Crafting Unputdownable Stories

I wrote this for my writing group, SLO NightWriters, and thought it might be of interest to other writers out there. I’ve used examples (in italics) throughout from my own writing, illustrating what I’m saying and what I’ve learned through my own writing journey.

One of the nicest reviews I ever got was from a reader who wrote, “I read the whole book in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down.” Not bad for an almost 400-page book! (Tough Blood, first in the Skylark, PI series, in case you’re wondering.) And isn’t that what all writers want, stories that readers just can’t put down. So, what’s the secret?

We worked all week and played all weekend. Young, healthy, invulnerable and carefree, we were poised on the crest of life with nothing but smooth sailing ahead. We drank in the wonder of being alive that summer. We had no idea how close we stood to death. (1)

The secret to being labeled a great, unputdownable writer isn’t just in the way you put words together. It’s also in the way you draw readers through each story.

Yes, you need an excellent grasp of spelling, punctuation and grammar. You need compelling characters dealing with deep, emotional trials. And you need exciting incidents, action scenes that make readers’ hearts race. You also need moments of calm, where readers can catch their breath and absorb the story. But if you don’t place these elements in the right positions, you still run the risk of losing readers along the way.

I reached out and took hold of the photo. My blood froze as I scanned the face: young, innocent, sweet; big hazel-green eyes; short, curly, light brown hair curving around cheeks still rounded with baby fat; full cupid’s-bow lips quirked up in a shy smile. The face of the drugged girl from my vision. (2)

Let’s face it: life is immediate and in-your-face on a daily, minute-by-minute basis. There’s always something waving for attention, something that needs to be done “right now,” something more important than sitting in a chair reading a book. But you don’t want readers to easily put down your story to go cook dinner, mow the lawn, do the grocery shopping, or go to bed because they have to get up for work the next day. You want them to keep reading, to be so enthralled and immersed in your world that they can’t put the story down.

“I know what I know,” Ravyn said, shrugging. She smiled, her first easy smile since she’d walked into the loft. Until he took a step toward her, his hands curled into fists, and she looked again into his cold eyes and saw death in them. (3)

So, being not just a great but an unputdownable writer goes beyond an excellent grasp and use of language, beyond crafting fascinating characters and enticing events. It hinges on how you end each scene and chapter of your story until the very last one, the one that wraps it all up. All the ones before that should lure readers on.

The man leaned closer. His fingers clamped down on her arm as though taking possession. “You’d be dead if you hadn’t run,” he whispered. “How did you know?” Lillia looked into the man’s midnight eyes and felt herself fall into darkness. (4)

This technique is not something that you have to incorporate as you write your first draft, though as you become used to it, it will become second-nature to you. You’ll find yourself doing it almost automatically. But remember: when it comes to writing, first you throw up, then you clean up. Perfection comes with the editing process. Never break the rhythm of your creative flow with editing issues; when you finish your draft you can go back to fine-tune each scene. That is the time to check the ending of each scene and chapter, to make sure you have ended each on a high note of suspense, and rewrite them if you haven’t.

“Ah, good, you are awake,” he said, his voice the sound of a far-off summer storm. “We have been waiting for you.” Stacy looked into his face, and screamed. (5)

Never end a scene or chapter with a calm moment where readers can breathe and process what is happening. That is a signal to put the story down, to go do what needs to be done, and come back later… hopefully. Maybe. Those easy moments should be sandwiched somewhere in the body of a scene or chapter, and should never be very long. Never, ever end a scene or chapter with a calm moment.

Jak reseated the mic, then pulled to the side of the road. He had his seatbelt off and the door open before he came to a complete stop about ten yards beyond the accident. Not until he was halfway to the wreck did he realize that the truck driver had also stopped, gotten out and crossed the highway. Jak took one look at the savage light in the man’s eyes, and what he held in his hands, and wished he’d taken the time to liberate his gun from the glove box. (6)

So, again, here’s the rule: Never let the tension drop at the end of a scene or chapter. Reserve the quiet, introspective moments for spaces within each scene or chapter. When you finish your first draft, go back and analyze every scene and chapter to make sure each one ends on a cliffhanger. Make sure every ending says, “Turn the page!” That’s what keeps readers reading long into the night.

She was a detective sergeant in the homicide squad, for heaven’s sake. She’d seen more murder and mayhem than the rest of the crew combined. She wasn’t a fainting lily needing to be protected— “Oh!”

The word shot from her mouth on the wings of the shock that engulfed her body. Aviva stood between Petersen and Herrera, immobile, speechless, staring down in disbelief. (7)

When you write and edit to make sure every scene and chapter ends on a mini- or full cliffhanger, readers will turn the pages long into the night. But don’t force the kind of cliff-hanger you want to have. Let the story dictate the kind each scene or chapter end needs. They don’t all have to be gut-wrenching or contain maximum tension; some can be quieter than others. 

I could see him and see through him. Dolan had looked right at him and hadn’t see him. I dropped the towel and clapped my hands over my mouth to keep in another scream as the truth hit home.

OMG! I’d just been peeping tom’d by a pervie ghost! (8)

But gut-wrenching, filled with maximum tension, or just a quiet cliff-hanger, the ends all have to say: turn the page! They all have to make readers want to continue on to see what will happen. If you don’t give readers a place to easily stop and leave your world, you will gain the reputation of being not just a good or a great writer, but one whose stories truly are unputdownable.

“That’s it, Red,” Devron whispered. “You can look now.”

She took one last breath of the freedom in which she floated. Then she opened her eyes, and gasped. (9)

Examples Key (from my stories/books-in-progress):

  1. Summer of ’72
  2. Innocent Blood
  3. Because You’re Mine
  4. The Dark Time
  5. The Edge of Hell
  6. Vengeful Blood
  7. Death Watch
  8. Ghost Story
  9. A Deadly Shade of Gray

About Susan Tuttle

Susan Tuttle is a professional freelance editor, writing instructor and multi-award winning author of 21 books—6 nonfiction on writing (Write It Right), 6 suspense novels and 7 collections of award-winning short stories. She also has stories in both volumes of "Deadlines", the new anthology from the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), Tales from a Rocky Coast, and the SLO NightWriter anthology. Under the pen name Susan Grace O'Neill, she is the author of the Journey With Jesus series: Lord, Let Me Grow (Parables) vol. 1, and Lord, Let Me Walk (Lent). She is currently working on volume #2 of her Skylark P.I. series (a PI with paranormal abilities), as well as 2 YA fantasy series. And she teaches fiction writing in both the morning and afternoon every Wednesday. Email her if you're interested in joining her class. And follow her on Twitter and FaceBook.