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12 Elements of an Unputdownable Book

by Helga Schier
September 10, 2019

You want to write books to live in. Books with a captivating story and memorable characters, books we can’t put down, books that stick with us long after we’ve read the last word. Books that make us hope and pray that the author has more because we just can’t get enough. 

We’ve come across our fair share of such books, and all of them are well crafted on three distinct but intricately connected levels.

  1. The surface structure of the words on the page, where grammar, spelling and punctuation rule.
  2. The level of style and voice, which is defined by your choice of words, the sentence rhythm, the use of literary techniques and images, and the tone or approach.
  3. The content level, where the fictional world comes to life.

Books to live in are polished, refined, sophisticated, and mature on all three levels. To make your book unputdownable, develop and sharpen the following top twelve elements.

Man reading a book with coffee.

1. Your Words Are Your Tools; Make Sure They’re in Working Order. 

Avoid typos, sort out commonly mistaken words such as die/dye or there/their/they’re. Watch your grammar—make sure your nouns agree with your verbs and the personal pronouns fit. If a paragraph begins in the past tense, it likely ought to end in the past tense, too. Figure out where those commas go to help your readers make sense of your sentences. Sounds basic? It is. So run that spell-check and get it right.

2. Check for Inconsistencies.

Writers revise their work constantly. As a result, characters may appear or disappear at random, because chapters were rearranged; subplots remain unresolved, because chapters were cut; and timeline issues may tiptoe in. Redheads must be redheads throughout, or we’ll begin to distrust your storytelling, question everything, and all suspension of disbelief is gone. We’ll find ourselves no longer in your world but in ours with a book in hand, remembering that really we ought to be cooking dinner. Not what you’re after. Looking for inconsistencies and holes in your story is an integral part of polishing your work.

3. Avoid Overwriting.

Your style or voice should step into the background to serve your story. No need for a clever metaphor in every sentence, or for an adjective before every noun. Avoid complicated sentences if a simple sentence will get your point across. Avoid inflated sentences and unnecessary introductory or summarizing phrases. This helps ensures a manageable word count and a smooth reading experience. You don’t want us stumbling over sentences that are too long or rereading sentences that are so twisted that we have to read them several times to get it. 

4. Avoid Underwriting. 

Allow your language to adapt to its context. Using the same words and/or sentence structures repeatedly makes a novel repetitive and monotonous. If the teenage girl and the CEO of a multibillion dollar company have the same voice, we’ll learn more about the writer than about the characters and their relationships. Avoid clichés and create your own personal images instead. Or use clichés and stereotypes to your advantage—say, to define a character. Evoke the cliché or well-known image and make it our own. 

5. Make Sure Your Characters Are More Than a Name.

As readers, we want to be able to relate to your characters. We don’t have to always like them or agree with their choices, but we want to understand why they say and do whatever it is they say and do. Quote: "Even a bad guy deserves a redeeming quality. It’s the wrinkles that make the (wo)man."We want to care for them, fear and worry with them. Therefore, your characters need to be recognizable and unique at the same time. They need to be complex rather than cardboard cutouts, and dynamic rather than passive. Even a bad guy deserves a redeeming quality. It’s the wrinkles that make the (wo)man. 

6. Show, Don’t Tell.

“He was anxious.” Or: “She was happy.” Or: “They were angry.” That’s telling. Trouble is, this does not really tell us what we are to imagine. Is he chewing his nails? Is she smiling as she embraces her newborn baby? Are they raising their voices to a level that could be heard down the block? Now that’s showing, and it conjures up a clear image in your reader’s head. And that’s what you want.

7. Sharpen that Dialogue…

Dialogue passes on information between characters and to the reader. Dialogue propels the plot forward. And most importantly, dialogue reveals the personality of the dialogue partners, as well as their relationship. Avoid repeating small talk, too much clever banter, and uninterrupted speeches. At least two people should exchange information, ask questions, answer them, comment, fight, tease, flirt, manipulate each other… whatever. The way your characters interact with each other says a whole lot about them and about their relationship.

8. …and Expose that Subtext.

But people don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say. Every conversation has a subtext. Dialogue is not only about what is being said, but also or perhaps even more so about what’s left unsaid. How do the dialogue partners feel about and relate to each other? Do they like each other? Who has the upper hand? Do they trust each other? Show us in their gestures, glances, body language, and behavior while they’re talking. Is anyone leaning in or moving away? Anyone nervously fidgeting with a pen? Anyone looking out the window because he is bored or to the floor because she is ashamed? The narrative must support the dialogue by exposing the underlying tension, conflict, and motivation of your characters.

9. Create Tension. 

Tension should build over time, from page one to the last. It should be built into your structure, your plot, your character constellation, every scene, and every dialogue.Quote: "Make sure the stakes are high for your characters. Keep things close and personal. Create and break trust. Exploit fears." Make sure the stakes are high for your characters. Keep things close and personal. Create and break trust. Exploit fears. Destroy high hopes. Add pressure. Let your characters stare into their metaphorical graves, because even the mundane takes on urgency if time is running out. 

10. Drive the Plot Towards Your Reader’s Aha-Moment.

An unputdownable novel provides meaning to the world we live in, which is to say that the succession of events must make sense. Your characters react to these events in ways that are motivated by their psychological disposition. It is the interplay of events and character behavior that moves your plot forward, while the writer’s hand remains invisible. Therefore, prepare your plot twists within the novel before they happen, and give your characters a reason for their behavior. Spread clues and drop hints as to future developments and past baggage from page 1. These clues should not be so obvious that we can predict the way your story goes, but in retrospect, once the plot has twisted a certain way, your preparation must become clear. It’s your readers’ aha-moment, if you will.

11. Build Your World. 

Stories don’t happen in a vacuum. Your story could happen in China in the distant past, in present day America, or in the future on a planet you imagined. Your readers need to know how your world compares to theirs. This is world building, which involves establishing a clear timeline, a recognizable locale of your overall story, and, just as importantly, the ambiance of any given scene.

12. Do Your Job. 

As a writer, you must create a world populated with characters who live their lives before our eyes, and you must do so with words only. There is no camera to show us that the police car drives off with lights flashing, no sound to give us the sirens, and no actors to make a comment sound bored or sexy or irritated or funny or scared. Your words and their rhythm build your world and make it turn.

Your words are your tools; make sure they’re in working order.