It’s every writer’s worst nightmare – you’ve had a friend or colleague read your manuscript, and the only feedback they have to offer is “it just wasn’t that interesting.”
Or worse, they couldn’t manage to finish reading the book because it didn’t hold their attention. Aside from laying down on the floor and crying, what can you do about a boring book?
Here are some handy tips to make it into a real page-turner. You can do it!
The most important step is to figure out where the problem is. It’s possible the beginning of your book is fine, and then it loses it’s appeal part way through. Be sure to ask your beta readers when they started to lose interest. That can help you figure out where you need to make the most revisions.
Keep in mind that unless your betas are authors, too, they may have difficulty articulating specifically what made the book uninteresting, just that it wasn’t. Focusing on where is easier than why.
Conflict is Everything
Not to sound like your High School English teacher, but the root of all literature is conflict. Person vs. Person, Person vs. Self, Person vs. Environment, Person vs. Society, and Person vs. the Supernatural are the most common, but there are a few more unusual ones out there. Take a look at the story you’re writing and try to find the base conflict. The best stories have more than one, but there should be one central conflict within your book.
If you’re writing a series of books, there will often be a conflict structure that spans several novels. That’s not the one you’re looking for. Try to find a conflict that is established early in the book, and resolved by the end. Usually, the climax of a book is the big moment where the conflict comes to a head.
If you can’t find something in your story that meets this description, you need to add one. Without a conflict to resolve, you can’t move the plot forward towards that resolution.
What Drives Your Characters?
This one often ties into the conflict structure – obviously, your protagonist is going to want that conflict resolved. But the reader should also know why the protagonist wants it solved. Having a believable and relatable motivation goes a long way towards sucking your reader in.
Sometimes the reason why changes throughout the story. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke originally turns down Obi-wan’s request to travel with him to Alderaan. Only after his aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire does he agree, so we can assume there’s at least a little bit of revenge involved. Then, when Darth Vader kills Obi-wan on the Death Star, this furthers his motivation. By the end, he’s made emotional connections with members of the Rebellion and their cause and fights alongside them because it’s the right thing to do.
Raise the Stakes
What happens if the main character fails to resolve the conflict in the way they want it to? If the emotional result is on par with “aw, shucks,” the reader isn’t going to be invested in the outcome. Having a severe consequence for failure is the literary version of the Sword of Damocles. Having the potential for utter disaster hanging over your characters heads can keep the pressure on and make their success that much more exciting.
Be careful with this one, though. Raising the stakes beyond what a normal person can relate to can make them seem silly. If the consequence is that the whole world will literally blow up, it feels like a cartoon. If the result is the systematic genocide of the protagonist’s entire culture, it’s a little more relatable for an alarming number of people. Having to file for bankruptcy might seem minimal in comparison, but on a personal level, it’s not out of imagination for most people and certainly not a small consequence.
Cut the Fat
Unless you’re writing in a stream-of-consciousness style like James Joyce (and then you’re probably committed to being boring anyway) you don’t need to show every moment of your character’s lives. Think about it this way: when was the last time you read a book where someone went to the bathroom? Everyone does it, but nobody writes about it because it’s not interesting and some people find it gross. Likewise, you don’t witness every meal, every car trip, every nose blow, etc.
So what DO you include? Anything that makes the cut should serve one of two purposes:
- It moves the plot forward
- It reveals something about the setting or characters
Most material should fall under the first category, but for the sake of pacing your book shouldn’t be all action all the time. When you want to slow things down for a bit, that’s when you use material that meets the second purpose.
If you’re writing in a non-contemporary or non-realistic setting (or both!), this is a chance to flesh out your world-building. Have your party of adventurers visit a bustling marketplace while looking for the MacGuffin. Take a tour of the shiny new spaceship – but be careful not to get bogged down in technobabble. For historic settings, describe something a modern reader would be unfamiliar with. Diana Gabledon is famous for this, although she has received some criticism for including so much (personally I love it).
For a realistic modern setting, you can use this opportunity to reveal things about your character. Most character development should be done via their reactions to the plot progressing, but this can add to the overall picture. The up-and-coming professional woman finds a creative way to scrape together dinner when all she has in her kitchen is ramen, peanut butter, and soy sauce and payday isn’t until next week. The billionaire alpha male pops a frozen dinner in the microwave because even though he can cook for himself or hire a chef, deep down he doesn’t think he’s worth the effort.
Anything else should be brutally cut. If you’re like me, it’s difficult to let go of things you’ve written, so you might want to set the portions you cut aside into another file. You can save these intimate but unimportant details to share on a blog or Patreon as extras for hungry readers waiting for your next book.
This ties into the previous point, but while cutting the fat can be accomplished in revision, we’re talking about a serious rewrite here. Maybe you have too many characters, too many conflicts to resolve, just plain too much going on in your story. If readers can’t keep track of what’s going on, it won’t matter how high the stakes are, because they won’t be able to emotionally connect to the story.
How simple your story should be is largely determined by what genre you’re writing in. Mysteries, espionage and psychological thrillers, political intrigue, historical fiction, and high fantasy often feature large casts and the variety of conflicts that go along with them. Romance, literary fiction, westerns, cozy mysteries, and YA books tend to keep things simpler so as to focus on the emotion or tension of the story.
If you think your book might be too complex, take a look at that central conflict a few points back and ask yourself what elements are absolutely necessary to make it work. If you have too many characters, figure out what purpose they serve and then see if you can give those roles to other, more central characters. If your plot is too convoluted, try to see which story beats can be removed and still have the character resolve the conflict.
If all else fails, maybe have someone else read your book. The person you gave it to just might not be the right audience. If your friend likes mysteries and you ask her to read your romance novel, chances are she just won’t be into it. There’s just no accounting for taste!