My reading time is limited these days. Like, really, really limited. I’m not sure what it is– but it might possibly have something to do with homeschooling a kindergartener and a third grader while chasing a super active toddler around . . . not to mention feeding said children and (sort of) stopping our house from a headlong slide into full-scale disaster zone . . . and oh yes, there’s also that whole writing thing that I do as our family’s main breadwinner. So yeah. As much as I love diving head first into a good story and not emerging for hours, at the moment my reading sessions are more like dipping a toe into the waters: if I manage 20 minutes before falling into bed at night, I’m doing awesome.
Now, I don’t mean any of this to sound like a complaint, far from it. It’s just the reality of the season of life that I’m in, and I honestly LOVE this season. I wouldn’t wish one single second of it to fly along faster than it already does. (Well, okay, possibly the house-disaster management. I could hit fast-forward on that one and not really mind.) I do miss reading more– but I’ve also noticed an unexpected benefit to limited reading time: in order to hold my attention over many many many many fragmented mini-sessions, a book has to REALLY grab me. The more times I have to put a book down, the harder it is for me to remember why I picked it up in the first place. Which has led me to contemplate what exactly makes up what I’d call “story glue”– those elusive qualities that catch hold of a readers’ attention and refuse to let her put the book away unfinished.
It’s obviously been hugely helpful to my own writing, too. Don’t we all want to figure out how to write a story that readers just can’t put down? At any rate, here are a few examples of story glue that I’ve found are particularly ‘sticky’ in terms of my own reading habits:
Story Questions: Raising questions in the readers’ minds that don’t get immediately answered. For me, this is a huge component of story glue. Hint at some sort of mystery in the first few pages of a book– doesn’t even have to be mystery, strictly speaking, just something that makes me curious– and I’m much more likely to stay with the story. I just picked up and read the first few pages of 44 Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith. The first chapter opens with a young woman named Pat walking up the steps of a house (44 Scotland Street, in fact), looking to apply to share an apartment. Not exactly save-the-world stakes– not even in context of the young woman’s life. Pat isn’t desperate to live at this particular address. She comes from a comfortable family background, she’s not broke or homeless or fleeing from an unnamed enemy. Okay, so far this isn’t sounding like much of a ‘hook’ in terms of an opening. But as part of the interview that takes place when Pat goes to check out the flat, she mentions that she’s on her “second gap year”. (Here’s  a quick run-down on a gap year if you haven’t heard the term; it’s more a British term than an American one.) The young man interviewing her reacts with amused disbelief. “Second gap year?” Yes, she says, the first one was a disaster, so I started again. But she refuses to give any more of an explanation than that– and bam! immediate story questions are raised in the reader’s mind. What happened during the disastrous first gap year? What is she hoping for by starting again? I don’t know (literally don’t know; I haven’t yet managed to claw out any more reading time to keep going with the story) but I’m curious. I want to keep reading to find out.
Empathy: In order for me to get hooked on a story, I personally need to feel an immediate sense of empathy for the character(s) I’m reading about. That’s not to say that they have to be perfect, far from it. No one wants to read about a flawless paragon of virtue. But give me a reason to like them. This has famously been called Save the Cat– and for me it holds equally true in books as it does in movies. You can show your main character behaving in a sympathetic manner (ie, saving a cat, or in other words showing sympathy and/or compassion for others). Or you can evoke the reader’s sympathy by showing a likable main character whose situation is bad enough to make us pity them. Which also ties into the next brand of story glue:
Show the Need for Change: We read books (or at least I do) because I want to be taken step by step on a journey with the characters. I want to watch them be challenged, watch them grow and change through whatever the author throws at them in the way of plot. A huge hook for me in the beginning of a book is for me to see how badly the main character needs a change.
Take my above example of 44 Scotland Street. As I mentioned, Pat isn’t in particularly dire straits. But we can tell right away that she’s hugging some inner, unnamed pain. We can tell that she’s looking for something, that she doesn’t just want a new place to live, she wants a deeper change in her life. Whether your character is stuck in a soul-crushing dead-end job or a bad relationship– or whether a character is actually his or her own worst enemy– show that they absolutely cannot stay where they are on the book’s opening page. Then I’m hooked– turning the pages, wanting to see how exactly the much-needed change comes about.
What about you? What story components make you unable to put a book down? Have you tried working those components into your own writing?