What Makes You Keep Reading?

Photo credit: photosteve101 on Flickr (planetofsuccess)
After reading a certain blue, white and black book written by John Green in a single day, I started thinking. Truth is, the only thing The Fault in Our Stars has in common with most of the books I read is that it happens to be a YA novel. There aren't any high-action scenes or evil villains to destroy or superpowers or magic or spaceships or horrific dystopian societies that must be overturned.

And yet, I whipped through its 318 pages like nobody's business and loved every moment of it. So it got me thinking: what really makes readers keep reading?

Because sure, cliffhangers and gun fights and epic magical battles and action-packed pages can definitely keep a reader hooked, but there are underlying threads deeper than that keep us turning pages in a book. That make it impossible not to continue reading.

Some Underlying Threads:

  1. Make the readers care about the characters. This is a must. What's the point of reading to find out what happens to a character if it doesn't matter? (Answer: there is no point, so they won't read any further). Whether it's a voice that's impossible to ignore, or situations that make your protagonist sympathetic, or an endearing personality or all three, the readers have to care about the characters.

  2. Keep the reader guessing. Will Katniss and Peeta survive The Hunger Games? Will Harry ever get to go to wizarding school? Will Hazel and Augustus ever find out what happens after An Imperial Affliction ? Although this is pretty directly tied to the last point, we need to keep the readers (and the characters) asking questions throughout the book. As soon as all of the questions are answered and choices are made, there are few reasons to continue reading.

  3. Tension. I wrote an entire post on tension, so I'm not going to rehash the whole thing, but in short no tension = no reason to keep reading = book that doesn't get read.

There are other underlying threads, I'm sure, but these three are really what have stood out to me as I continue to read some truly fantastic books. And what better way to learn how to improve your writing than reading a great book?

Have you read any un-put-downable books lately? What makes you keep reading?


Lori Lopez said...

What kept me reading the latest book I read? What you said, I became invested in the MC. I'll admit, that if I hadn't heard so much good things about the book, I wouldn't have picked it up, but from the go, the main character caught my attention. Did it keep me guessing? Yes, because I was lead to believe it was about a specific event in history. Was it? yes, but the story was so much more than that. Was there tension? Yep. SO you are right on that too. Good description of what's needed to keep a reader reading. I'll tell you what will have me closing a book before the first chapter's over, a grocery list of physical attributes of the MC. boring and to me, the rest of the book is likely to be boring too. My two cents. 

Krista said...

I read Chinese Cinderella and could not put it down even though I was balling my eyes out. I kept reading because her story struck a cord deep within me. It spoke to me and taught me about myself.

Ava Jae said...

I've developed a system for choosing what you read that has served me very well so far--any book I consider reading I download a sample of onto my Nook. If I get through the sample and don't care if I continue reading (or worse, don't get through the sample at all), then the sample gets archived and I move on--as you said, if the beginning doesn't interest me, I have little reason to believe the rest of the book will be better.  If, however, I get through the sample and want to read more, I add the book to my TBR list. 

Rainy Kaye said...

Really great post, Ava! I have a
similar topic coming up on my blog this month, dealing with keeping
the interest and tension when writing prequels. If you see it come
up, feel free to leave a link to this post in the comments. :)

To answer your question: once I get
past chapter one, I "have" to finish the book. There have
been exceptions, but not so often. The points you listed, though, are
all major driving factors. Other ones for me include dialogue. I'm a
sucker for witty, amusing, or unique conversations. Bantering,
bickering, self-deprecating. Love it. Also, because I mostly like
fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc -- unique worlds. Even if the story
is sort of lagging sometimes, I'll
probably trudge through to the end if the world is interesting.

The last book I simply couldn't put
down, to the point it was almost a problem, is. . .well, it might be
embarrassing ;) The Taking, by Dean Koontz. I was such a huge fan of
his in, hmm, maybe 8th grade. They were just quick, easy reads with a little
quirk and a lot of predictability. It was fun. His work became a bit
too repetitive though, so I quit reading him. Then, someone loaned me
The Taking, because I can't resist an end of the world story. I'd say
I read it in one sitting, except I wasn't just sitting. I was
walking, bumping into things, burning dinner, etc too ;)

It wasn't a particularly amazing story,
but the world was unique while still holding that familiar Koontz
quality. End of the world AND nostalgia? I'm there!

There are so many reasons to finish a
book. I think it's just important for authors to make sure their book
has at least one going for it lol


Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Rainy! I'll definitely keep an eye out for that post you mentioned. 

I have to agree that the world can certainly be a huge factor in readability--while I was reading The Iron Fey series, the fantastic Fey world was a large part of the reason I was so intrigued--even during the less action-packed scenes. And I'm also a sucker for clever dialogue (and repeating certain lines of clever dialogue to anyone who will listen). 

A little more embarrassing than your confession: I haven't read a Dean Koontz novel yet. He's definitely on my list of authors I have little excuse for not reading and I fully intend to pick up one of his novels in the future. 

Finally, I agree that it's important for authors to make sure they have at least one good reason for readers to keep reading their book--but even better if they make sure there's more than one reason, right? :) 

Rainy Kaye said...

I do the dialogue thing too. It's almost compulsive. Have you read Douglas Adams? It's difficult to stop quoting him. Even the narrative.

Once you've read a Dean Koontz book, you've pretty much read them all. There's a few exceptions but he's a bit of a formula writer. My favorites are Lightening, Cold Fire, The Taking, Strangers, and for something a little off the wall, Tick Tock. But, whatever you do, avoid movies based on his books. They're a new level of terrible, even as made-for-TV-based-on-a-book go. ;)

Matthew Rowe said...

Unfortunately whether I keep reading is determined by how much work I have at my school not on the quality of the book! And then it's a matter of if something else grabs my attention before I have time to get back to it.

Ava Jae said...

I can't say I've read Douglas Adams, either. I'll have to look him up. 

Thanks for the recommendations! I'll take a look at the Koontz books you mentioned (and avoid the movies). :) 

Ava Jae said...

Ah yes, I can certainly understand that. It can be difficult to balance everything. 

Becca Puglisi said...

I'm such a snob. I don't finish books all the time. For all the reasons you listed, but also frequently because I don't know what's at stake. When authors don't get that across clearly, or when the stakes are too low, I'm just not interested in finishing. There are so many great books out there and my reading time is scarce; I'd rather spend it on stories that are truly awesome and that I enjoy 100%.

As for books that have held my interest recently: Birth Marked, Shatter Me, and Breadcrumbs.

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

James Garcia Jr said...

Thankfully there have been few times where I kept reading just to see how it ended. I hate to quit a book and have probably only done it once in the past two years, since I started reading more consistently. Last year I read the Sammy Hagar book in two days, because I'm such a big music fan. I don't know how I managed that! I work 11 hours a day and have very little time to read. It's quite sad.


Ava Jae said...

I wouldn't consider you a snob for wanting to spend your time only on books that you really enjoy. You make a great point about knowing what's at stake--without a well defined what if he/she fails?, the story can become, quite frankly, boring. 

I also read and loved Shatter Me. Haven't heard of Birth Marked or Breadcrumbs--who were the authors?

Ava Jae said...

I don't often stop reading a book mid-way, either. I read samples to determine whether or not I want to continue, and if the sample doesn't interest me, then I don't go any further. Once I've started a book, however, very rarely do I stop mid-way. 

Alackerm said...

I have not read any John Green yet, but I hear so much about him, I should grab something by him. :) 

J. A. Bennett said...

I've read several fantastic books lately (as you saw on my blog) and I think the Characters were the driving force more than anything. I've been thinking a lot about editing (ha!) and I've decided that I'm not going to give into what other people think my characters should be. they are who they are and I'm not going to change them.

Plus, no one has read my entire novel so they don't really know where I'm going with it ;)

Rhiannon Paille said...

I had a hard time putting down that blue, black and white book too. More recently though, Grave Mercy was a tough one to put down. Maybe it was just the style, but I liked the book. 

Ava Jae said...

The Fault in Our Stars is the first John Green novel I read and I loved it. I'll be putting up a full review very soon. :)

Ava Jae said...

Characters are certainly a driving force in most novels--if we don't care about the characters, it doesn't matter how interesting the situation is. 

Ava Jae said...

Haven't heard of Grave Mercy. Who is the author?

Moody Writing said...

Very interesting post. I've been thinking along similar lines. A lot of books by great writers don't seem to follow the 'start with fireworks or readers will leave' type of thinking.


Ava Jae said...

Interesting thought. What exactly do you mean by "start with fireworks or readers will leave"?

Beverly Diehl said...

Well, I read a self-pubbed book lately where it started with the hero and his sidekick being pursued by a tribe of cannibals.  Exciting, per se - only we didn't know who these people were so we didn't CARE about them.

I read the whole thing because it was written by an old friend, but honestly, despite lots of action and a fast pace, it didn't MOVE for me, because there was too little character development.  I was cheering for people to get shot and killed, rather than being afraid they would.

Ava Jae said...

Ah, ok I understand. That's very true--action can be a great way to hook a reader, but only if you make the reader care about the characters. Without the connection to the character, there's little reason to cheer for anyone, and thus little reason to continue reading. 

Amberr Meadows said...

I read non-sucky stuff. A lot of people try to force me into reading sucky stuff, and I try to give it a chance, but alas cannot finish. :(

JaggerBack said...

I think he means start the story with action.

Ava Jae said...

Ahh, ok. Yes, that makes sense. It's not always necessary.

Ava Jae said...

...How did I never answer this comment? Anyway, I find it's always best to stick with books that interest you.

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