Thursday, 12 January 2017

Week Thirty-Seven: Six Steps To Writing A Page-Turner

This week sees the publication of my second psychological thriller, LOCK THE DOOR.



Early readers have very kindly described this new novel as 'Simply compelling' (Andy Martin, crime writing expert and critic) and 'Exhilarating ... heart-pounding' (Rachel's Random Reads) as well as variously complimenting its 'pacing', 'momentum' and 'urgency'. 

So I thought I'd write a 'how to' post on creating that all-important quality in a thriller, that of being unputdownable or a page-turner. And to keep it simple, as I could waffle on forever on this topic, I'm restricting it to six steps.

Step One - Write action/reaction-only at the planning stage

If you're not a planner, you might as well stop reading now. My advice will be lost on you, and that's fine. But for planners, the outline or synopsis is where you will make your first errors in terms in creating a page-turner. So don't plot a story that starts before the main action.

For instance, young mum Jane is sitting in her house one day when her grandmotherly neighbour knocks and asks her round for tea and fresh-baked scones. They discuss knitting, and then Jane leaves to pick up her kids from school. Later, her husband bursts in and discloses that he has just inadvertently killed their neighbour's husband and hidden him in a wheelie bin. STOP. Go back and start the story with the husband bursting in ...

Readers are sophisticated. They can join up even invisible dots! So a couple of sentences about the delicious whiff of her neighbour's excellent scones  - perhaps the unfortunate woman is seen baking them as Jane and her careless husband hurry past her house with a curiously overladen wheelie bin - would be sufficient backstory/character revelation here.

When planning, think hard about pace and impact. Don't draft in backstory. Write in blocks of action and reaction instead. Start running and keep running, in other words. Otherwise your reader may put down the book at a quiet moment and go off for a scone, and perhaps never come back.

Her husband stuffed the old man's lifeless body back inside the wheelie bin and slammed the lid shut just as the patrol car rounded the corner ...

Step Two - Use dialogue to leapfrog or break up prose description, and impart info

Prose description can be very important for setting a scene. But you need far less of it than you perhaps realise, at least if you want to write a page-turner. A whole paragraph - or three - on how lovely the sparkling sea looks in summer, and you may have just lost your place on the bestseller list. Snip it down to a sentence here, then another later on. The same applies to character description or identifying and describing a new location. Yes, you need these. But make it a few bold pencil strokes, not a leisurely watercolour.

Maybe the book is all about atmosphere and local colour though. You need those descriptions to augment the sinister feel of the physical backdrop. One way to deal with that is to interleave descriptions with bursts of dialogue. This breaks them up for the rapidly moving eye of the reader, and increases reading pace without stinting on local colour. Most writers end up doing this naturally. But sometimes you get weary and can't see how to avoid the weight of description.

If your character is alone, maybe exploring an environment or locked in a room, you can bring in a line or more of dialogue from earlier and repeat it in italics, with some reaction perhaps. That's your narrative character 'remembering' a previous conversation. A bit cheesy, maybe. But again, it can break up the paragraphs and make the pages turn faster. Or have a phone ring. 'Hello?' etc. Or a text message arrive. Anything to increase interaction.

Whatever you do, don't TELL the reader plot information in a prose paragraph. Always use dialogue to impart new plot information or discuss events if you possibly can - even if this means making them WAIT until the next chapter. (Tip: another way to keep the pages turning is to sneakily withhold vital information, or dripfeed it over a number of chapters.)

Step Three - Use short sentences in your prose. No, even shorter than that.

Verbose sentences stuffed with meandering clauses and pretentious semi-colons are strictly for literary fiction and those who feel a prize nomination coming on. You want to write popular, page-turning, mass market fiction, you have to use short, eyecatching sentences. Especially if they feel highly informal and don't involve verbs. You may even need to resort to italics (or even capital letters) on very special occasions, but I wouldn't recommend going too far down the ornate route, as that can rapidly become tiring for the reader.

Like this?

NO.

This.

Step Four - On a similar note, avoid being too formal in your phrasing

To help people turn the pages in large numbers, you need to get their confidence en masse that you can tell a story that will please, intrigue, excite and engage them. See above.

But this isn't just about the mechanics of writing shorter sentences. It's about using verbs to catapult an action off the page. It's about not being afraid to be casual in your references and phrasing. It's about using abbreviations like 'I'm' and 'can't' as the norm, not simply in dialogue but within prose paragraphs too.

The majority of your readers are also television watchers and film-goers. They tweet and share on Facebook. They text each other in informal ways. They communicate via email, both at home and work. You need to sound like you're one of them. Or they'll reject you. 

'Cup of tea, love?' Mrs Crumbles asked the intruder as he lumbered towards her tea trolley, swinging a blood-stained axe ... She always had been a little shortsighted.

Step Five - Keep Your Main Characters In Crisis

Characters that are not in a state of crisis can be lovely. But they're not always terribly engaging for readers, especially if you're aiming for suspense. In real terms, this means making sure there are no scenes in your novel that do not need to be there in order to advance the story in some quantifiable way. No aimless, character development chats over tea. See step one above.

Or incorporate the chats, if you must, but squeeze them in alongside plot developments. Have the chat in a car screaming at top speed toward a developing crime scene. Have the chat with one character dangling another character out of a window.

Okay, I'm pushing the envelope here. But seriously, check that scene is required. Otherwise you run the risk of boring the reader.

Step Six - Keep Asking Questions

A book needs to ask a question that will intrigue the reader enough to keep reading. This can - and probably should! - happen from as early as the first sentence, or at least paragraph. I don't mean it has to be a literal question. Sometimes an intriguing first line will ask a question simply by virtue of an intriguing premise or implied backstory. 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.' (I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith) Why on earth the kitchen sink? Wouldn't a desk or chair be more comfortable? So immediately you're asking questions about what kind of narrator would kick off their story in such an informal way, and yet in a curiously formal, almost stylised manner. Themes or ideas can ask questions too, not just quirky narrators. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.) How can these two apparently contradictory statements be true simultaneously, we ask? And so we read on, curious to find out ...

The best page-turners often start with a huge, impenetrable question, and don't answer it with any degree of truth or accuracy until the final chapter. That takes massive skill, as the reader still needs a series of smaller questions along the way, or semi-answers, to keep them reading through to the big reveal. Good luck!

But maybe you have to answer that first question on the first page, or at the end of Chapter One. What then? Well, then, you ask another question. Preferably at the very end of the chapter. The reader frowns, and turns over. What the hell, they think?

Then they reach the end of Chapter Two, and blimey, there's another question. The heroine is clinging by her perfectly manicured nails to the edge of a cliff, with the waves washing to and fro hundreds of feet below. The reader pauses, glances at the clock, then reads on, sure there's no way the character can survive this time ...

The main thing with a page-turner is to stop the reader feeling able to stop reading and put down the book. It's cruel sometimes, but they'll thank you for it. Everyone loves a page-turner!

So ask a big question at the start, and try not to answer it until the end of the book. Until the very last page, if you can get away with it. And keep asking smaller questions all the way through. Even ending a chapter with something ostensibly tiny and insignificant like, 'The telephone began to ring ...' will make a reader turn over. Why would they do that? To find out who is calling, of course. Then you just have to make sure it's an interesting, plot-moving call, and lo, they are hooked again!

So there you are, friends. Six simple steps to writing a page-turner. Go to it!


My latest page-turner is LOCK THE DOOR: Amazon UK, Amazon US

3 comments:

  1. I love the idea of having the chat with the character gripping onto the sides of his seat while the car's speeding along. Must have a go at that one! Informative stuff Jane – and it always amazes me how one can up the action / tension enormously simply by adding in one or two sentences. So easy, yet so effective! That's why the editing is so important.

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  2. Thanks, Carolyn! Yes, indeed. :)

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  3. I love this, thank you Jane. Really helpful tips.

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Many thanks, Jane Holland