Writing a Page Turner
The first comment I ever received on my writing was, “You have the best pacing I’ve ever seen!” I said “thank-you,” but had no idea what that really meant or how I’d achieved it, and continued in my blissful state of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Then came my first series of reviews: “A real page-turner”, “Couldn’t put it down.” Again, all I could say was that clueless, “Thank you!”
But the kicker came when my own reading for enjoyment time was cut down to practically nil because of my writing schedule. I love to read, but suddenly there was a growing stack on my dresser of books I’d read up to chapter three, some not even to the end of Chapter One, and there they sat, unfinished, and I had no desire to ever go back to them. Why? What makes some books impossible to set aside while with others you have to drag yourself to the end of the chapter, page by page, as if crossing a desert with no oasis in sight?
I love lists (it’s the OCD/ADD in me!). Here are some of the rules I’ve learned along the way, using reviewer quotes from past titles to make my points:
Statistics say it takes a reader about 30 seconds to decide on whether or not to buy your book and most of the things he/she considers aren’t under your control. You’ve got -if you’re lucky-three pages to sell that reader. That leads to Rule #1.
1st Rule: “Keeps you hooked from page one”
Hook your readers. Pull them into the story with action, dialog, by placing them in the middle of things where they’ll want to know “What’s going on?” No lengthy character development, no wading through back story–bam, you’re involved completely.
2nd Rule: “Create a compelling non-stop read.”
Active writing: crisp, compelling, not passive or distancing. Weed out the eight most unnecessary words which lead to passive voice: Is (and its family was, will be, had been, will have been), there followed by is, to, and, by, that, the and of. Balance dialog and narrative, action with substance. Also, keep the storyline in a logical forward flow, not jumping back and forth which disrupts the progression.
3rd Rule: “Reader is pulled into the whirlwind and swept along”
Use time release plotting that involves readers. Think of a roller coaster: you may have low spots but only to build anticipation for what’s to come, a smooth, non-stop ride from here to there. Which leads to:
4th Rule: “Complex and emotional story with enough twists and turns to keep readers glued to the page”
Plots aren’t linear unless the word count is extremely short. They’re interwoven. Think of knitting where all the chains are joined. Solving one conflict doesn’t create an end or even a pause in the action of the book.
5th Rule: “Enough gripping suspense, emotional tension and throbbing pathos on each page to keep readers glued to their chairs”
Animate all areas of your story, not just the action plotline or the romance plotline at the sacrifice of the others. Not all stories are big thrillers with mysteries to unfold but still manage to tantalize with the unveiling of the romance. One flat area slows down the whole. Work on various levels of conflict: internal and external, wish and want. You want readers turning pages, not skipping them.
6th Rule: “Readers will be mesmerized by the magical characters”
Vital characters-nothing can compare! Think of the movies that disappointed with their glorious special effects and no emotional development. You want to know what happens to these people because you care. My fan mail is full of questions about what happens to the hero and heroine after the last page because during the 400 plus pages, the characters have become real to them. Make them human. Give them a past to motivate them. Give them conflict to tear them apart. If you don’t make the reader laugh or cry, you haven’t brought your characters to life.
7th Rule: “Readers will not want to put it down until the happy conclusion”
Make ’em wait, advised the brilliant LaVyrle Spencer. Build to a big climax then leave the reader satisfied. Don’t peak too soon (bad news in a romance!) or drag it out. An abrupt, poorly prepared ending leaves no sense of closure and makes the reader feel cheated.
8th Rule: “Keeps you on the edge of your seat”
Unpredictability, fresh choices and surprises keep readers turning pages. If the reader knows what’s going to happen in the next chapter, why read it? Unexpected twists and turns delight a reader–as long as it’s not an unbelievable leap.
These are the tried and true rules of pacing you’ll hear everywhere: Here’s my own special secret: No potty breaks between chapters!
Think of your chapter end as the edge of a cliff, not end of the road—not a spot to pull over. Better yet, end each chapter in the middle of a fall: with active thought, not the act of falling asleep. Think Soap Operas. They use the cliffhanger technique to perfection. They’ll never have a satisfactory conclusion, especially on Friday. Don’t end a chapter with an anti-climactic scene. Be constantly building with unpredictable twists. Stop in mid-action, at the beginning of a confrontation or with a hint of things unsettled, of disaster pending.
I plan for chapter breaks during the outline process by visualizing the action to find a suspenseful bridge that will carry the reader onward. No suspense equals put-downable book. Go for the worser and worser scenario, building peril and threat (either/both emotional and physical) to characters until the reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.
I once had a reader write to tell me she was afraid to close the book for fear of missing something!
Now, when I hear someone say, “I was up until 2:00 a.m.”, I can smile with confidence and just say, “Thank you!”
© 1998 by Nancy Gideon