6 Ways to Cultivate Urgency That Will Captivate Fiction Readers

6 Ways to Cultivate Urgency That Will Captivate Fiction Readers

If you want to 
write a novel worth reading, you can’t just have something to say. It has to be interesting enough to capture a reader’s attention — and it needs to move.

Among your best friends for harnessing the power of momentum is to cultivate urgency in your fiction: leaving the reader with the feeling they must read what you’ve written.

A lot of writers have great ideas, beautiful prose, or stunning scenes; perhaps smart dialogue comes as natural to them as breathing.

But ultimately, how you bind these pieces of craft together to advance your idea is what separates memorable stories from those that fade into the background.

Cultivating urgency

First off, let’s dispel the common misconception that urgency is always a function of pace, and a force unique only to thrillers. Both are just malarkey. Urgency is about creating a feeling in the reader that they must read your work now. Its presence says to the reader that the story is important enough, enjoyable enough, and immersive enough to give them an excuse to drop whatever they’re doing to read it — and not stop until they’ve turned the final page, loaded up Amazon, and pre-ordered your next book.

And, like any aspect of fiction-writing craft, urgency is something you can learn to use. Dial it up or down depending on the type of story, or genre in which you’re telling it.

As you’re considering your story from the outset, or returning to it in revision, here are a few steps that may help cultivate your story’s urgency.

1. Ensure your character wants something

Simple, right? Humans usually want stuff, whether it is a sandwich, or to stop an impending apocalyptic collision with an asteroid.

Whatever it is, make sure it’s crystal clear to the reader early in the story.

2. Put something in the way of them achieving it

Pursuit of the sandwich or stopping the asteroid can be infinitely interesting depending on what stands in the way of your character getting what they want.

Throw some stuff in front of your character — vindictive butchers, clandestine government agencies — to make their pursuit more complicated, or their journey more interesting.

3. Make it painful for the character to not get what they want, and make it matter

The math of your character’s stakes has to tally up, so work hard to ensure the reasons and potential fallout are compelling enough to keep the reader interested.

4. Make your character’s backstory and exposition work for a living

Again, urgency doesn’t always mean action.

Sometimes, it’s good to slow down and offer some context for the tale you’re telling. Backstory and exposition shouldn’t just be there to hang out on your couch, eat your food and watch your cable.

Exposition and backstory are typically where we receive information dumps from authors. This is detail below the iceberg the author may need to write the story, but that ultimately gets in the way of the reader connecting to it.

Keep your head, and your prose, above the water line.

5. Treat your setting like a character

Think of how your setting is not merely just a collection of artfully described details, but also an active player in your character’s journey.

Each individual detail, along with its location, can affect what happens; and can ease or complicate your character obtaining what they want.

If a setting has its own desire, its own complications of achieving those desires, and its own stakes, it can help you choose the details you share — and ultimately enrich the story world you’re creating.

6. Avoid entropy

Easier said than done, but keeping the reader’s interest alive should be among your primary objectives.

Stories have arcs, we all know that. And we’ve seen it on charts and infographics a bazillion times.

But there are individual arcs, or beats, that make up a scene’s microtension: the molecules of your story’s universe forming blocks of momentum and urgency. Where momentum slows, everything around it, including your beautiful writing, starts to die.

If you’re slowing your story down, be sure you do so for a specific reason, such as changing characters and character POVs, locations, or merely to give the reader pause to catch their breath.

But don’t let entropy seize control of the stick, because as urgency slows and the reader’s eyes get heavy, it will plunge all your work directly into the mountainside.

Cultivating urgency in fiction takes practice. It’s not always something you can recognize — or that you should obsess over when you’re writing.

But when planning new scenes, outlining, or revising those sections not quite delivering the impact you’d hoped with readers, dialing into the elements above can drastically improve your drafts.

How do you keep readers interested in your work throughout their experience?

Filed Under: Craft


  • Kathryn says:

    Fabulous tips! Thank you!

  • Ashri Mishra says:

    What an amazing and well written article.

  • That’s exactly right, MillieAnne – it’s your story, so while it’s helpful – and sometimes fun – to learn some of the technical elements of story, ultimately it’s up to you to decide how to wield them! Happy writing!

  • Hello!

    I especially enjoyed your tip about setting up each character with something they want, and presenting them with a maybe painful conflict that prevents them from getting what they want. Writing for me is like an exciting game: I get to decide for each of my characters, their goals and desire, the conflict and challenges involved in attaining it, and then intertwined their lives with others who have similar feelings or a difference of opinion of what’s important.

    Now I will go back to each story I’ve started and write it better! Thanks!


  • Dee Jannereth says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I write for a variety of ages in the children’s area and I just really never thought of this idea of urgency in a younger age pb. The books seem a little slow to me, but I couldn’t tell what was missing. Back to the drawing-board to check for urgency. This article has really helped.

  • Shivani says:

    I love number 5. Great advice–everything in your story develops and evolves, not just your characters or plot!

  • Christine Lee says:

    I thought of stories in terms of characters and conflict, but all the good stories I’ve read do have that sense of urgency I wasn’t recognizing until I read this post. I especially liked “Treat your setting as a character,” I haven’t thought of my setting in that way and I recognize that treating my setting as a character adds a whole new dynamic and layer! Thanks for your advice, will keep it in mind!

  • Donna Allen says:

    I enjoyed this post very much. I’m editing a friend’s book and these points are exactly what I am aiming for as I help him. I will look for your future posts.

  • Rowland C Johnston says:

    Excellent reminders, Will, thanks for the post!

    I recently received a reply from an agent to one of my queries that said they couldn’t see the “stakes” in the first section of my first-time novel.

    What the heck, I thought, weren’t they obvious?

    Now I see that they exist in my head, not the text. You’ve given me a new set of problems to solve. Thanks again!

    • I’m glad you found it useful. Stakes are definitely a part of this game. As ever, I contend that knowing the rules and mechanics is crucial – because then you know how and where to wield them, and of course which ones you can break.

      In a comment above, I mentioned finding a good critique group. If you find there are issues from story to story you are unable to see, a critique group can help you focus on “fixing” those issues. And, with a regular, critical analysis, you’ll start to see the issues too.

      I always urge caution, as well, when it comes to revision based on feedback. Madison Smartt Bell wrote a tremendous book called Narrative Design that focuses, in part, on this very issue. It’s worth a read.

  • fantastic blog dear, very impressive information. thanks!

  • esther buck says:

    I got a note on a ghost job that the writing, although well-done, was stilted. I have no clue what that means and the note came came from a third party I cannot ask, because of the ghost contract. I just sent a (self-published) novel of mine to print and wonder if it could be better. These are great guidelines, but I think its too easy to know something as a writer and get it lost translating it to the reader. 🙁 I live that you write the character wants something, a sandwich or…. Thanks for this post.

    • You make a great point. It is crucially important to find a cultivate a great critique group. This is the best way to find those areas you can’t “see” in your story that may cause the reader problems. This group shouldn’t be composed of any old casual reader. You need to find people who have written and read extensively and understand story structure and mechanics. I contend this is one of the most overlooked, and valuable, tools in a writer’s toolbox.

  • Thats a wonderful writeup

    Thanks 🙂

  • Chad Garrett says:

    Excellent post! Concise and well written with wonderful information.

  • SarahGilbertWriter says:

    A Sense of Urgency

    This one really set me to thinking. It seems to me there needs to be a happy medium. If a writer goes too far one way, the reader might get the feeling of too much urgency and like the writer wants to rush him through. On the other hand, not enough urgency and the story will drag and possibly become boring. I can see at this point it takes a while to develop. However, think about it as you write, and you will feel it come to you.

  • Nice post! I always think a sense of urgency is even more important than “what’s at stake”. It does help the pacing, and it also makes the goal of the protagonists seem that much more important.

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