How to write with momentum
Every book you write can be a page-turner. These 10 tips should help.
This feels like a confession.
addiction fascination began circa 1985 or ‘86.
My single mother somehow managed to find the money to buy me what every child of the ‘80s most desired: the Nintendo Entertainment System.
(If you’re not seeing Fred Savage and hearing “I love the Power Glove” from The Wizard in your mind right now, you may not be a child of the ‘80s).
Ever since Super Mario became my de facto babysitter, I’ve enjoyed video games.
My confession is that I still do. And it almost feels anathema to discuss.
But it’s one of the few things I do where I can let my brain rest for a time.
Still, I gravitate toward first-person, story-driven narrative games, like Assassin’s Creed, for a reason.
I’ve played just about every iteration of the series. I’m currently fighting my way through Merry Olde England in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
The fact that I’ve played nearly every one of these games and yet the gameplay is often so similar got me thinking about why I keep playing them—even though I should be reading or writing or, you know, talking to my kid (about how awesome video games are).
To my credit, I was playing Assassin’s Creed when the idea for this article popped into my head. I immediately went to my computer. So sometimes the writing wins out.
Video games are compelling because they give us control in a world that rarely allows it.
They give us a dopamine reward with every conquered quest.
But what some of the best video games do is tell a compelling story that makes the gamer want to keep playing.
Writers—especially nonfiction writers—can benefit from keeping that in mind.
When you write, do you drag your reader along? Or do you entice them?
If you’re writing long-form content, how do you keep your reader interested?
10 tips to maintain reader motivation
Don’t immediately answer the questions your book raises.
I’ve seen this in client work a few times. The TV show LOST became a cultural touchstone because it raised so many questions that viewers had to keep watching in order to find their answers. (I still don’t know why that polar bear was there.)
Punch and pause.
Whether it’s a new fact, a cutting question, or an emotional insight, land your segues with a powerful punch. Then let the reader take a breath, gather their thoughts, and then get back to telling your story. How often have you seen shows or films with high-action sequences followed by quieter moments of reflection or character-building? Consider how you can use the emotional peaks and valleys of storytelling to take your reader on a compelling journey.
Alternatively, be the steady guide.
If you’re wanting your reader to arrive at a particular destination, be their guide. Coax them along the map you’re prescribing with a preview of what’s to come at the end of each of your chapters.
Shorten your chapters.
Seriously, think deeply about your chapter length. In my editorial work on The Path of the Shepherd Leader, which was an excellently written book before I touched it, my best suggestion was to cut the author’s lengthy chapters into more digestible parts. We were both pleased with how it came out. I also recommend watching the following section of Tim Ferriss’s interview with James Clear on the background of writing and organizing Atomic Habits:
Write your book first; worry about chapter titles later.
Seriously, give every chapter a generic title until you’ve written a full draft you’re proud of. Then consider what your table of contents should look like. Again, think about the reader’s journey. What’s a compelling title that makes sense for each chapter, but what makes your roadmap an adventure worth taking? (Clear also discusses this in the video above.)
Remember: if you’re bored, they’re bored.
When you’re rereading or editing your work and find yourself glossing over a section, that could be a sign to freshen that writing (or strike it altogether). If you think your familiarity with your work is coloring your assessment, get a beta reader. Don’t ask them if that specific section is boring, as that might bias them toward your opinion. Rather, ask them to read the full chapter and highlight any areas that bore them. (I’ve also found it helpful to ask them to identify confusing parts, as well as their favorite parts, but it can sometimes be more beneficial to have a beta reader only look for a specific issue you’re wrestling with.)
Vary your sentence length.
If you’ve read writing advice on the internet long enough, you’ve very likely seen this excellent example by Gary Provost of why varying your sentence length is essential to compelling writing. When you become complacent in your rhythm, you’ll sing your reader to sleep. Don’t. Do. That. Also, don’t do the one-word sentences. Seriously. : )
Make your characters interesting.
This is easier for novelists, but that doesn’t let nonfiction authors off the hook. We just have to work harder at it. One reason I play the Assassin’s Creed games so often is that their characters are interesting. I want to see and experience their world through their eyes. Are your characters—even if real-life people—so compelling?
Know your overarching story.
Go on your diatribes, discourses, and debates, but what’s the big story you’re telling? Do the diatribes still connect? Are you reminding the reader often enough about the stakes of your story?
Beware the passive voice.
Are we going back to high school English? Yes. Absolutely. Even if a reader isn’t cognitively aware that passive voice pervades your prose, they’ll feel it. There’s a reason it’s called active voice. If you want movement in your work, be active. For more on active voice vs. passive voice, seek wisdom from The Purdue Owl.
What would you add to this list?
How do you keep a reader interested and motivated to keep reading?
Just hit reply and let me know.
Lastly, how do you know when you’ve kept a reader’s attention?
They might just have exchanged their videogame controller for your book.
🔥 The best passage I read this week 🔥
Here, Marcus Aurelius describes the lessons he’s learned from those he knows. Editors have not changed in millennia.
“10. The Literary Critic Alexander
“Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or a grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just answer their question or add another example, or debate the issue itself (not their phrasing), or make some other contribution to the discussion—and insert the right expression, unobtrusively.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.10
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Excellent, actionable advice for writing! Love the video game analogy too. I enjoy gaming but not on your (or my son’s) level. I like to let my mind wander and get the gratification from having the best darn farm. 😂