Give you main character a goal and raise the tension. This will keep your reader engaged in your story. The harder the goal is to achieve, the higher the suspense. The more personal the goal, the more the reader cares. For instance, if your detective is solving a murder of an unknown person in a large city who he doesn’t know, then we care less than if he’s solving the murder of his son. We care more if the hero is saving someone he loves, than if he is saving an unknown “them.” Continuously raise the stakes. If the character fails to reach the goal, what will happen? Will they go back to life as normal, or will they face death? The closer to death and ruin you can make their failure, the better.
Outer story goal: Every novel has a goal. Maria finds her true love. Our hero reaches the Fifth Dimension and saves the Kingdom from destruction. The detective figures out who killed the old lady who lived in the shoe. A daughter reconciles with her family after years of infighting.
Inner story goal: Our characters also need a personal goal whether it’s stated clearly or not. Maria overcomes her fear of becoming involved in another relationship and falls in love again. Our hero learns brave means facing his fears and acting in spite of them. The detective must restore his faith in himself. The daughter who never felt loved discovers Christ’s unconditional love and healing.
Scene goal: Every scene must also have a goal. If you can’t write it out in a simple sentence then you either don’t have one, or are trying to do too much.
Goal: All the character wants to do is mail a letter without running into anyone she knows.
Complication: As soon as this goal is stated, the reader fears/suspects what is going to happen. String this out as long as you can. Let her even mail the letter, think she’s home safe, and then have a nosey neighbor pop up.
Goal: Detective goes to a home to face the antagonist.
Complication: Suspect is at home and he has a big gun. Suspect is at home, but detective learns he couldn’t possibly have done the dirty deed. Suspect isn’t at home, thus leaving the detective to make another stop.
Goal: MC needs a raise so he can ask his girl (the boss’s daughter) to marry him. He goes into office and asks the boss for a raise.
Complication: Boss can say yes, but this would take away the tension. The boss could say no, thus throwing MC into tailspin—this is good. But what is even better is if the boss says, “Yes, but . . .” Yes, but he’ll have to take the dirtiest job in the company. Yes, but he’ll have to transfer to a small town in Idaho. Yes, but he can’t have anything to do with his daughter.
Caution: If you set a goal, you need to have the character reach it at some point during the novel. You can put it off for a few chapters—searching for a new pet, a new place to live, the perfect cup of coffee, a lost dog, but readers will notice (and complain) if you don’t bring this goal to a close.
I have been working on keeping readers engaged. And I need to do more goal setting, because I don’t do enough of it!