Just serve me a big platter of juicy stakes!
If you’re finding a story you’re reading a little dry or even boring, it’s probably missing something important: a plot arc. It’s better if you have one before you start writing, but there are some ways to revive a mortally debilitated story.
One of the best ways to keep readers hooked is to end every scene and every chapter of your book with a dilemma, a confrontation, or something else that requires the reader to keep turning pages to find the answer to a puzzle you’ve given them. A hypothetical question is not a good cliffhanger. You want readers to get to the end of a section with no idea what is going to happen next, or slowly piecing together a puzzle with another clue you’ve given them.
Here are some cliffhanger endings I’ve used in my writing:
A fairy promises you phenomenally good luck for 25 years, and horribly bad luck after that.
You wake up and realize you’re hundreds of light-years from home with no idea how you got there.
You hacked into the colonel’s secret, coded messages and read: “If oca makes new nido, return to charca nueva only if nido at charca grande has peces.”
They threw you in an airlock, and you realize the ship that was docked there is now floating free in space.
Good fiction starts with a central conflict or problem and gives you details that slowly move you toward the final resolution of it. That means, the author has to dole out breadcrumbs on a fairly regular schedule. You can’t give away too much too quickly, and you can’t make readers wait too long for a new clue. Learning more about the world you created or about your characters do not take the place of plot development and complications.
It’s most noticeable in detective novels, but it applies to any story with a mystery. The reader wants to come to realizations slightly before or slightly after your sleuth or other main character does. If your characters are holding out on your readers with some juicy conclusion they’ve reached, readers feel cheated. If your readers figure things out long before your characters do, they get bored and think your characters are stupid. It’s perfectly fine if you drop clues early in the story and don’t show their significance until later; many readers like looking back in retrospect realizing that the clues to their eureka moment were there from early on.
Delivering on promises
If the end of the story is not very satisfying or doesn’t feel finished, there may be a pacing problem, or you may have set expectations at the start that you never fulfilled. If you set up dilemmas A, B, and C at the start of a story, readers want to see all three of them resolve at the end, not just A and B. Careful reading of the first chapter usually turns up a question the author didn’t answer, if their ending isn’t as spectacular as you want.
The biggest deficiency in many stories is in the depth and complexity of their stakes. Here again, some samples will illustrate what I mean:
The spacecraft not only took off on its own, it put you into an experiment that will decide the fate of all humanity.
That has big stakes. Whether humanity gets lots of brand new technology or gets subjugated is a big deal. And it yields lots of questions that can be answered over a number of chapters: Were you picked for the experiment, or were you just in the wrong place at the right time? Is there anything you can do to skew the results in your favor?
Your girlfriend leaves you, and you can’t get her out of your mind.
This has small stakes. Everybody gets romantically rejected, and obsessing about it is not a big deal, however much drama you may feel at that moment. The downside is that you will continue to obsess about her for the rest of your life. Not horrible. Why should the reader care?
You go back in time and create a feedback loop that could destroy all of reality.
This has huge stakes. Beyond the outcome of a failed relationship or even the potential enslavement of humanity, this story is talking about the fate of the entire universe. Talk about a lot of responsibility!
Resolutions and complications
You may have heard the phrase “raising the stakes.” This is a responsibility of any storyteller. When you resolve something in your story, the usual technique for raising stakes is to have that resolution create two new problems. Or be only a partial resolution that causes one new problem. Or it doesn’t even resolve things; it just makes things worse.
The most harmful thing a story can do is leave space between a resolution and the next problem. It’s okay to give readers a breather every once in a while for some humor or character development, but that happens in the midst of the plot complication. As much as you may be enamored of the device used in horror films–the “gotcha”–it’s hard to make it work in a story without losing the reader while you pretend that everything is resolved and back to normal.
So if a story is not keeping readers interest or the ending is not satisfying, the plot is usually at fault. Go back through it and notice your stakes, your pacing, when your characters know a lot more or a lot less about what’s going on, and ask what new thing is causing suspense at the end of each section.
This is the fourth in a series of essays on editorial tips for writers of fiction. If you found it interesting, check out the previous posts in the series (Editing Tips: Bad Advice, Editing Tips: Version Control, Editing Tips: Style Guides), and check back next week for a new post on Editorial Tips: Dialogue.