How do you grip your readers? Some writers say that a story can be broken down into stages and that the stages should get more and more exciting until just before the end. It goes like this:
Situation – Complication – Crisis – Climax – Resolution
Or like this:
Meet the characters – Bad things – Very bad things – Last chance for rescue –
So that’s how they escaped!
Now sometimes these stages get mixed up, so in a crime book we often find a corpse or see someone in danger right from the start: bad things can be part of the situation, or you can jump in with a crisis before returning to the situation in your next chapter, telling it as a sort of flashback. You can see that approach in some of the sample chapters on this site.
And of course you can even break down different episodes in the same way, so that every climax is a cliffhanger: someone’s in jeopardy and the reader’s wondering how he’ll get out of it…
Which means that if you (and the reader) care about your characters, you have to hurt the ones you love. Or at the very least, put them in danger of being hurt…
And then again, there’s your favourite chapters, there’s the bits you wrote that you are most proud of, there’s those strokes of poetic genius that you stare at admiringly on your laptop screen, wondering how such wonderful phrases could ever have popped into your brain…
You know, you might just have to be prepared to edit them out. You might find, great as they are, they don’t quite fit your narrative, they’re out of character, they belong in a totally different book, or that nobody else thinks they’re as good as you do.
As Sir Arthur Quiller Couch told his students, nearly one hundred years ago,
‘Murder your darlings.’
Hurt the ones you love…
Action point four: If you are writing a novel, take each chapter you have written and ask yourself in which of the five stages shown above it fits. If you are writing short stories, use the same approach and break a story or two down into its stages. Do you have enough crises or cliffhangers to keep the reader gripped?