Why Keep Reading?

Today, what’s on my mind is the ‘why?’ factor. I’m wondering about why people keep reading – what grabs and holds their attention, and what makes it impossible for them to stop reading until they’ve finished the story. I’d love to know why a person picks up a book in a bookshop, or wherever they buy their books, and reads the blurb, or the first few pages, and decides – ‘yep, this is the book for me’. I’m also interested in thinking about the things that keep a person reading – what do readers look for in a book? What sort of things does the story have to deliver for them to keep turning the pages?

His new work is so... Proustian, don't you think?

His new work is so… Proustian, don’t you think?

Perhaps I’ll never know the answers to these questions. If I did, I’d probably feel like a superhero – certainly, the ability to write books people want to read is the only superpower I’ve ever wanted! I’m not very good at writing blurbs – sometimes I do it as a writing exercise, in order to help myself to focus on what my current project is about, but I’m aware that, in the future, perhaps a lot will depend on my being able to write a compelling synopsis. It’s something I need to think about. Blurbs are interesting – a lot of the time, when I bring a new book home, my husband will pick it up and have a look at the back cover, and he’ll hand it back to me with a bemused look on his face. ‘I’d never have picked up that book,’ he’ll say. ‘It just doesn’t grab me.’ So – how to ‘grab’ the most people (in a strictly bookish sense!)? And how, once an innocent reader has been hooked, do you keep them interested in your story?

I guess these questions are on my mind because I’m currently within 80 pages of being finished with my final (FINAL) draft. I don’t care what happens, I’m not going over it again once I’m finished with this draft. I’ve reached the point where I’m entirely sick of my book and can’t bear the sight of my characters* – admittedly, I’ve read and re-read this book more times than anyone else ever will, but still. It’s got me panicking about whether the book has any merit, whether the story is interesting enough to keep someone reading to the end, and whether anyone else will ever love my characters. Have I created a proper, fleshed-out protagonist, complete in all dimensions, believable and interesting? Have I put her in a scenario in which a reader will believe her struggle to save her father’s life, where they’ll travel with her to a foreign country to will her on as she fights her way into a fortress in an attempt to find him, and her brother? Is she ‘real’ enough to withstand the pressures of battle, brave enough to conquer her terror of heights, clever enough to save her friend from death, strong enough to bear deep sorrow? As I’m not a reader of this particular story, I don’t know the answer to these questions.

In a book, I look for several things. I need a protagonist I can engage with – not necessarily like, but it helps if you like them – and a set of characters who seem real. I’ve tried to do this with my characters; as far as I know, all of them have flaws, as well as strengths, which should allow a reader to get a grip on them and believe in them. Maraika (my protagonist) is brave and clever, but she’s also naive and impulsive. Her father has a dark past, but has tried to raise his children well and leave it all behind him. However, his inability to understand his oldest son, and his reluctance to take the issues in his family seriously, cause a lot of problems for everyone. Jan Polico, a young man living in his father’s shadow, is fun-loving and generous of spirit, but bears a sorrow so deep that he can’t admit it, even to himself; Vik, a freedom fighter, is a fearless warrior, but is driven by pain and loss. I think my characters are interesting. They all have motivation for their actions, and they all do their best to do the right thing – but I created them, so it’s hard for me to see them clearly.

Secondly, when I’m reading a story, I need the world the characters inhabit to make sense. I hope I’ve done this with my own book – I spent a lot of time thinking about the world my characters live in, and the systems, society, history, laws and (most importantly, for my story) religions that are found there. Spending a lot of time thinking about something, though, doesn’t mean that the resultant world is watertight and ‘real’, especially when you’re trying to do something complex with the structures you’ve created. I’m still not sure I did the right thing in changing the setting from a pseudo-medieval to a pseudo-nineteenth century steam-powered, proto-Industrial world, but I can’t imagine them living anywhere else at this stage. I’m worried that, if this book was put to the reader test, that they’d see a giant hole in the fabric of this world, one that I’ve managed to entirely overlook. I’ve done my best to avoid that, but one never knows!

Another thing I need in a good book is a gripping story. If you care about the characters, then the story is bound to be gripping, but I think my favourite books are ones where both the characters and the story are unforgettable. I don’t want my characters to be like paper-people, whose only function is to move a story along; I’d like them to be interesting no matter what they were doing. I hope I’ve managed this. Maraika, as well as being the heart of her family, is also a young woman with dreams and plans for her future, someone who likes to explore her city and who longs to find her place in the world. Her younger brother is a mechanical genius, and her older brother has a world-changing talent of his own. They’re all caught up in the crisis which threatens not only their family, but their whole existence, and none of them end up exactly where they’d planned to be. I hope that their journeys don’t feel ridiculous or contrived to a reader.

I know, I know – the only way to find all this out is to let someone else read it! I am aware. I’m working up to it. It’s difficult to open the cage around your heart and let it out! But that’s what I’ll be doing, in one form or another, over the next while.

I’m glad to note that writing this post has given me back some of the love I’d lost for my story and my characters – that can only be a good thing. Hopefully, the last stage of edits will go quickly now. While I’m doing that, I’d love to know: what makes you keep reading? What do you need for a story to hold your attention? And what’s the one thing which would make you give up on a story?

Happy Tuesday. It’s the birthday of both David Bowie and Elvis Presley today, so I hope you’ll celebrate appropriately. Thanks for reading!

Happy Birthday, Mr Bowie!

Happy Birthday, Mr Bowie!



*Not really. I love them, but it’s a case of needing my ‘dance space’ back. My brain needs to think about something else for a while!

9 thoughts on “Why Keep Reading?

  1. Michelle Proulx

    For me, a book has to have a cool concept, it has to make me want to visit whatever world they’ve created, and it has to make me care about at least one of the characters. Take away one of those, and I quickly lose interest.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Michelle. I think you’re right – the world is so important. Not only does it have to be well-constructed, but it also has to be cool. Or, as you put it in a recent blog, kick-a**! 😀

      I guess all I can do is hope the world I’ve created is cool, and that my character(s) are worth caring about. Like I said, it’s hard to know whether I’ve hit the mark when I’m the only person who’s seen the book! But that will all change soon. *wibbles with terror*

  2. susan_lanigan (@susan_lanigan)

    Characters, characters, characters 🙂

    If the reader cares about the character, you have 99 per cent of the battle won. Because if they’re that powerful their actions will start to drive the plot as well. That’s what I believe, anyway.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Interesting. Thanks, Susan! Well, I really like my characters, so here’s hoping other people will, too. *crosses fingers* 🙂 I’ve done my best to make them as well-rounded as possible, and as ‘real’ as possible. I think making them as real and as relatable as you can encourages readers to engage with them emotionally, which (hopefully) leads them (the reader) to enjoy the story.

      It all sounds so easy when you’re discussing it in a blog post, or a comment. 😀 Doing it while writing the book is a different story!

  3. anna3101

    I’m pretty sure there will never ever be a book liked by almost everyone. Look at goodreads – even books with highest stars have their haters (and vice versa). It’s both terrifying and exciting. The teacher at my writing courses always used to say, “Any kind of story will find its recipient”. I think the most important thing is to know who your recipient is and write for them.

    Because I’m an ordinary person and enjoy talking about me, me, me :))) I will also add a few words about what makes me choose a book and keep on reading. I’m a romantic at heart so I need a love story. I love mysteries. Probably everyone does. When there’s a book that keeps asking questions but doesn’t give the answers the answers immediately I’m very tempted to read on. Who was the murderer? Why did she behave like that? Who sent the letter and what was in it? What’s that secret mission from a king that they are charged with? Once the clever writer throws me a hook with the questions like that, I’m caught and can be fried and cooked with a sauce 🙂 I need to love the characters of course – if they are annoying, unrealistic (psychologically speaking – they can be anything from UFO to elves for as long as they act like humans), unpleasant (yes, I love the main character to be the “good guy/girl”) then I’ll stop reading.

    Although I don’t mind cliches, for as long there are not too many of them, I still find it incredibly refreshing when a writer is able to construct a good, exciting story without them (I’m talking about chick-lit here, mostly, but other genres too).

    And don’t forget the book cover… If you’re in a bookshop, the book cover is your number 1 yes-or-no factor. You probably know better than anyone what your reader will want to see. A romantic girl like me is immediately drawn to pastel covers & pinks – then also to “Gripping mystery! Huge conspiracy!” in big letters or, if it comes to poetry and classics, – good quality paper and illustrations by 19th century painters. Ah, so many exciting books out there, so little time, so many books! 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      What a wonderful comment! I love they way you put how it feels to be enticed by a story – ‘I’m caught and can be fried and cooked with a sauce’ – what a brilliant turn of phrase! 😀 Thank you for all your feedback. I think you had a very wise writing teacher. Of course, one book can’t satisfy all of the people, all of the time. I think I need to remember that, too!

      I’m glad to know that, for most people, the important things about a book are characters, mystery (or, a reason to keep on reading because you’re curious), and being able to form an emotional connection with the people/places/events you’re reading about. Let’s hope I hit all those goals in the book I’m currently writing. I don’t know if there’s enough romance in it to please you (sorry about that), but I hope – if I make it to publication! – that you could enjoy the rest of it.

  4. anna3101

    I’m pretty sure I would – I like your writing style. Sometimes I enjoy books purely for the pleasure of the author’s writing style – I may not even care for the story then, I just savour the words 🙂


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