The Chain of Promises

(from “Tips for Writers” by Ben Bova)

Once you have the reader hooked with your opening, how do you keep her turning pages? The answer is simple.

The “narrative hook” of your opening is an implicit promise to your reader. Something exciting is happening to your protagonist; the reader wants to find out who this fascinating character is and why he’s in such desperate trouble.

In other words, you start out with a problem for the protagonist to solve. Do not solve that opening problem until you have created at least two more. Your story should be a chain of promises, a series of interlinked problems that the protagonist must solve. Each problem you present to the protagonist is a promise to the reader that there will be suspense, intrigue, excitement, and adventure in the solving of that problem.

If you give your protagonist a problem on page one and then solve it on page two without other problems immediately on hand, the reader will stop reading. But if you make certain that there are always more problems propelling the protagonist (and the reader) deeper into the story, you can put in all the background details your story needs and the reader will keep reading, keep turning pages, eager to see how your protagonist solves her latest set of problems.

At the climax of the story all the problems must be resolved. All the major problems, that is. You may still leave a few minor problems unsolved. In fact, that gives the reader the impression that your characters go on living even after the last page of the story. That is a good feeling to impart to your readers. Make them want to come back for more.