“Wait! Wait! She did what?” I’m yelling out loud to the absent, well-known author of the book I’m reading. The farther I read in the book, the more annoyed I become. The protagonist’s choices are stupid, her personality annoys me and the plot seems totally far-fetched. So why am I continuing to read?
When I was younger, my rule was that if I began a book, I ought to finish it. As I got busier, and my time more valuable, I modified the rule: I had to read 100 pages before I gave up; then 50. Then I edged down to 35, 25, and 10. Now if a book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, it’s toast.
-Give me great characters. Make me sympathize with their goals and worry about the obstacles they face. Think Laura Lippman or Michael Connelly.
-Compelling plot. It doesn’t have to be fast, or convoluted, but it should be fresh. Ruth Rendell, Elmore Leonard and Robert Crais are all master plotters.
-Seductive setting. Make me feel like I’m walking around in the setting. I don’t mean only geographical places, but situations that come alive. Take me somewhere I haven’t been, or show me an aspect of a familiar place that I don’t know. I’ve never been to Beijing, but Lisa Brachmann put me there in ROCK, PAPER, TIGER.
-Believable dialog. Dialogue that brings characters to life. Denise Mina’s dialogue is incomparable.
-Rich and evocative language. Maybe even a little philosophical musing thrown in. Think Craig Johnson or Meg Abbott
I may keep reading because a book was highly recommended by a trusted source, or the author is one I have read and enjoyed in the past, even if it doesn’t grab me right away.
But back to the question. Suppose all or most of what usually keeps me reading is missing? What is the writer’s ace in the hole?
-Surprise. In the book I described at the beginning, just as I would decide to put the book down, the author would grab me with an unexpected twist—something someone said, or saw, or did that made me wonder how the author was going to resolve it. She was a master of “the grabber,” slipping it into just the right places. Even after I knew, halfway through the book, exactly what was going on, I kept being lured in, wondering how it would come together in the end.
Whether it’s a thriller, with a life-threatening event every few pages; or a cozy, with subtler hints that things aren’t what they seem; or a PI or police novel, with a protagonist who digs for startling fact, surprise keeps this reader turning pages when all else fails.
Terry Shames lives in Berkeley, California with her husband, two terriers and a cat who barely tolerates the dogs and is on the board of NorCal Sisters in Crime. Her first book, A KILLING AT COTTON HILL (Seventh Street Books) comes out in July, 2013. It is set in small-town Texas and features former Police Chief Samuel Craddock. Visit Terry’s website www.terryshames.com