How to Keep Your Reader Turning Pages

by Rondi Bauer Olson, @rondiolson

I know authors aren’t supposed to read reviews for their own books, but, confession time, I do. Especially the negative reviews, as they are always the most enlightening. In general, if a number of people say you didn’t get something right, you probably didn’t. Fortunately the opposite is also true. If most reviewers agree you did something well, you probably did. One of the best compliments a reviewer can give my book, especially if they didn’t like it, is that they couldn’t stop reading and stayed up all night to finish. Because while I am still a new writer and happily admit I have much to learn, one thing I think I am good at is keeping the reader invested.

It wasn’t always that way. I used to try to keep readers turning pages by inserting bizarre twists, stunning reveals, or cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Sure, that worked some of the time, but other times my exiting ending was more cheating than organic.  I’d have to pull back as soon as I started the next chapter because my incredible surprise didn’t fit the plot or the character.

Fortunately I learned keeping a reader turning pages doesn’t have to be that difficult. The simple formula is:

  1. Introduce your main character’s want
  2. Show your main character’s attempt to achieve said want
  3. Thwart your main character’s attempt

At the beginning of each chapter, the writer needs to introduce a goal or desire for the main character. The goal doesn’t have to be big or fancy, but a satisfied character is a boring character. Your main character must want something.

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Once a want or goal is established, the main character should devise a plan to achieve that goal. The bulk of each chapter should be spent showing the main character attempting to follow through on their plan to achieve their goal.

Each chapter should end when the main character encounters a particularly difficult obstacle and they must rethink their strategy. To keep the reader from becoming totally frustrated, you can have your main character meet a few small goals, but new needs must be created and the ultimate goal cannot be met until the end of the book.

For example, in my debut novel, ALL THINGS NOW LIVING, the main character, Amy, ends the first chapter trapped inside a post-apocalyptic dome. She spends the next few chapters devising ways to escape. Each chapter ends when her plan fails and she has to come up with a new strategy. In each of these chapters, her desire to escape the dome is expressed, followed by her creating a plan to escape and her following through on that plan. Each chapter ends with her plan being thwarted. Finally, after the first few chapters, she does achieve her goal, but then a new want is created, and she has to create new plans.

Cliffhangers, bizarre twists, and stunning reveals at the end of each chapter can keep your reader turning the pages, but unless those things arise naturally from your characters or your plot, your reader will feel cheated. Don’t force exciting chapter endings into your writing in an attempt to keep your reader reading. Instead, rely on the simple formula of want, attempt at achieving want, and attempt thwarted. If every one of your chapters has each of these elements, keeping the ultimate goal of your entire manuscript in mind, your story will flow like a river to the sea, your readers securely riding the current you’ve created.

All Things Now Living

Her whole life Amy has been taught the people of New Lithisle deserve to die, but when she falls for Daniel, she determines to save him.

Sixteen-year-old Amy doesn’t like anything to die, she won’t even eat the goats or chickens her mama has butchered every fall, but she can’t let herself pity the inhabitants of New Lithisle. In a few short months the dome they built to isolate themselves from the deadly pandemic is predicted to collapse, but her whole life Amy has been taught it’s God’s will they die. They traded their souls for immunity to the swine flu virus, brought God’s curse upon themselves by adding pig genes to their own.

Then, while on a scavenging trip with her father, Amy is accidentally trapped in New Lithisle. At first her only goal is to escape, but when she meets Daniel, a New Lithisle boy, she begins to question how less-than-human the people of New Lithisle are.

Amy’s feelings grow even more conflicted when she learns she didn’t end up in New Lithisle by mistake. Her father is secretly a sympathizer, and was trying to prevent the coming destruction.

Now time is running short and Amy has to decide if she will bring the computer program her father wrote to his contact or save herself. Installing the program could prevent the dome’s collapse, but if Amy doesn’t find her father’s contact in time, she’ll die, along with everyone else.

Rondi Bauer Olson is a reader and writer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her debut novel for young adults, All Things Now Living, was a finalist in the 2012 Genesis Contest. She and her husband, Kurt, live on a hobby farm with three of their four mostly-grown children, along with a menagerie of animals including, but not limited to, horses, cows, alpacas, goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, and parrots. Rondi also works as a registered nurse and owns a gift shop located within view of the beautiful Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Learn more about Rondi at and the Seventh Daughter series