RB: Grab ‘em in a choke hold and don’t ever let go

Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme. Grab your readers by the front of their shirt instead. You don’t want to kill them. You just want to yank them from their present day life into your world and keep them there until you’re good and ready to let go. And when will that moment be? After the very last word of your book.

I started reading NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. I’m not finished with it yet, and it’s a good story. The one problem is that the author keeps kicking me out of his story world.

It started at the end of chapter two. The last sentence of the chapter is like this:

 She walked around the corner on unsteady legs and looked at the walk-up window of

(No, I didn’t forget any words.) I had flown through the first and second chapter of the novel pretty quickly. The characters were interesting. The story world was a nice, albeit freaky, place to be. But then I was thrown out of the world as I searched for the last words of that sentence. Was the book faulty? Had the words been mistakenly left off? Surely the editor or copy editor would’ve seen the error and had the author fix it. I re-read the last sentence twice just to make sure I hadn’t read it incorrectly, then reached the conclusion it was a printing error. So I shrugged and went on to the third chapter titled

Terry’s Primo Subs

Hampton Beach, New Hampshire

I paused. Re-read the last sentence of the second chapter then read the title of the third chapter and finally understood. It wasn’t a book error, the author had done this on purpose. He ended the second chapter’s last sentence with the third chapter’s title.

In a way this is a great idea. I’ve read many articles on hooking readers. It’s a writer’s job to find ways to make their readers yearn to read from one chapter to the next. “Writers should end the chapter on a cliff hanger so readers have no choice but to keep on going.”

Well, I guess not completing the end of the last sentence will make the reader keep reading to find out what it is. (I’m a quarter of the way through the novel and the author does this many times.) But at what cost? Each time it happens, I’m thrown out of the story world. One time I became aware that Husband was watching Modern Family on TV and stopped reading to watch it. (I love that show.) Another time, I, thankfully, learned that Bubbles was painting her nails ON THE COUCH. A third time, I, unfortunately, heard the dryer buzzing at me to fold clothes.

When I did my initial read through of own WIP, Callie’s Story, I made sure to mark down every instance I was thrown out of her world. During edits, I will go back and figure out why. Was it a word I used? Was a POV rule broken? Had I written something I would say, but Callie would not? Whatever it is, I have to fix it.

If you are able to grab your reader within the first sentence or paragraph of your story, for Godsake, KEEP THEM THERE! You won’t have to create cliffhanging scenes or unfinished sentences to get them going to the next page. Your world, your characters, and their choices will do that for you.

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21 thoughts on “RB: Grab ‘em in a choke hold and don’t ever let go

  1. Good point. I haven’t read that book yet, but from your description, that particular trick sounds cheap — unless done by a master, in which case it would’ve been masterful and wouldn’t kick the reader out of the book. 🙂

  2. You make some really excellent points! I hate it when I get “thrown out” of the world I’m reading in… it feels so disorienting! But as I write, I find that I am guilty of that as well. Thanks for the tips 🙂

  3. Yeah – I liked it so I stole it 😉

    Thanks for the helpful hint. I have started writing again and will definitely look out for this!

  4. An unfinished sentence at the end of a chapter would tick me off! While what he did was very clever, I think he took the suggestion of “cliffhanger” a little too far and too literally. What if a reader wasn’t able to figure out what he meant by the unfinished sentence and the chapter title that follows it? That’ll lead to a very difficult reading experience for them. Cliffhangers and chapter titles are great and they can be related to each other, but I think doing what this author did is a bad idea.

    GREAT POST!! 😀

    • It did take me a while to figure out he was ending the sentence with the chapter title. I normally just gloss over chapter titles anyway, it was luck that I read it and figured out what Hill was doing. Thanks for reading! -RB

  5. This is the kind of thing you see in a movie script not a novel. I can understand why the author would have tried it – but I think books are a different format. If the author had done it from the beginning – so that the reader had a sense that they were reading a movie script style novel – then that might work – but not this way. great post! 🙂

    • Interesting. I’ve never read a movie script, so I had no idea what was going on at first. LOL. Yes, I agree, it would have been better if I had some warning of what was coming. Thanks for stopping by! -RB

    • Agreed, and I was at first surprised that an editor would think that type of writing was good for the story. Then I saw the writer is a New York Times best selling author. I think once you reach that status you can do pretty much anything you want, which in my opinion is crap. If newbie writers have a list of do’s and don’ts they must follow or risk never getting traditionally published, then the already-made-it writers should follow them, too. I mean, wasn’t the list created for the sake of the story? Thanks for stopping by. -RB

  6. I haaaate when this happens– it just seems inconsiderate, like “why did you create this awesome imaginary reality and my world and then spit me out of it? WHY?!”
    The whole last sentence leading into the next chapter is just a bad decision. Where was that author’s friend who was willing to say “sorry, that doesn’t work.”

  7. I love the phrase “Throw out of the story world”; that has happened so many times to me when reading before, and it sucks! Keeping people interested is so important. I can’t tell you how many times that I haven’t been able to finish books because of this. If I put it down and am not thinking about the story world constantly until I pick it up again, odds are I won’t pick it up again. Ever.

    • I agree, Lisen. I borrowed this book from a friend, so I feel compelled to continue reading it, and as I said it is not all bad, but not completing the sentence before the next chapter starts is really jarring. Thankfully the author doesn’t do this with every chapter. -RB

  8. Reading half a sentence at the end of chapter would put me of to read any further. Once okay, maybe. But more often is throwing you out of a rhythm. Making you stop reread, rethink. Ooh hell forget it. that is not fun.
    I try using those cliffhangers, since I write a part of a story every week. You want them to come back. You want that, ‘what the hell is going to happen’.
    Thanks for the tips.

    • The half sentence thing is definitely off-putting. Since I know it’s coming, it hasn’t been as bad as the first time, but it still drags me out of the story. Although watching Modern Family and making sure Bubbles got off the couch before spilling red sparkly polish was a good thing. 😉 Thanks for stopping by. -RB

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