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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Holba

Crafting a Compelling Storyline

How to Keep A Reader Coming Back For More

By: Brendan Holba

In a vast sea of written words, where attention spans are as fleeting as a summer breeze, captivating your readers has become a writer's most coveted treasure. A few years back I was having a discussion with a musician and he told me that with streaming services now and options galore an artist only has a few seconds to grab the listeners' attention before they move to another song. With so many options vying for our attention in the prose world as well, the hook must be set quickly and effectively. As storytellers, we yearn for that magical connection with our audience, where every word we craft entwines their imagination and holds their attention captive until the final sentence.

So, fellow wordsmiths, how do we grab our reader's attention, and keep them coming back for more of our story?


The Power of a Captivating Opening

In the vast ether that is the current state of today's written content, the battle for readers' attention is fierce. With countless articles, blog posts, and stories vying for our time, it has become crucial for writers to master the art of capturing the audience's interest from the very beginning. I remember from a creative writing class I had in college where the professor told us that the opening sentence of any piece is like a literary handshake, a firm grip that determines whether readers will be compelled to continue or quickly move on.

I have found that one of the most effective ways to engage readers is by immersing them in an immediate and compelling action. By plunging them directly into a scene of intensity or excitement, an author can ignite curiosity and a desire to unravel the story that follows. Most of my favorite books start this way!

Humans are inherently curious creatures, drawn to mysteries and puzzles that beckon to be solved. By presenting an enigma or posing a thought-provoking question in the opening sentence, a writer can tap into this curiosity and captivate readers' attention. For instance, imagine starting with, "He had vanished without a trace, leaving behind a single cryptic note." This immediately piques readers' interest and compels them to embark on a journey to unravel the disappearance and uncover the truth.

Your opening sentence or paragraph should also serve as a compass, guiding readers toward the emotional landscape of your writing. By establishing the tone and atmosphere right from the start, writers can create a powerful connection with the audience. Whether it's a hauntingly poetic line that sets a somber mood or a humorous anecdote that invites laughter, the tone sets the stage for the reader's experience.

The Role of Conflict in Building an Intriguing Storyline

Conflict is the beating heart of every captivating story. Whether it's a thrilling adventure, a poignant drama, or a heartwarming romance, conflict provides the necessary tension and drive that keeps readers hooked from beginning to end.

In storytelling, conflict can manifest in various forms, each adding depth and complexity to the narrative. These types of conflict are the ones that I use in my own writing and are the bedrock for any of the great writings across time:

a) Internal Conflict: This occurs within a character's mind and emotions, such as a moral dilemma or a clash of desires. This is probably my favorite one and one that made me a reader because it allows readers to connect with the characters on a deeper level, as we witness the internal struggles and growth.

b) External Conflict: This involves conflicts between characters, nature, society, or any external force that opposes the protagonist's goals. External conflicts can range from physical confrontations to ideological clashes, providing opportunities for tension, suspense, and character development. It's not that I don't like external conflict, it certainly builds the storyline but in terms of deep connections with the characters, this type of conflict cannot hold a candle.

To craft a truly engaging storyline, it is essential to present your characters with obstacles that challenge their goals and desires. These obstacles should be meaningful, relevant, and capable of pushing the characters beyond their comfort zones. By doing so, you create opportunities for character development and emotional resonance. Remember to consider the motivations, strengths, and weaknesses of your characters when designing obstacles, as it adds depth and authenticity to their struggles. If you're a pantser like me, taking notes after you spend time writing out your story will be helpful for the flow of your story.

Raising the stakes increases the potential consequences and risks for the characters as your story progresses. By escalating the stakes, you heighten the sense of urgency and investment for readers. This can be achieved through introducing time constraints, intensifying conflicts, or presenting higher risks and rewards. The higher the stakes, the more readers will be emotionally invested in the outcome.

Conflict serves as a catalyst for character growth and transformation. Through conflict, characters are forced to confront their weaknesses, make difficult choices, and evolve over the course of the story. The challenges they face provide opportunities for self-discovery, resilience, and personal growth, making their journeys all the more compelling and relatable to readers.

Keeping Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

In the realm of storytelling, suspense, and tension play a crucial role in captivating readers and holding their interest until the very last page. Whether you're writing a thrilling mystery, a heart-pounding action scene, or a gripping psychological drama, mastering the art of building suspense and tension is key.

One tactic that consistently keeps readers engaged and that I strive for in each chapter iI write is the art of withholding information. By strategically revealing only fragments of the story, you can generate a sense of curiosity and anticipation within your readers. This technique can be employed in various ways, such as introducing an enigmatic character, hinting at a dark secret, or posing a mysterious question that begs to be answered. By skillfully controlling the release of information, you can build suspense and keep readers eagerly turning pages.

Time pressure is an effective tool for intensifying suspense and tension. By setting deadlines, countdowns, or time-sensitive goals, authors can inject a sense of urgency into the narrative. This technique heightens the stakes and propels the story forward, as readers become invested in the outcome within a limited time frame. Whether it's a race against the clock to defuse a bomb or unravel a conspiracy before it's too late, the impending deadline adds an extra layer of suspense that hooks readers and keeps them engrossed. Dan Brown is one of my favorite authors and he is great at this!

A good writer cannot forget about the cliffhanger—a classic technique that leaves readers hanging on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the next installment. By ending a chapter or a story section with a shocking revelation, an unresolved conflict, or an unexpected twist, authors can leave readers in a state of anticipation and curiosity. Cliffhangers create a compelling need for closure, compelling readers to continue reading to find out what happens next. This powerful technique ensures that readers stay engaged and emotionally invested in the story, and if you're like me, losing some sleep because you have to turn the page to figure out what happens next.

Pacing is a crucial element in building suspense and tension. Authors can manipulate the rhythm of the narrative by alternating between moments of calm and moments of intense action. By interspersing slower, introspective scenes with high-stakes, adrenaline-pumping sequences, authors create a rollercoaster effect that keeps readers engrossed. The skillful use of shorter, snappier sentences can also quicken the pace, adding a sense of urgency and tension to the prose.

Crafting a Well-Rounded Storyline

In the realm of storytelling, finding the perfect equilibrium between action-packed scenes and slower, reflective moments is a delicate art. A well-rounded storyline requires a careful balance between heart-pounding excitement and moments of introspection. By mastering this balance, you can create a captivating narrative that keeps your readers engaged from beginning to end.

Pacing is the key to maintaining the reader's interest throughout your story. While action-packed scenes create tension and propel the plot forward, slower-paced moments allow readers to catch their breath and settle into the emotional aspects of the narrative. Here are a few techniques to help you manage pacing effectively:

a) Vary Scene Lengths: Mix shorter, high-energy scenes with longer, more contemplative ones. This contrast helps create a rhythm that keeps readers engaged while allowing them to absorb the story's nuances.

b) Strategic Placement: Introduce action-packed scenes at crucial points to heighten tension and build anticipation. Follow them up with slower-paced moments to provide insight into the characters' emotions and motivations.

c) Cliffhangers and Transitions: End action scenes with cliffhangers, leaving readers eager to find out what happens next. Use smooth transitions to shift from fast-paced events to slower moments seamlessly.

Slower-paced moments offer opportunities for characters to reflect, grow, and deepen their emotional arcs. These introspective scenes not only provide a breather from intense action but also allow readers to connect with the characters on a deeper level. Consider the following techniques:

a) Internal Monologues: Explore your characters' thoughts, fears, and desires through internal monologues. This technique allows readers to understand their motivations and creates empathy.

b) Flashbacks and Memories: Use flashbacks or memories to delve into a character's past, revealing their vulnerabilities and shaping their present actions. These reflective moments provide a deeper understanding of their journey and add layers to the narrative.

c) Quiet Interactions: Show characters engaging in meaningful conversations or personal interactions that reveal their true selves. These quieter moments can be powerful catalysts for change and provide a contrast to the fast-paced action.

Dialogue is a versatile tool that can be used to maintain the story's momentum and inject tension into slower-paced moments. Consider the following tips for effective dialogue usage:

a) Subtext: Utilize subtext to add depth to conversations. Characters may say one thing but mean another, creating intrigue and tension within the dialogue.

b) Conflict and Debate: Incorporate disagreements and debates between characters to infuse energy into slower moments. These exchanges can reveal conflicting viewpoints and drive the plot forward.

c) Emotional Impact: Use dialogue to convey emotions and reveal character traits. Well-crafted dialogue can evoke empathy, deepen relationships, and enhance readers' investment in the story.

Breathing Life into Your Story

In the realm of storytelling, characters serve as the driving force behind any narrative. They are the vessels through which readers immerse themselves in the story, forming emotional connections and experiencing a myriad of emotions. Creating relatable and well-developed characters is essential to captivating readers and ensuring the success of your story.

Every character has a story to tell, and their past experiences shape who they are in the present. To create relatable characters, take the time to develop their backstories. Explore their upbringing, their triumphs, and their struggles. What formative experiences have they had? What traumas or joys have shaped their worldview? By inquiring into their pasts, you will gain a deeper understanding of your characters, allowing you to portray them more authentically within your story. The beauty is, there are almost no rules about this. Keep notes, take risks, and bring your characters to life!

Characters should be more than just names on a page; they should possess multifaceted personalities that resonate with readers. Consider their strengths, weaknesses, fears, and desires. What motivates them? What are their flaws? By giving your characters depth, you create an opportunity for readers to connect with them on a deeper level. Allow your characters to evolve and grow throughout the story, facing internal conflicts and overcoming obstacles that shape their journey.

Perfect characters can be challenging to relate to. Flaws and imperfections add layers of complexity and make characters more human. Nobody is flawless, and acknowledging this in your characters makes them more relatable to readers. Whether it's a propensity for self-doubt, a quick temper, or a tendency to make impulsive decisions, these imperfections will create opportunities for readers to empathize with and root for your characters.

Characters should have clear goals and motivations that readers can understand and identify with. What do they want to achieve? What drives them to pursue these goals? Aligning your characters' desires with universal human experiences will help readers connect with their struggles and triumphs. By infusing their aspirations with emotional resonance, you will engage readers and keep them invested in your characters' journeys.

When it comes to character development, actions often speak louder than words. Instead of explicitly telling readers about a character's traits, allow their actions, dialogue, and interactions with others to reveal who they are. Show their strengths through moments of courage and vulnerability, and their flaws through mistakes and conflicts. This approach enables readers to form their own opinions about your characters, fostering a deeper engagement with the story.

Final Thoughts

Crafting a strong storyline that leaves readers craving more is a skill that every writer aspires to master. So, go forth and write stories that leave readers eagerly turning the pages and exploring the wonderful world of books!

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