I recently blogged about what makes me put down a novel, so to be fair, I thought I’d post about what makes me keep reading.

  • A great opening in which something unusual, unexpected, contradictory, or violent happens. For example, in Secret Dead Men by Duane Swierczynski, the third sentence caught my attention. “..but a couple of kids organized and impromptu club with a mandate to experiment on her corpse.”
  • Intriguing characters who are unusual, unexpected, contradictory, complex, or compelling. From the first page of the same story: “Then again, what do I know? I was a dead man impersonating an FBI agent.”
  • Characters who don’t fit the current clichés. I like cops who aren’t cynical, FBI agents who aren’t workaholics that can’t handle relationships, private investigators who aren’t alcoholic loners, and women who are soft on the outside and tough on the inside.
  • Complexity! I like parallel plots and interwoven stories and multiple points of view. And if it all comes together in a way that surprises me and makes perfect sense, I pick up the next book by that author.
  • Passion about a subject. I like politics, religion, and social issues in novels as long as it works for the story and doesn’t overwhelm it
  • Multiple plot points and plots twists that leave me thinking: Wow! Stunning but believable
  • Moderate levels of crime and violence written with sensitivity to the subject, the victim, and the reader
  • Just enough detail (setting and character) to make the story real. I like Elmore Leonard’s approach: Only write the parts that people will read.
  • Believable relationships of any and all kinds
  • Crisp, fast-paced, realistic dialogue
  • Fast-paced narrative with a great balance of dialogue and action in which the surprises just keep coming

What did I forget? What makes you keep reading?

  1. I keep reading when I get to the bottom of the first page and I no longer see words on the page, I see images in my mind. If I get to the end of the first chapter and still see words on the page, I know I’ll never finish the book.

    I’ve been completely pulled into stories and carried away when I feel like I can’t tell the difference between reading it and living it.

    I know that’s not a concrete explanation–something a writer can take away and use. But, I think it comes down to imagery. Can the writer transport me into the character’s mind and world?

    I went for the ride with The Time Traveler’s Wife. I never got out of the starting gate with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

    I’m like a kid standing beside the grocery store pony, hoping for a quarter of opportunity. Because I really want to go on that ride.

  2. A story as to pull me in immediately. If I have to wait three chapters for the action, you have lost me.

    Sometimes stereotypes work in characters, but it really depends on the story and how the author handles it. EX: We all have stereotypes we face each day and I see these in print in chick lit especially, like the female boss who tries to knocked down all of her female subordinates because she has low self esteem and always wants to be the big shot.

    My reading habits changed when I started reviewing books. Before, I would force myself to finish a book, even if it was bad. Now, if it’s bad, it goes to File 13.

    One recent book I reviewed was told in third person, present tense with an omniscient narrator. THAT was horrible storytelling, but the idea and plot twists were good. It was bad execution of what could have been a great product. Self published authors have difficulties with this, and really need some help. There are great stories buried beneath poor storytelling skills – skills that could easily be learned.

  3. It isn’t very often that I put a book down, but books that really grab me and make me turn the pages faster have complexity, as you mentioned. They need to make me think and question and challenge my own beliefs.

    Before reading ON THE ROPES, I would have said that stereotypes are a big no-no, but I realized in this book (not sure why it stood out so strongly in this one, but…)that a stereotype is o.k. as long as it’s balanced with non-stereotypical characters. The stereotypes exist for a reason, so to not have any of them is unrealistic. However, I do not like for the protag to be a stereotypical character. The protag needs to have something special that gives him/her strong dimension.

    I’m definitely a “character” reader, so if I don’t connect with the characters on some level, the book flops for me.

    Realism is another important element for me. I’m not a fan of fantasy. I don’t like the concepts that you are just supposed to accept or believe.

    I also really appreciate uniqueness in a book. I like unique characters, unique settings, unique plot lines. I pick up quickly on characters that resemble ones from other books, and I figure out plots quicker if their basic premise has been used in another book.

    The greatest books are the ones that imbed their characters in my brain…so much so that they’re knocking around inside my head for days or even weeks after I finish. I might even carry on conversations with those characters because they’ve become so much a part of me. These are the books that off in the future I’ll feel the emotion I did when I read it and remember the book immediately.

  4. Two things make me keep reading: beautiful language and a compelling plot. They don’t necessarily have to be in the same book.

    I love words and the way they can be assembled to make something stunning to the ear and mind. It’s why I go back and read the King James Bible even though the New Disciples version is easier to understand. So I love books like Wicked, Cannery Row, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, just for the way they READ. I’d include The Price in these – Alex has a lovely way with words to set the mood.

    On the other hand, I love action and hate to put a book down when the plot keeps me wondering what the characters will do next. Yes, cardboard stereotypes annoy me, but I’ll actually flesh them out in my head as long as the story has a riddle for me to solve.

  5. I’d have to agree with ALL of this list. Especially the “unstereotyped” characters. Hate the same old same old idiosyncrasies being stamped forever on characters from a particular profession.

  6. I agree that some stereotype characters are not only okay in a novel but also effective. I blogged on this subject.


    It’s the just overuse of certain stock personalities in crime stories that I’m tired of.

  7. All that keeps me reading is whether I get into the story or not.

    Light description, quick and flowing character descriptions, and action. I love books that dive right into the action.

  8. You have a great list of characteristics for what keeps us turning the pages, LJ. The trite character aspect caused me to do a complete revision after the first draft of my newest book. The protag sounded too much like all those other guys.

    I like the parallel plots and interwoven stories, too. Keeps you from being bored. I guess the number one lure for me is the feeling that the character is someone real that I can identify with. And something is always lurking just around the corner.


  9. Great posts like this one keep me reading.

    Everything on your list, plus I like characters that I feel like I know and care about.

  10. You know what sucks me in? Description. I can’t get enough of it. I’m just reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn again, and I’m right there. I can feel it and smell and taste it. It’s not blatant over-describing, just a gentle leading by the hand, but I’m in that book just as surely as one of the characters. It never ceases to astound me when a writer can do that.


  11. Reading is something that I usually do aside from writing. And since I ma into book coursework assignments, reading has been a part of my everyday life. What usually keeps me reading is the “magnet effect” of the book. If I can relate with what I am reading, I am sure that I can certainly finish the book. But if it’s all highfalutin words with all the idioms and other stuff, do not expect me to continue.

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