Writing Fiction: 10 Ways To Keep Readers Hooked

    how to keep readers hooked

    How can you entice your reader to turn the page?

    By writing a good story, of course!

    The drama within the tale—plus the implied question ‘how will it all turn out?’—should be motivation enough.

    But it isn’t.

    Even great stories must be structured to sustain that drama.

    ‘Scene hangers’ are one way to do it. They’re lines set at the end of a scene or chapter that tempt the reader to read on. Most great stories contain scene hangers, though they might not be obvious.

    The device became popular in the mid-19th century when many novels were sold in monthly instalments and readers had to be teased, at the end of each instalment, to buy the next one.

    But scene hangers are used even today, in virtually every genre.

    Here are 10 proven ways to writing fiction that will keep your reader hooked:

    #1. Break at a point of tension

    ”I’ve had enough of this marriage,” Jane screamed, “and of you!”

    The reader yearns to know how, or if, the tension will be resolved in the next chapter.

    The tactic here is to delay the resolution of a scene.

    “I just don’t understand,” Jim said to the hushed room. And the silence deepened.

    Keep the big questions hanging.

    You can emphasize the break by setting the scene hanger on a separate line.

    This was a time for rejoicing./Wasn’t it?

    If you end a scene with a single sentence or phrase (‘Wasn’t it?’) on a line by itself, it acquires a special emphasis: teasing or ominous. Almost any phrase will do.

    Or you can end the scene with a pregnant pause.

    He set his glass carefully on the table and fixed me with a glance that would have skewered a pig.

    What does this mean? We have to read on to find out.

    Why not put a ‘gun on the wall?’

    On his wall I noticed a hand gun. While his back was turned, I sniffed it. Recently fired.

    End your scene or chapter with some mysterious object. It need not be a gun as such.

    On his table was a model, four foot high, of the Mt Rushmore Memorial. Built of bread dough.

    Bread dough? Why?

    It could even be an odd event.

    For no obvious reason, he smiled then stood on his head.

    What’s going on? We jump to the next chapter to find out.

    Each of these examples closes on a note of uncertainty. You can create uncertainty with a single phrase.

    • At least, that’s what it seemed.
    • But maybe I was wrong.
    • Or so I thought.

    Joe would go to college and Sharon would have her baby and everything would be fine. Or so I thought. 

    That lingering hint of doubt builds suspense. And suspense keeps a story moving.

    #2. Ask a rhetorical question

    How ever would I get out of this mess?

    Shakespeare pioneered the trick in King Lear: “What will hap more to-night?

    Today, a question addressed blatantly to the reader sounds old-fashioned. Reserve it for pulp fiction.

    However, the device can be used in subtle ways. Simply end with a question that the narrator poses to themselves:

    Was I right about Jill’s pregnancy? For sure, I would know tomorrow.

    So will the reader, if they read on.

    #3. Link the passages with a forecast

    Houston would be unbearably hot in August, I thought./And so it was.

    With one jump, we’re in Houston.

    You can strengthen that forecast with a linking word or phrase.

    Park Avenue at night is a joyless place./I arrived at my apartment, but with no great joy.

    The terms ‘joyless’ and ‘joy’ link the chapters seamlessly to give a sense of continuity.

    A forecast can build suspense if it foreshadows a fateful event.

    I thought the worst was over, but it wasn’t.

    What more disasters await the narrator overleaf, we wonder?

    You could even make a happy prediction.

    Tomorrow was going to be the best day of my life!

    The reader knows—just from the naivety of the statement—that tomorrow is not going to be happy. In either case, they turn the page with dreadful joy.

    Or you could foreshadow an intriguing incident.

    Somewhere in the darkness a child wailed.

    Why did it wail? The incident doesn’t have to be important. You can drop it in to add a hint of mood or mystery, and perhaps not even refer to it again. But the reader turns the page to learn more.

    #4. Drop in a deceptively casual remark

    Of course, the man was a fool.

    The very casualness of the remark cues the reader to disbelieve it. Clearly, the man is not a fool. What will he do next?

    #5. Introduce a threatening character

    Bill arrived. He was 6ft 4 in of walking menace.

    Or a provocative character: Jane wafted into the room. If ever Nature abhorred a vacuum, it was her.

    End the scene there. We’ll read on, simply to learn more about these interesting people.

    #6. Give a summary

    I’d done [this], and [that], and [that], and nothing had worked. The problem was turning into a crisis.

    Remind the reader periodically of events that have gone before. (Maybe they’ve picked up your story again after a long time.) You can use a terse summary—one that implies the question ‘What now?’— as both a reminder and a scene hanger.

    #7. ‘Zoom out’ of the scene

    And great shaggy flakes of snow began to fall.

    Crime novelist Ruth Rendell ended an award-winning story with that exact phrase. It meant little, but signified closure. It lifted the reader out of the story to give a cosmic perspective.

    But a ‘zoom out’ need only be a temporary closure. If your previous lines posed a big question, the reader still yearns for the question to be resolved in the next scene.

    #8. Close on a climax, unresolved, then switch the story line

    The man was armed./England in March can be very cold.

    What has the English climate got to do with an armed man? To find out, we must keep reading.

    Or insert a flashback.

    And I remembered how it had been, those nineteen years before.

    How had it been? Close the scene there and the promised flashback teases us into the next scene.

    #9. Use progressively shorter sentences to heighten the pace, then cut

    The rat crept closer, its red eyes flickering at me, its tail whipping against the wall. Its teeth held something white and putrid. A human hand.

    Who could fail, at that point of climax, to read on?

    Try to follow a fast scene with a slow one. And vice versa. A good story should sustain a balance of tension and tranquillity, like the beating of a heart.

    But be sure to end a chapter on a brisk or intriguing note. Otherwise, the reader may lay the story down, lulled to sleep, never to return.

    #10. Show the passage of time

    And the old clock on the wall, silent for 50 years, began to tick.

    Remind the reader continually that the narrator is battling against time. End your most tense scenes with some reference to the clock. Or a calendar page. Or a countdown…

    Obviously, this trick works well in crime or adventure stories but it can be used in any genre at moments when you want to quicken the suspense.

    When writing fiction, or reading it, what scene hangers have you discovered? Please share your thoughts below. Every comment gets a fast, helpful reply.

    About the author

      John Yeoman

      Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.

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    • ‘Scene hangers’ are one way to do it. They’re lines set at the end of a scene or chapter that tempt the reader to read on. Most great stories contain scene hangers, though they might not be obvious. The device became popular in the mid-19th century when many novels were sold in monthly instalments and readers had to be teased, at the end of each instalment, to buy the next one.

    • Bill C. says:

      Here’s a chapter ending I wrote. ‘I looked back at Dolores. She was pushing a button on the side of her desk.
      “That’s the door. You’re really in for a surprise.”’
      The reader complimented me for it. I plan to use this technique more often.

    • Thanks, John. Insightful as always.

    • Excellant Information!!! Thanks for giving this information. I don’t know how to write article for my site.

      • Thanks for the great ideas for endings and including examples, Spencer. 🙂

    • Hannah says:

      These are great actionable tips that play into the mind of the reader. It’s clear that intrigue is a definite page turner and many of these would encourage me to keep on reading. Gotta love the psychology behind it!

    • Introduce a threatening character, Pimion? Raymond Chandler once said: if your story starts to sag have someone walk in carrying a gun. (Or it might have been Dashiell Hammett.)

    • Pimion says:

      Such an amazing article! All these advice are really helpful.
      My favorite ones are #3 Ask a rhetorical question and #5 Introduce a threatening character. They would work great!

    • Robert Weston-Lee says:

      Hi John.
      One of my chapters ends:-
      Doctor Brearley’s words gave him hope. The inauspicious cloud had disappeared; the shadow it cast over him was no more. The sun was finally shining on him.
      The long range forecast was a different matter entirely.

      The final sentence turns an upbeat ending into one which hints that the future will be anything but rosy. Hopefully enough to make the reader want to know what that might be.

      • Indeed, Robert. A good ‘series’ novelist always ends their story on a note of triumph mingled with uncertainty. It cues a sequel!

    • gigi wolf says:

      I love a mystery and a scene hanger, but I can’t stand it at the same time. I’m about to confess to you….

      Okay, here goes.

      (Whisper) I go to the next pages and even the last page to find out what happens. I don’t know why I’m compelled to do this. Perhaps it’s because I once…Never mind.

      Thanks for the great tips, John. I’m dabbling in stories for contests, and finding the stretching feels good. I did sign up for your course on the Writer’s Village, but I haven’t seen anything yet. Do I need to do something else other than subscribe?

      Don’t leave me hanging!

      • Gigi, you are the bane of every mystery writer’s life! I shall make sure to send my every book to you with the last chapter sealed in a brown paper bag.

        I’m delighted you have enrolled in my free writing program. Yes, you’re definitely a member and have been sent four emails to date. Could you please check your spam folder? (Sorry, Mary, for conducting domestic issues on your site but I would like to reassure people who sign up for my free course that they will be sent their materials!)

    • Well done John,
      This is really a very brilliant post and i was able to pick out lots of priceless lessons from it that I’m going to apply them to my own writing as well.

      Even though i don’t write fiction book (might still do in the future) but the tips here can very well be applied to any type of writing. The main idea is to keep your readers hooked up with your writing while asking for more (like Oliver Twist) :).

      This is really interesting and I’m bookmarking this page for easy reference.

      Will share it as well. Do have a great weekend you both.

    • Judy says:

      Hi John,

      Never have I come across an article chock full of gold nuggets.

      You’re a philanthropist of literature in a voice that spoke volumes. Every word had me sitting up. Your blood is surely worth bottling.

      Indeed my passion is writing and having been rejected by one of Australia’s smaller publishers, this article has given me the incentive to re-edit my manuscript, rewrite it even.

      I love what I do and I do what I love. It’s no trouble at all and I respect the fact that I was rejected. It’s a learning curve.

      I am truly grateful for having ‘discovered’ you in Mary’s Blog and I look forward to learning more from your course which I have joined.

      Many thanks John.

    • Judy says:

      Hi John,

      If ever there was a philanthropist of literature who gave of himself in the ways that you have in this well written, valuable article, it’s you and your blood is worth bottling!

      With all the valuable tips you shared, I couldn’t believe how many other hidden nuggets in this article appeared also. It made me sit up and truly read the messages contained therein.

      Together with what I’ve learned and what I’m eager to learn, the novel that was rejected by one of Australia’s smallest publishers is now in for a huge overhaul.

      It is amazing when you’re armed with knowledge taught by a respected source who knows what he’s talking about, you’re suddenly inspired to re-edit, rewrite even, the passion of your life.

      And all it takes is a few wise words.

      And for those words, I truly am grateful. Thank you.

      • ‘Your blood is surely worth bottling.’ Judy, that’s the most original plaudit I’ve ever received! Every good wish with your manuscript.

    • Moonyene Smith says:

      Great article John. Although your article is for fiction stories, is there any way that it could apply to non-fiction stories that may have a little suspense and the writer just wants to add that twist to it, keeping it in range with the story of course. I also would like to know what your thoughts are on writing a story combined of fiction and non-fiction together just to give it that edge, but not losing perspective of its origin. Please respond, I need your writing expertise!

      • Thanks, Moonyene.

        Yes, you can easily apply those tips, with some adaptation, to writing non-fiction. You may have noticed how newspaper columnists will often drop in scene hangers. ‘It reminds me of my aunt who tried to fly to the moon, backwards. What does my aunt have to do with Donald Trump? Stay tuned and I’ll show you.’

        Every paragraph in a well written feature will have a hint of a hanger, to tease the reader into the next paragraph. ‘And that’s not all.’ ‘It gets worse. ‘If you don’t believe me, read on.’ Etc.

        I used to teach fiction writing to would-be journalists at a university. At first, they couldn’t see the point. ‘All feature writing is fiction,’ I’d say. ‘Even reporters have to use the techniques of fiction to structure news stories.’ They got the point…

    • Oops! Sorry John, I just thanked your Editor-in-Chief for your amazingly helpful article. I wish I was taking a class from you. I’m heading to your Writers’ Village now.

      -Anna Eriksson Bendewald

    • What a great article and not only well written, but the examples are so helpful — I dare anyone writing a book not to use this excellent advice to make their book a page-turner.

      -Keep up the great work Mary J

      Anna Eriksson Bendewald

    • I was reading Misery by Stephen King (the Master) and as Annie Wilkes was describing the
      Hobbling to Paul Sheldon, he kept hearing the “Thump, thump, thump” of something heavy on the ground. As the scene dragged on I kept getting more and more curious and frightened.
      When what it was was finally revealed to me all the blood drain from me and I became white as sheet. Now after reading all of your great points I’m editing my 900 page novel abo0ut a serial killer in new York and will use those hints.

      • If your novel has 900 pages, Laszlo, it will certainly need editing! See if you can reduce entire scenes, at times, to a few lines. And keep adding those page hangers!

    • Vince says:

      Several people have criticised me for ending chapters with the protagonist going to bed/sleep. That just seemed like the natural break to me. But I get your point, and this post is very helpful. I guess I’ll just have to go through my WIP checking for missing cliffhangers.

      • Have your protagonist go to bed, Vince. But give him restless dreams.

        • Bea says:

          Or maybe mention the clock, calendar, etc., to give that time/tension aspect?

          Thanks, John, for the accessible, understandable, doable tips. I love them. I think I’ll print these up and include them with my Writers Village Academy class notes. I also think I should review them very frequently.

          • Many thanks, Bea. I might bundle them in with the Academy materials though, as you know, I try to keep everything at the Academy exclusive to the program. Glad you’re enjoying it!

    • John,
      Thanks for the article. As you mentioned and I’ve observed, most of the fiction I’ve enjoyed usually has a dramatic moment or dialogue that ends the chapter and it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate in my writings.

      We see the use of scene hangers in TV and movies all the time as well. And even though it’s not fiction writing, there are writers that created the scripts, so I think that helps lend even more validity to your points here.

      And one more thing, Mary, thanks for allowing John to guest post here. I always enjoy your posts, as well as John’s tips and thoughts on the craft.

      • Many thanks, David. I’ve always felt that scene hangers, artificial though they seem, replicate those true moments in our own lives when something fateful happened – seemingly trivial – but nothing was ever the same again.

    • Some excellent tips there. They had me go back to my first novel to see if I’d done any of ’em, and I found one in a half-page excerpt from Chapter 110 of “The Devlin Deception” that I put on the very first page, before the title and copyright pages.

      The final line was: “Can you defuse it?”

      • A great scene hanger, Jake. You might enhance it still further. “Sure,” I smiled. I took one look. I backed away. “Please, get out,” I said. “Everyone. Now!

    • Al Hooper says:

      Excellent no-nonsense guidelines! Writers everywhere owe you.

    • Jim Porter says:

      Sometimes, an ethnic reference or inside joke provokes subtext as well works as a hook.

      “Pretty Hands stopped, glanced at the water disappearing in deafening roars over the edge of the falls. He didn’t wish to think how far down he would fall with nothing but the cold water to stop him. He thought a moment. Perhaps if he sang his song on the way down, the Great Grandfather would keep the fear from his heart. There was no other way to go. His breath raling from the depths of his chest, he jumped. The gulped. He couldn’t remember the song.”

      • I love that punchline, Jim! I wish I’d included it in my list. ‘The mugger was closing fast but her house was only yards away. She could unlock the door in a moment. Gasping, she reached into her purse./Her keys were gone.’

    • C.B. Stone says:

      Hey John, LOVE this post. I think I’ve been instinctively doing this already for the most part, but it was cool to read it broken down into actionable ideas. So thanks so much for that. I’ve just signed up to your fiction course as well, I look forward to more nuggets of gold.


      • I look forward to welcoming you in the program, C B Stone!

    • Zarayna says:

      Hi John and Mary,

      Thank you, Mary, for inviting the benevolent John Yeoman to share his largesse with us.

      Thank you, John, for your indispensable tips and, as always, presented so logically for ease of use. Also thanks for being so well read that we can all benefit.

      I must now return to the beginning of my first book of my series, (the one I keep going on about), as the very beginning is weak. I have a feeling that deploying at least one of your tips will sort me out.

      Thanks again,
      Kindest, Zara.

      • It’s great to see you here, Zara. Good heavens, you get around. One way to strengthen a first scene is to put your last scene there. But close it half way through, with its tensions unresolved. The rest of the story is an extended flashback. The reader will be lusting to know, throughout the story, how that perilous first scene ended. It sounds perverse but that’s exactly how Kathy Reichs structured 206 Bones.

    • Hi John

      I do not write fiction, but sure got some fabulous insights here!

      In the marketing world, we don’t call ’em scene hangers, but open loops. Still the same thing!

      A pregnant pause. This is such a coïncidence. I first read this same sentence yesterday in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. It immediately grabbed my attention. I have a feeling i’ll be using it soon…

      I love that closing phrase by Ruth Rendell. I can absolutely see how it would be a satisfying way to close a book. I even visualized it.

      “A good story should sustain a balance of tension and tranquillity, like the beating of a heart.” – fantastic quote.

      I loved your writing tips as an author. Thanks for the great article John.

      – Jasper

      • Many thanks, Jasper. You can turn any line into a pregnant pause.

        Simply set it on a separate line at the end of the scene…

    • John, great article. After reading it, I decided to go check out the endings of the first couple of scenes in the book I’m working on. Good thing I don’t have to take a quiz on which — if any — of the ten ways they fall into. Then, I can’t figure out how to fill out my tax planner either. I usually just bundle up all the bits of paper labelled “important tax info” and send them to my accountant.

      • That’s a great scene hanger, Margaret. You’ll never know what the IR might have in store for you on the next page!

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