Marilynn Byerly


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Keeping the Reader Reading


How to create a story that will suck the reader in like a black hole and not belch him out until "The End."

Marilynn Byerly




What gets us into a story? What keeps us there?

Let's look at two beginnings of the same story.

Faith Cody finished her packing by tossing in several paperback historical novels, straightened, and closed her suitcase.


She was so excited. Today, she was going on the closest thing to a vacation she'd had for years-- over a month at Myrtle Beach acting as the nanny for two darling children.

Here's the second beginning--

Hideous creatures crouched in the darkness.


Faith Cody, her mind seeking consciousness, struggled against the clinging tentacles of that drugged darkness.


Her body twisted in the throes of nightmare, and she moaned, the deep-chested sound dragging her into the light. But when she opened her eyes, a monster waited there as well.


Light and shadow undulated around her in a drugged blur, but she could distinguish enough corners and shapes to know she lay in a strange bedroom. Rainy afternoon gray light billowed through thin, white curtains, and she could smell the sea and the freshly laundered sheets of her bed. The ceiling above her was spattered with large shadows of raindrops she couldn't see on the windows.

A man, a blur of flesh tones and angles, leaned over her. His hand became solid shape as it reached her face. Her nameless dread became terror, and she cringed away, expecting rape.




Which beginning draws the reader in? I imagine most readers would say the second one.


Both stories are about the same person on the same day, but the second story begins at an important, exciting moment, and the questions it asks of the reader makes her want to keep reading. Why has Faith been drugged? Where is she? Who is the man leaning over her and what will he do to her?

The moment and those questions are called the hook. In the average short story, the hook should be in the first few paragraphs; in the average novel, within the first few pages.



But the hook isn't the only reason the second selection works better.

Here's another version of that second selection.

Faith Cody lay in bed. She tossed and turned then moaned at a horrible nightmare. She heard the sound of her moan and woke up. This wasn't her room. Where was she? Why was she here? Why was the room so fuzzy?

A man leaned over her. He was blurred, too. Somehow, she knew he was going to rape her. As his hand reached her face, she screamed.

Why does the first work better than the second? Compare the room descriptions.

This wasn't her room.


In comparison:

Light and shadow undulated around her in a drugged blur, but she could distinguish enough corners and shapes to know she lay in a strange bedroom. Rainy afternoon gray light billowed through thin, white curtains, and she could smell the sea and the freshly laundered sheets of her bed. The ceiling above her was spattered with large shadows of raindrops she couldn't see on the windows.

The second gives visual details -- corners, shapes, white curtains, the shadows of raindrops. It also gives details from the other senses -- the smell of the ocean and the sheets, and the feel of the wind from the open window. The reader should be in that room at this point because she can visualize it.



The hook which is the beginning of the plot, and the visual and sensual details aren't enough to create a story. We need one or more characters who will let us see what they see and experience the events as they do. These characters must have an important goal and be characters the reader can like or empathize with.

In the scenes I've already used, we have Faith Cody, a school teacher, who becomes involved in the rescue of the two kidnapping children she'd been hired to tend for the summer. She will be the main character the reader will follow through this plot.

She's a nice lady and someone a reader can root for, and her goal--the rescue of two small children-- is a very worthy one. She will be our viewpoint character.



In one of my first stories, I had the main character in a surly mood in the opening scene without telling the reader why he was acting the way he was. A friend who critiqued the story wrote in the margin, "Who pissed in his oatmeal this morning?" It's a comment I hear in my head every time I discover I need to rewrite an under-motivated character.

Characters should have very good reasons to act as they do. We must give them motivations that the reader can understand. The most common mistake most new writers make is having a character act in a certain way because the writer needs her to act in a certain way.

This is as true for the villain as it is for the main viewpoint character. If your bad guy doesn't act without proper motivation, the whole story falls apart. To learn more about the motivation of the villain, read my articles "The Back Plot Thickens," and my article on plotting with index cards.



For a writer, viewpoint is more than the standard list you learned in English. We not only have to choose from first, second, third, and omniscient viewpoints, we also have to choose narrative distance.

The standard viewpoint for genre fiction is third person where the viewpoint character is referred to as "he" or "she."

First person is acceptable in some mystery fiction and romance, but it's not seen as often in sf and fantasy.

In omniscient viewpoint you read the thoughts of all or most of the characters' heads. It has fallen out of favor in the last twenty years, and you will only rarely see it in genre with the exception of Regency romances where the writer is attempting to mimic the style of Jane Austen and her contemporaries.

Why is it out of favor? Narrative distance. The current trend in writing is for warm or hot viewpoint in popular fiction, and omniscient is by its nature cold.

The simplest example of cold viewpoint would be a novel written from Spock's viewpoint. Emotion doesn't cloud the events seen by the narrator. Books of high epic fantasy like THE LORD OF THE RINGS are primarily in cold viewpoint because the books have a sense of a great story being retold, and the individual is less important than the story itself.

Warm viewpoint allows emotions from the viewpoint character, but the emotions aren't always center stage. Most sf, fantasy, and mysteries are written primarily in warm viewpoint.

Hot viewpoint is most often seen in romance, and I'm not talking just about the sex scenes. Hot viewpoint allows the emotions to be emphasized. What the viewpoint character feels is just as important as what is happening.

Even romances are not told only in hot viewpoint which is reserved for scenes of emotional importance.

All three forms of narrative distance can usually be found in novels. In my novel, STAR-CROSSED, for example, I wrote the heroine primarily in hot viewpoint because she's a loving and giving person who thinks as much with her heart as her scientist's brain.

The hero was written primarily in warm viewpoint because he's a guy, dang it, and guys tend to think in cold or warm viewpoint with occasional careful forays into hot. He also doesn't trust his emotions so he keeps them in check.

My villain I wrote in cold viewpoint because she was emotionally cold and frightening in a reptilian way, and, frankly, I had no desire to get that deep into her sick psyche, and I knew most of my readers would feel the same way.



The most common mistake in viewpoint that many new writers make is they become a camera rather than the actor in the scene. In other words, they are sitting in the corner scribbling away as they describe the movie going on in front of them.

As a camera, the writer would write:

Faith struck at him with the edge of her hand, but he caught her wrist and held it.

"Don't," he said harshly.


She clawed at his eyes, but he dodged. Yanking free, she came to her knees but paused.


He took advantage of her slowness by throwing himself on top of her and pinning her to the bed.


She kicked at his groin and missed. Screaming and twisting, she tried again.


The correct place for the writer to be is in the brain and body of the viewpoint character. She should describe what the viewpoint character sees and feels to make the scene come alive. Here's the same scene through the filter of Faith Cody

Faith struck out with the edge of her hand, but the self-defense blow which should have smashed his windpipe was as clumsy and slow as the rest of her drugged body. He caught her wrist in steel fingers.




His hard-voiced command spurred her from her hopelessness, and she raked at his eyes with her free hand. His hand loosening her wrist, he dodged. Yanking free, she came to her knees in bed. She wore only a large tee shirt.


Shocked by her vulnerability, she paused before attacking again or fleeing. In that moment, he threw himself at her, pinning her to the bed, his hands manacling her wrists to the sheets.


Her knee seeking his genitals, she twisted, but her knee glanced off his inner thigh. Screaming like an angry jungle cat, she writhed beneath him as she tried to hit him again with her knee.

The trick to being in a character's head rather than watching from the outside is to create a reality for the reader. Use visual language. Make the reader SEE what the character sees. Make the reader feel what the character feels.

Don't say, "Pamela was afraid." Say, "Shivers ran down her back like cold fingers." In other words, show, don't tell. If a character is angry, don't have him shout dialogue or "say angrily." Use his actions instead. If he's grinding a wadded paper to pulp in his hand while he's talking, you can be darn sure he's mad.



Another very common problem with viewpoint is writing a scene from the brains of two or more characters at the same time. We are privy to what each character is thinking. Here is an example.

"Did April come with you?" Austin asked. He whispered a prayer that his daughter wasn't in the hands of the children's kidnappers.


Pleased to tell the old man good news, Faith said, "No. The doctor wouldn't allow it. That's one reason I was sent."


"What do you mean the doctor wouldn't allow?" Alarms ringing in his head, Nick sat up. "What's wrong with April?"


Boy, he's not going to like this news, Austin thought. "She's pregnant."

In this short bit of dialogue, the effect of multiple viewpoints isn't too bad, but in a scene, it can be very annoying or confusing as it becomes a verbal ping-pong match among multiple players. The reader ends up with mental whiplash or nausea from all that back and forth between brains.

When I point out the multiple viewpoint error, the most common comment I get from new writers is, "But I have to explain what the other characters are feeling about what is happening."

My answer is, "No, you don't. Give the reader clues by describing the physical actions of the characters, or their tone of voice, or by trusting the reader's knowledge of the character, then let the reader fill in the blanks. Filling in the blanks is an important part of the enjoyment for the reader."

If Nick's face goes blank with shock as if someone has slapped him unexpectedly when he hears his ex-wife is pregnant with her new husband's baby, the reader can figure out what is going on emotionally with him without being privy to his thoughts.



Narrative is essentially the prose in a story as opposed to the dialogue. It tells the reader what is happening and gives her images to visualize what is happening. It also tells her even more about the viewpoint character because what is seen and how it is described tells as much about the character as the dialogue.

One character might see a plane crash scene and visualize it like this--

The plane's pieces were scattered over the valley like clothes dropped by a drunk on the way to bed.

Another character who is more analytical would think--

The gouge of earth left by the plane's moving fuselage led him to a boulder. The left wing tip lay against it. The furrow veered violently left there, and bits of wing then fuselage littered the area around it. When there was nothing left of the plane to break apart, the gouge ended.



I've said that you shouldn't have more than one viewpoint within a scene, and that's usually true, but you can shift viewpoint to another character for the remainder of a long scene.

In this scene from my work in progress, GUARDIAN ANGEL, the heroine has been the viewpoint character through a long chase scene, and an interrogation by FBI Agent Mark Faulkner. She and her bodyguard who is Mark's ex-partner are ready to leave. Mark kisses her to make Gard jealous. At that point, I switch to Gard's viewpoint for the remainder of the chapter.

Stepping back, she resisted her urge to glare or hit Mark in his presumptuous teeth. Despite his obvious desire to sleep with her, he had meant that kiss more for Gard's reaction than her seduction. He'd coldly and secretly studied Gard during the whole supposedly passionate exchange. She shoved the car seat forward, his Machiavellian maneuvers beyond her comprehension at the moment, and slid into the back seat. "I'll sit in the back."


Gard forced his right fist back into a hand before he knocked Mark's teeth or the side of the door in and pushed the front seat back into position. He locked and closed the door then nodded curtly to his former partner. "I'll call you."

How did I show a viewpoint change? That's our next subject.



In each scene, a writer should identify the viewpoint character immediately in some manner then place that character within the scene itself. Have him think something which shows that he is now the viewpoint character. In the scene above, the word "forced" is the reader's first clue that we are now in Gard's viewpoint. The rest of the paragraph reinforces his viewpoint.

Even if the scene is primarily introspection, the character still should be in a physical place at the beginning. In other words, first show that the viewpoint character is Hamlet, show that he is standing on the battlements of the royal castle, and he's staring at clouds, then let him think about whether he should believe the ghost of his father or not.



John Gardner, the author of GRENDEL, created the perfect analogy of writing in THE ART OF FICTION. He said that the writer creates a dream for the reader, and the writer must do nothing which wakes the reader up. Getting viewpoint right is a major part of keeping the reader within your dream.

Here are some other mistakes which will wake the reader up.

Author intrusion. The author uses language in such a way that the reader is aware of the reading and the author. If writing fiction is like photography, then author intrusion is the finger on the lens, the blurry focus, etc. The problem can be anything from writing that is too flowery or filled with too many obscure words to poor grammar or spelling. It can also be overuse of dialect or words made up for the world you create.


Wrong word choices. Pick strong verbs and avoid adverbs. Avoid "felt," "noticed," "seen," "thought," and other words like this. They distance the reader from the reality of the viewpoint character. Watch out for piled-on participial phrases and clauses which slow and break the rhythm of reading.


Repeating the character's name over and over again. Don't feel a need to constantly use the character's name in narrative. "He" or "she," is perfectly adequate except for clarity and the beginning of a scene. Name repetition reminds the reader that he is reading about a character, and it jerks him right out of that viewpoint character's head.


Overuse of characters addressing each other by name in dialogue. Don't constantly use names in dialogue. Listen to conversations and notice when people address each other by name. You won't hear many. Names are most often used at the beginning of a conversation as people greet each other. "Hello, Mary, how are you?" Or they're used to impart important or emotional information. "He's dead, Jim."


A plot that goes nowhere because the character has no goal. This is covered in my article, "How to Use Index Cards to Plot a Novel," so I won't go into it here.


Fight scenes that don't work or are meaningless to the plot. This is covered in my article, "How to Write Fight and Battle Scenes."



Hooks aren't just for the beginning. Smart writers always have a hook at the end to make the reader want to buy the writer's next story.

The final hook is the fulfilled promise of the story. If the story is a romance, the story should end with the promised "happily ever after." In a mystery the crime is solved or justice is meted out, and in a fantasy the quest is achieved. Science fiction as a genre doesn't have such an obvious promise, but the individual story has a goal which must be reached.

A "warm fuzzy" scene often acts as an additional hook. Warm fuzzies are the scene of domestic bliss with the hero and heroine holding their baby, or the traveler returning home to family, or the companions sharing a laugh and a beer.

If a warm fuzzy doesn't fit the tone of the story, an extremely powerful and emotional final scene is the most effective hook possible. The reader will read the end, sit quietly for a short time, then mutter to himself, "Damn that was good," and he'll wait eagerly for the writer's next story.



A story ends when the character has achieved his primary goal, or he achieves some form of closure relating to the goal unachieved. For example, he gets the girl or gets over not getting the girl.

Often, the main character has some realization about "what it's all been about" at the very end. This can be as heavy handed as a stated moral to the story, or a subtle use of imagery that has appeared through the story, or a victory celebration of some sort.

The best "moral to the story" I can think of right now is the end of the film, THE MALTESE FALCON. The hero, played by Humphrey Bogart, has turned in the woman he loves for the murder of his partner. In a voice over, he says he did this because the code he lives by as a private eye is even more important to him than love.

My STAR-CROSSED ends as it begins with the hero talking whimsically about wishing on a star. At the end, his wish has come true in the form of the woman in his arms. I used stars through the novel as images of aspirations and dreams, and even my cover has a man's manacled hand reaching for a star that is out of reach. These images tie the novel together until the images converge at the end with the hero's final words.

The most memorable victory celebration for me is the end of the original STAR WARS where Luke, Han, and Chewie receive medals for destroying the Death Star. Everyone is happy and victory has been achieved.

With a blare of John Williams' stirring martial music I end as well since the black hole is ready to belch....


Copyright 2004 by Marilynn Byerly

This article may be reproduced, but only with the permission of Marilynn Byerly ( It must contain the byline and copyright information.


Marilynn Byerly is teaching three online writing courses . To learn more, click on the link of each course.


"The Big Question: How to Create a Powerful Novel from a Few Ideas and One Big Question"


“Keeping the Reader Reading the First Chapter” How to pull the reader into your novel in the first chapter and keep her wanting to read more.


Magic, Monsters and Amour: Creating a Believable Paranormal World.


Workshop Schedule

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