Why Most Scenes Fail to Keep Readers Hooked

This past April and May, I read over 100 short stories as a judge in The Write Practice's Spring Short Story Contest. I kept track of how often I gave feedback on different writing and storytelling concepts. This post is the fourth in a series on common scene-writing mistakes I observed. Read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.

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The Crisis is what keeps readers hooked on your story

A scene starts with an Inciting Incident that upsets the balance of the protagonist’s world. It continues with Progressive Complications that build until your protagonist faces a tough question about what to do next. That tough question is called the Crisis, and it's the aspect of scene-writing that writers most frequently mess up.

The Crisis is a choice between two options. For example, should the hero a) stay safe for the moment and hide from the villain or b) face the villain now without a plan and risk defeat? Should a love interest a) confess his feelings and risk rejection or b) keep them secret and risk missing an opportunity for love?

In real life, it's rare that we face win-but-lose or lose-but-win decisions. We face many more decisions that don't matter. Should we drink chamomile tea or earl grey? Wear a blue shirt or a green one? Life doesn't irreversibly change based on which of these options we choose. By contrast, in a story, a protagonist faces a win-but-lose or lose-but-win decision in every single scene. What keeps readers hooked is the cause and effect between the protagonist's choices and the consequences they experience. Here are three common problems that writers have creating Crises that show cause and effect and keep readers hooked.

Problem #1. Crisis isn’t tangible with two distinct options.

If you're creating a decision that will show cause and effect, you needs to draw a strong contrast between the options available. A good Crisis defines the two distinct paths a character may choose at a specific moment.

Let’s expand on the example story from previous posts. Here's the setup: Sheila, a veteran bus driver and single mom has just taken a new high-paying job working for a company with a shady safety record and abusive management. She’s got a slimeball boss who frequently makes demeaning comments about female employees. One day Sheila encounters her boss in the break room.

EXAMPLE 1.

Setup: When Sheila enters the break room, the boss asks her if she’s seen the latest company report yet.

Potential Crisis: Should Sheila say she’s seen the report or not? Should she continue speaking with her boss or politely excuse herself? Should she do something else entirely?

EXAMPLE 2.

Setup:  When Sheila enters the break room, the boss is stroking the arm of her favorite coworker, Marci. Sheila watches Marci try to excuse herself three times. The boss physically blocks Marci's exit.

Potential Crisis: Should Sheila intervene on Marci’s behalf and risk upsetting her boss or should she allow her boss to continue and feel guilty about not helping Marci?

In EXAMPLE 1, the options for how Sheila should behave aren’t obvious. She has infinite choices about how to respond. When a character has that much freedom, it’s a sign they’re facing a meaningless decision, not a Crisis. In EXAMPLE 2, there’s a clear contrast between both the choices in how Sheila can act and the consequences of those actions. She can either intervene to stop her boss and risk her boss's anger or let him continue harassing Marci and risk Marci's disappointment. What Sheila chooses in this moment will have an effect. Readers will care which option she picks.

Problem #2. Crisis isn’t a tough decision.

Not only do the two options of a Crisis need to be distinct from one another, they also need to be equally plausible. Lopsided options kill the tension.

EXAMPLE 1.

Setup: Sheila gets a new job offer from a reputable company that pays well and will allow her to save money to help her son.  

Potential Crisis: Should Sheila take a new job offer from a reputable company that pays well and will allow her to achieve her goal of helping her son or should she stay in her current job at the shady bus company and risk her safety and endure abuse for the same amount of money?

EXAMPLE 2.

Setup: Sheila was recently involved in an accident where a woman was hurt. The woman is suing for damages and Sheila may face criminal charges. When Sheila tells her current boss she’s got a job offer from another company, he tells her if she leaves she’ll be responsible for her own legal defense.

Potential Crisis: Should Sheila take the new job and risk having expensive legal trouble or should she stay at her current job and risk her personal safety, but avoid potentially ruinous legal bills?  

In EXAMPLE 1, Sheila is not facing a true Crisis. She should obviously take the job at the reputable company. Sheila has a clear escape route from her problems and this destroys the tension. In EXAMPLE 2, Sheila has to choose between two crappy choices. A reader could justify either course of action. When the choices are equally plausible, readers don’t know what the character will choose. This heightens the tension, and makes readers want to keep reading.  

Problem #3. More than one Crisis

A Crisis focuses a reader's attention on what's important in a scene. Sometimes writers go overboard in making the protagonist face more than one Crisis in a scene. Here’s an example.

EXAMPLE.

Setup: Sheila is having her monthly meeting with her boss. He says they’ve got a problem. They need to let some employees go - would she like to volunteer? As Sheila gives her answer, her phone rings. It’s her sister, their mom is gravely ill and they don't know if she'll make it through the night. Can Sheila come? Before she can respond to her sister, there's a knock on the door. It’s the police, Sheila's under arrest and suspected of burning her apartment building down. 

Potential Crises: Tell the boss to lay her off and lose her job or fight to keep it? Go the hospital immediately or wait and possibly miss her mom's last breath? Obey the officer or resist arrest?

This doesn’t work for two reasons. First, it’s not true to life. It’s (thankfully!) rare that we face more than one consequential decision in the space of a few minutes. Second, when multiple high-stakes decisions are all handled in a single scene, it reduces each decision's emotional impact on the reader.

In the example scene, should readers care more about Sheila losing her job, losing her mother, or losing her freedom? Each one of these losses is an opportunity to show the reader what kind of character Sheila is and make them care more about her. When too much happens at once, readers get overwhelmed. Their ability to empathize shuts down.

Create Crises that keep your readers hooked

In every scene, force your characters to face tough decisions that reveal their character. Make sure your Crises are questions with tangible, equally plausible options and clear consequences. Focus on one Crisis per scene to get the biggest emotional impact out of your story. Master this skill and readers won't be able to put your stories down. 

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to put some novels down? Keep learning the secrets of page-turning fiction.