What keeps a reader reading?
Story and character, obviously. If a reader is engaged in the story, she/he wants to know what happens next. But how do authors hook the reader into turning those pages well past bedtime or the end of lunch break/commute?
The answer is scene and chapter hooks.
The strongest hook comes at the end of a scene or chapter. The obvious hook is to end a scene or chapter by leaving a character literally or figuratively hanging by his/her fingertips off a ledge. Of course the reader has to know how the character gets out of this one. Then, the savvy writer starts the next scene with some other character, making the reader consume that scene before being rewarded—and re-hooked!
For instance, consider this from BLOODSTONE:
Rees halted and stood in his stirrups, head turned like a hound scenting the wind. “Krad,” he said. “There’ve been Krad through here.”
An unearthly howl rent the air. Stones cascaded down from above, pelting the ground, the horses, Syryk’s head. He reeled in his saddle and saw stars before Rees grabbed his reins and shouted, “Ride!”
Not all end-of-chapter/scene hooks need to be that dramatic. All they have to do is create a tantalizing question in the reader’s mind. Here’s an example from THE PRINCE OF VAL-FEYRIDGE:
A battered leather bag with many pouches thumped onto the table, inches from the letter. “What in the name of the—!” Arn sputtered, turning.
A pair of slanted cat’s eyes, brilliant blue but red-rimmed and swollen, pinned him to his stool with a glare of pure defiance. “‘Tis your healer I be, m’lord, for once and no more, for ‘tis my fault you be injured, and ‘tis my duty to make you well.”
These end-of-chapter/scene hooks are the bread and butter of pacing.
However, not all pacing is created or driven by the end of a scene/chapter. The opening lines of a chapter/scene can and should hook the reader too. One hook sets up a story/scene question in the opening lines, one that the reader—and the character—will learn the answer (or part of it) by the end of the scene.
Here’s an example from my WIP, THE LORD OF DRUMARWIN:
Lady Vyenne of Tumin sat before her mirror and regarded the parchment lying on her dressing table. Her name on the outside was writ not in the flowing script she’d longed to see when she heard she had a message from Druemarwin, but in careful lettering made by one who found ink and quill unfamiliar. Not Naed, though she could’ve expected a missive from her youngest son by now. No doubt her husband thought it was from the child she favored and had ordered the letter brought to her chambers straight away.
But he was wrong.
And so was she.
If this chapter opening works properly, the reader should want to know who wrote the letter, what’s in it, and how she will react.
Another technique is to set up a goal for the character in the opening lines. What does he/she hope to achieve in the next minutes/hours? If the reader knows what the character is determined to do, the reader can ‘keep score’ as the character bobs and weaves through whatever obstacles are thrown into his/her path:
Vyenne paused at the foot of the stone staircase where guttering torches had nearly surrendered to the night. She’d come down from the living quarters with the wolfhound at her side and her winter cloak concealing her traveling clothes. One last obstacle remained on her path to the stables where her maid waited—the chamber in which her husband conducted the affairs of court. She guessed he might be working late this eve, and the occasional murmur of voices issuing from the open door confirmed that. If she could time it correctly, she’d traverse the pool of light thrown into the corridor before her husband noted her presence. Gathering her resolve, she strode forward.
In this scene, we want to know—does she make it and, if so, at what cost?
If we can master these types of chapter/scene hooks—both at the beginning and ends of scenes/chapters—our books will be the ones about which readers rave, “I couldn’t put it down!”