“There is only one recipe for a best seller and it is a very simple one,” wrote Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. “You have to get the reader to turn over the page.”
Even with the right elements for a thriller—an “unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar and a certain integrity in our narrative,” in Fleming’s words—you aren’t going to capture a large audience until you learn to compel their attention. Compel: “To drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly.”
Lately, I’ve been on a tear through Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I won’t admit to how many I’ve read in only a few weeks, but there’s no question I’m pinned to the board alongside the other butterflies. Still have dozens to go in the series. But it won’t be long now.
Fleming’s advice applies to more than the cloak-and-dagger category, of course. If you’ve ever been captured by a story of any kind, you know the pull can be almost violent. Nowadays, we “binge” TV shows. Think about that word. It isn’t being used ironically any longer. I’m not sure any of us has a clear sense of what to think about that fact.
Recognize first that compulsion doesn’t arise by accident. As a reader or viewer, you are being compelled. Purposefully. Deliberately. The author holds you in place and puts their work in your head. That’s what it takes, a willingness to do that. Maybe you don’t have the technique down yet. Would you be hungry enough to use it on readers if you did?
Today, the cognoscenti decry software developers for building purposefully addictive apps. Companies use A/B-tested copy, “dark patterns,” and casino-inspired design tactics to hook our attention. “It’s wrong to use our understanding of user behavior to sell users more stuff!” For some reason, this moral calculus doesn’t apply to potboilers and pop records. If anything, reviewers, essayists, and other arbiters strain to the social and political merits that will justify the literary value of what we read and watch compulsively.
The truth is, we read and watch these things for their gravitic quality alone. People like being hooked. It doesn’t matter to the reader, once captured, whether that novel or documentary makes a profound political statement or sparks a national movement. We just like to believe that it matters to us—it gives a patina of respectability to a process of visceral enjoyment that feels almost lurid in its intensity.
Fleming, for his part, was blunt: “My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something.” (Opuscule: A small or minor literary or musical work. Or newsletter.) If social justice wasn’t Fleming’s goal, what was he doing with his words? His goal was simple: “The total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds.” If your character eats, why not describe the meal in all its sensory detail? Fleming created an appealing environment in order to lure readers into his stories and hold them fixed in place to the end. “The sun is always shining in my books,” he added. If Londoners wanted gray skies, they could look out the window. For blue skies and Mai Tais, they needed James Bond.
Regardless of your medium or genre, compelling your audience to continue is a violent act. It requires an unusual combination of empathy and ruthlessness, an understanding of how other people think and a willingness to use that knowledge to your own ends. To compel your readers, give them no quarter. Wrench them into place. Pin them to your work till their necks hurt and their eyes are so dry that their contacts fall out. Nothing less will suffice. It isn’t enough to learn how. You have to be willing.
There’s a reason many authors are ambivalent about their most popular creations. They deliberately sought to “boil the pot.” The magnetic quality they achieved was no accident. If anything in the reader’s life feels more important or interesting than finding out What Happens Next, you’ve failed to boil the pot. Dress it up as “literature” or “art” or “advice” all you like. Any highly effective form of communication is fundamentally coercive. It demands a callous disregard for the intellectual and emotional autonomy of others. Do you have what it takes to pin butterflies?