Wednesday, 18 January 2012

What makes you stay with a story?

This is a question that all authors need to ask themselves all the time. Why is it that you pick up one book and find it utterly compelling whereas another simply doesn't grab you?

During the lovely long Christmas holidays I read like crazy and I watched some very good TV. But this time, I made a point of doing both actively, and of making notes to analyse why I kept with the story and didn't close the book for good or turn off the television. Here are a few observations which may be of interest. I'd be fascinated to know what other people have found compelling enough about their favourite books and films to make them spend precious hours of their lives with a story until the end.

PUZZLES - People love trying to discover the answer to puzzles and riddles. They do crosswords every day in the newspaper, buy puzzle books and devour them. I love writing cosy crime and did so with, 'Take a Chance on Love', which involved a theft from a manor house. We love to work out the answers. There's nothing more satisfying than to be given red herrings and to spot which ones are dead ends and which ones might just lead us to the right answer. All writers know the power of puzzles none more so than wonderful authors like Conan Doyle. Not only are his plots puzzles and enigmas, but the character of Sherlock Holmes is himself - pernickety, brilliant, loyal, exasperating, as well as being flawed (his drug taking openly declared) - which is why the characters are reinvented again and again.

SECRETS - I always give both my hero and heroine secrets, they help to drive the characters and shape their actions. EVERYONE has secrets. One of the things I really enjoyed over Christmas was the reworking of 'Great Expectations'. That story is full of secrets and it struck me how incredibly cleverly Dickens had tied them all together in the person of the lawyer Mr Jaggers. He is pivotal, and he is a wonderful 'device' invented by Dickens. Jaggers is the hub which links all of the tangled, troubled characters but of course, being a lawyer, confidentiality prevents him from revealing the secrets even when he sees tragedy played out in front of him. Seeing those secrets unfold is one of the things which makes 'Great Expectations' so compelling. Someone in a similar position - a doctor, a churchman would make a similarly excellent device and I may well pinch the idea of one central individual who ties together a number of people who appear unconnected but who aren't, for a pocket novel one day - thank you Mr Dickens!

COMPELLING CHARACTERS  I enjoyed yet again the film, 'The Fugitive' with Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford. The writer cleverly makes the doctor played by Harrison Ford such a hero. For a start he's a surgeon and secondly, he loves his wife to bits. If that wasn't enough, even though he is on the run for the wrongful conviction of her murder, he correctly diagnoses and saves a dying boy and he pushes an injured man to safety from a crashed bus - despite the danger to himself. He is such good guy, the reason you stay with the story is to see him triumph and get justice. As the writer, if we can make our heros and heroines thoroughly positive individuals, throw a host of insurmountable challenges at them and then make things come right, we will keep our readers with the story and give them the 'happy ever after' which is so satisfying and keeps them coming back for more.


  1. Useful and interesting points Caram thank you. I'm writing a crime at present and hope my red herrings are not too obvious. The puzzles .. who, why and how? Secrets .. yes, also add interest and most of all, do the characters make you want to read on? I agree with your comments about TV ... loved Great Expectations and the Fugitive .. do you remember the TV series? Went on forever and always you thought the answer would be found and it wasn't so you watched again next week! That's compelling! Chrissie

    1. sorry don't know where that 'm' came from!

  2. Great post, Cara! I agree about readers loving puzzles. It's what makes me keep on reading. And I also agree about characters having secrets. That's what creates the best conflict. It doesn't have to be linked to a crime or a cosy crime story either. In my western romance, Sunlit Secrets, the heroine pretends to be her late sister in order to be able to work at a school in America, having travelled all that way, losing her beloved sister during the journey. Then she spent the rest of the novel terrified of the townspeople, but most importantly the hero with whom she had fallen in love, rejected her when they found out the truth (btw her 'secret' is revealed to the reader in the first chapter, so I'm not giving away spoilers here).

  3. Hope your crime goes well Chrissie. I do remember The Fugitive TV series vaguely and I think the film is one of the few instances of an excellent reworking of an original. I was interested to see that the guy most involved in the film had also created the series. Sally, I know you love a mystery and that you do them incredibly well! Cara

  4. I agree with all of these and have one more to add to the list... DANGER!

  5. Sorry to be coming in a bit late on this [am deep in finishing-the-WIP mode]. I agree with all your thoughts, Cara. There needs to be some mystery behind the characters or the story, or something hidden and not yet revealed between them. And, of course, we would all definitely add the "romance" bit. I love trying to find unique places or situations where this can be brought out in a story.