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

Learning to Appreciate My Computer Left Brain

by: Author Debra Davis Hinkle

Humans have two brain hemispheres that talk to each other. For many years it was thought that we were either left- or right-brain dominate in our decision making. 

It appears to me that some people make their decisions from a left- or right-brained perspective. My husband is left-brained. Period.

Newer studies seem to indicate that we move back and forth between the hemispheres. I believe that we do move between the hemispheres, but that one is usually dominate.

I don’t fall in either of the above categories; I’m in the remaining 34% of people that don’t seem to have a strong left or right influence, which lends credence to the newer studies’ conclusions. 

Regardless, I need to work with both sides of my brain as an author. I wrote about my right brain in the following guest blog post: http://susantuttlewrites.com/2020/10/a-journey-through-my-right-brain-to-my-writers-voice/. This new blog post is my left-brain journey to appreciate my other half, the nerdy side.

When I started writing in 2002, I was under the mistaken opinion that you needed an English or journalism degree to write well. This was an old theme in my life with a current twist. Lacking self-esteem, I was good at negative self-talk. 

Whichever side of my brain was talking, I needed to turn off that destructive voice. But how? 

I started saying it wasn’t true; that became my mantra, and I would repeat it whenever my negative internal voice dared to speak. That was my first step in a long journey.

Trusting and believing in myself began to happen when I started creating websites and facilitating a writing critique group, which lead to teaching social media classes and later teaching writers how to put their books on Amazon. 

While I was training a small group of writers, I was taking classes in poetry, social media and attending writers’ conferences. 

The longer I lead the group the more I appreciated their remarkably diverse backgrounds, with or without an English degree. I started to feel at home as the leader. 

My last nagging question: What do you bring to the group? 

I started by making a list of the group’s members and what they contributed, that help me think of what I contribute. When I asked the group members to look over what I’d written they made a few minor tweaks. Basically, we all appreciated what each person brought to the group.

I’ve developed some deep and lasting friendships during my learning process. I recognized strengths and weakness in the writers. Mostly, I discovered that they were just like me. I trusted them and through their trust in me, I was able to find and appreciate the gifts my left-brain brings to the group and to writing. 

I no longer wonder:  What the hell am I doing writing this, or, why am I sitting at the head of the table? Both my self-esteem and confidence have grown.

This group has waxed and waned and some writers have moved on. I’m enormously proud to say we’ve produced over thirty books so far.

My latest book is a left-brain creation:

Available soon on Amazon

The book’s sequel has examples and is tentatively called Oodles of Blog Post “Examples” and is still in draft stage; hopefully, it will be published in 2022.

Thank you, Debra, for a very interesting and informative article. I’m still not sure if I use either my right or my left brain… sometimes I think I left the whole thing somewhere else! But I guess, if I had to choose, I’m a right-brained person… I react, think, and create from an emotional stand; logic doesn’t enter into it at all. No wonder I can’t figure out my computer! LOL

For more in Debra’s wonderful books, see below:

Debra’s published books:

This ‘n That poetry, with Shirley Radcliff Bruton.

Tales from a Rocky Coast, Volume 1, an anthology with three other authors.

Tears to Laughter, Embracing the Future Without Forgetting the Past, with Jim Leonard.

Debra’s future books:

Oodles of Blog Post Ideas, available in late 2020 or early 2021

Meow Poetry, 1 – 3, available in 2021 – 2022

1 Dictionary.com

2Tom J. Hidvegi: Are You Right-Brained or Left-Brained?… HUFFPOST, 12/29/2013: 10/18/2020, https://www.huffpost.com/

Write Over the Hump

This week, let’s think outside the proverbial box: Look around the room and pick out three pieces of furniture. Now write a short story or scene and use those three pieces in your writing, but not as they are intended to be used. (Ex: a chair, used for anything but for sitting on.)

Set your timer for 10 minutes and begin to write—now! Don’t spend a lot of time thinking, just let the words flow. How did you use your three pieces of furniture?

How To Train A Human

Adjusting Attention Spans

Humans are fickle creatures. They have either very long attention spans, or very short ones, and no one can say for sure at which point each one comes to the fore. Just understand that these spans tend to run contrary to whatever you want or need at the time. You must train your human properly to get the amount and the kind of attention you so richly deserve, on a minute-by-minute basis.

Always remember, you are in charge. You set the pace; it’s up to your human slaves to recognize what you need and give it to you. That is their main function in life, to cater to your every need. After all, that is a ‘cat’word: cat-er.

Know this: unless properly trained, humans will always consider their activities more important than your needs. They say they don’t have time to pet you; they need to finish laundry, cleaning the counters or other such work, have to cook dinner for other humans (notice, it’s never for you), must spend time staring at that big screen on their desktop and pecking away at those funny black squares with their fingers. They will either ignore you, or give you a cursory pet and expect you to go away. They will do this despite your need for attention. You must be very firm about stopping such frivolous behaviors.

Humans must learn that you come first, for however long you desire their attention. Wind around their feet and legs if they are ‘busy’ in the kitchen. Sit on whatever they are working on, be it laundry, bed-making, or even staring at that ridiculous box, the computer. Jump up onto their lap and get between them and the book they are reading, or the TV they are watching. Sit on the keyboard if they are typing; walk along the keys if they are playing a piano. Yowl incessantly if they are engaged in some loud activity, such as playing a flute or clarinet, or listening to CDs, until they stop. 

In reverse, they will sometimes get in the “mood” to bother you for an extended period of time, when all you want is to be left alone. The best way to discourage this is to use both teeth and claws; some lovely, long, bloody scratches on hands and arms will immediately discourage unwanted attention, and give you the space you are entitled to. 

Don’t worry; they’ll get over it. You’ll be surprised how quickly that will happen.

Remember, you are the emperor or empress; insist that you be petted for as long as you choose it, be it only five minutes or a full hour. Be persistent and eventually your human will be adhering to your schedule, and giving you exactly the attention you crave, when and for how long you desire it.

After all, you are Cat!

Write Over The Hump

Here’s a fun photo to set your mind whirling. What is this thing, just a bug, or is it something quite different? Where did it come from? What does it want? What will happen if it doesn’t get it?

Let your imagination soar as you write for 15-20 minutes. What will appear on the page from your subconscious, triggered by the photo?

Write Over The Hump

Here’s something from your own life to write about. We only write the best when we mine our own experiences, so this is good practice for all writers. And it’ll give you a touch of nostalgia you might need during these difficult times.

Set your timer for 15-20 minutes, and write about your first kiss…

Write Over The Hump

Here’s a strange little sentence to open your writing day. Where will it take you? What is the situation and why is it happening?

Have fun with this one! Set your timer, 15-20 minutes, copy the opening sentence, and start writing!

Sentence: If I do this for you, you have to go away.

Martha Stromberg on Writing and the Hulder-Kin

Writer/Author Martha Stromberg

Today, we hear from writer Martha Stromberg, as she answers some fascinating questions about her writing and her process. The floor’s all yours, Martha!

Susan. Where do your ideas come from? 

Martha: I think all my best ideas come from my subconscious. It helps to think of them a little bit like lost children. Some are too shy to surface, some are silly and just want to play with you, others are bold. They march right up, stamping their feet and demand their own importance. Those ones, I try to be careful with. But the ones I find the most endearing are the ones that start off shy but over time, gathering strength and courage, and allow me to catch them. They usually have something important to say. 

S. Who is your favorite antagonist in your stories and why?

M: My favorite antagonist is my aged rock star named Alexander. He’s brash and full of himself and used to getting any girl he wants. But he has a tender spot for his teenaged son—and his son’s girlfriend. I admire him because it’s not easy to fight one’s own nature, but he will try for the sake of his son. 

S. Are any of your characters based on people you know? How do you keep them from recognizing themselves?

M: The only “real” person who is in danger of seeing themself in my writing, is me. LOL. 

S. Have you written or are you writing a series? Why or why not?

M: I would like to one day. 

S. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Or a combination? Why?

M: I am a pantser. Owing to the huge respect I pay my subconscious when I write, pantising is the best way to keep the trap-door open. I outline after the fact. The great and powerful content of the subconscious must still pass through the door or logic and reason. 

S. Does one of your characters have a unique feature or ability? How did you come up with that unique feature/ability?

M: My debut novel is featuring the Hulder-kin. The Scandinavian myth creatures. She’s both seductive and dangerous, but she’s also highly misunderstood. She hides a secret., you see. Within her skirts sways a long tail. My Huldras have many powers, one being the power of “supernatural-persuasion.”

S. What time of day is your most creative time? Do you get to utilize that time to the fullest or does other stuff get in the way?

M: I will noodle around all day at the keyboard if life allows me. 

S. How do you decide where your stories start?

M: I pinpoint the inciting incident, then take two steps back. 

Martha, thank you for your insightful responses. I, for one, can’t wait for the first Hulder-Kin book to come out! I’m sure all my readers feel the same. And here’s a little bit more about Martha…

Bio: Guided by her passion for a good story, Martha attempted her first novel at the age of twelve and never stopped. She earned a B.A. in English Literature and her writing community is SLO NightWriters in San Luis Obispo. 

She has published several short stories in local publications, and her current project is a young adult paranormal romance featuring the Hulder-kin. 

Her writing is heavily inspired by other art forms, especially music. From the grit and grandeur of Rock ‘n’ Roll to the sublime of Classical. 

Favorite authors include Marissa Meyer, Laini Taylor, John Green, Anne Rice, Donna Tartt, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Write Over The Hump

Here’s an interesting nature photograph that will start your creative juices flowing. What do you see in it? Something human, natural, otherworldly? What made this tree what it is? What is it reaching for? What would it say if it could talk? Let your imagination go and see what happens.

Set your timer for 15 or 20 minutes, fix the photo in your mind, and start writing!