, and she must make a great impression on him. (Romantic interest, CEO of her company, etc.) Otherwise, it’s a Tide commercial.

    In STAR-CROSSED, my hero literally has no one to talk to except the heroine for the first quarter of the novel so I had him have long imaginary conversations with his dead best friend, and I set them in different interesting places from their past so the reader got a better idea of who he was, his past, and his current emotional dilemma. That beat the heck out of a basketball who couldn’t talk back.

    1. Marilynn,
      What a creative way to use the Wilson Principle. And that’s all any of these “rules” are, really–guides for writers, not unbreakable laws. I would want there to be a very good reason to keep the heroine on stage alone for that lengthy of time. But that’s just me.
      Another saying I have: There are only two kinds of writing. Writing that works and writing that needs work. For you the dead best friend angle worked. Thanks for your comment and do keep writing! Linda

  2. No. I think you handled it beautifully. It is done so well it didn’t feel like foreshadowing. Honestly, I’d leave it exactly as is. Thanks for sharing this. When I first wrote my fourth novel something felt off about the hook, then I realized it was because it was all narrative. I swapped chapter one with three, did some rewriting, and viola! I’m loving it!

    1. Sue,
      It’s such a common thing to have your first couple of chapters contain too much narrative. I learned this the hard way: I was reading from The Fence My Father Built (my debut novel) and found myself skipping narrative to get to the action. What a wakeup call! Keep Writing and thanks for dropping by,

  3. Don’t we all suffer (@ least @ first) from the temptation to write ourselves into the story? Whether it’s a short story or long fiction, I catch myself doing that all the time. Sometimes I even know I’m doing it & I can sense when the story really starts…for the reasons mentioned above.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks, Linda, for sharing the three rules to fix “nothin’ happenin’.”

    Perhaps the scene could open in a train station or even a bus station. Mr. Roberts enters the scene and sits across from Sylvia. She feels his eyes on her, but avoids making eye contact. She breathes a sigh of relief when the train/bus is announced for boarding, but the man follows her. Despite her best effort to insulate herself, he manages to sit next to her… At this point, the reader doesn’t know his intention, and maybe they’ll keep turning the pages.

    As for the foreshadowing thought, I really like it. Speaks volumes in eight words!

  5. Very useful and informative. I’ve found myself doing just what you suggest a number of times to free up the narrative and provide ‘spaces’ for the reader.

  6. Thanks for posting this. Great examples. I actually began my story with a girl going home riding on a bus, and putting her neighbor to sleep with her drivel. Would have put my readers to sleep for sure. It’s already deleted, but I laugh at how I thought it was good start. LOL

  7. How about this beginning from Timaeus the Tracker?

    Timaeus stood almost dumbfounded before the Governor.

    “You want me to prove you murdered your brother,” stated the puzzled investigator. “Why don’t you just confess?”

    Marconius sat in an oversized throne as if to compensate for his diminutive size. He wielded power like a jeweled dagger.

    “If you don’t want the assignment, you may go,” he sneered.

    Timaeus didn’t like the smell of this assignment. He didn’t like the highhanded manner in which he had been delivered to the Governor. And he didn’t like Marconius.

    He scratched his right temple. To scrape at the lice crawling there.

    He shrugged, turned, and started to leave. He had an important message for Lila, anyway.

    “Where are you going?” demanded Marconius.

    “Hopefully to take a bath,” he replied over his shoulder.

    “I’ll bathe you in boiling oil if you don’t come back here,” growled the Governor.

    The Governor’s personal guard stood, faces rigid masks. Masks threatening to crack.

    Servants eyed each other with frightened semi-smiles. No one brooked the official’s authority, let alone was impertinent.

    Nor did Timaeus take threats lightly.

    They awaited the outcome of this encounter with apprehensive anticipation.

    But neither was Timaeus a fool. He was in Marconius’ throne room. Marconius’ guards stood ready to thrust their spears into his rag-covered body. Even if they were amused with his impertinence.

    1. This is a very engaging opening that reveals some wonderful characteristics of your POV character. If that first line is the first line of your novel, it’s a little abrupt to me and could use a strong hook, maybe hinting at why Timaeus is here or how he found himself in this predicament. Or you could delete that first line and just start with his first line of dialog (Timaeus is the investigator? It’s a bit confusing with first using his name, then mentioning a puzzled investigator, implying two different characters). Then give 1-2 lines showing Timaeus and something about who he is and why he’s there. It gets right into your story and characters, which is great.

    2. Larry, I got right into your scene. Wonderful.

      Like the direction of the blog. What I didn’t like about the scene was the obvious looking in the window to describe the character.

      1. Dorothy,
        Readers easily spot cliches such as looking into a mirror or window in order to give a physical description. Although readers may not know why, stories using these cliches are apt to turn them off. That’s the best reason to avoid overworked, cliche writing!
        Do Keep Writing!

  8. I liked the way you intertwined the back story into the dialog to move the story. My problem is not so much overwriting as in your example, but underwriting and becoming dialog heavy with talking heads.

    1. Christine,
      To help you with Talking Heads, you can use my Rule of Three: for every 3 lines any character speaks, break with a line (beat) of action, inner thought or feeling or the other character speaking. Hope this helps! Keep Writing! ~Linda

  9. I loved this article and passed it on to some friends who were having issues with narrative. But I wanted to weigh in on something interesting I discovered when serializing my WIP on sites like Wattpad. Those lines like “She would soon find just out how much she hated broccoli…” can actually keep readers wanting more. You can’t overdo it or make them too “cute.” But every now and then, I end a chapter with a little “hint” that makes readers send me “OMG, I can’t wait ’til you post the next chapter” messages.

    I’m assuming that would also keep readers turning pages, later, if done carefully. So as always, there are exceptions to some rules, but you have to know how to make them “work.”

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