I can’t tell you how many nights of sleep I’ve lost because I just had to finish the book I was reading. From staying up all night to see how Mark Watney was going to get off Mars, to calling in sick to see how Nick Dunne was going to turn the tables on Amy.
How do these authors do it? What secrets do Gillian Flynn and Andy Weir know that hook me so profoundly right from the start?
The room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight-hers and the one by the empty chair opposite. On the sideboard behind her, two tall glasses, soda water, whiskey. Fresh ice cubes in the Thermos bucket.
Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work.
– from Roald Dahl’s “Lambs to the Slaughter”
How do you start writing such a compelling story?
Start at the beginning, not page 1
Every good plot has a central pivotal moment that takes your breath away, causes a higher heart rate, and has such intensity you want to jump into the story and help the characters out. Finding yours is the first step to writing a page turner. Once you’ve found that moment, look at it again. Uncover ways to make it even more powerful. Laura Whitcomb calls it the “crosshairs” of a story:
The crosshairs of a story, like the crosshairs in the scope of a rifle, must be precisely aimed at your target – that pivotal moment in your plot. The crosshairs moment to be exact. …Your overarching story crosshairs moment falls on the biggest turning point in your story, often the action’s climax.
Find where to aim your crosshairs, and zero in on that point. And then:
Build your action around that pivotal point
That “crosshairs moment” isn’t the only action point of your novel. Build additional action points around this pivotal moment to keep your readers involved in your story. After you’ve developed the most pivotal moment in your story, look for the pivotal moments in each of your characters’ lives, the ones that lead them to the final climax. Each chapter should have a minor, but no less thrilling, pivotal moment As Whitcomb continues:
Your individual chapter crosshairs moments, on the other hand, are the most important things that happen in each chapter. They fall on turning points as well, crucial junctures where the plot or character arc (sometimes both) changes direction or makes a leap in energy. The reason you need to make sure you know exactly where your crosshairs lie is because these are the points you’ll write toward and away from. These critical moments are what you need to showcase, the moments that create the shape of your story.
These small, tough moments with meaningful resolutions are the ones that will leave your readers wanting more.
Keep up the suspense
Suspense is a vital component to a page turner. Leave your readers with unanswered questions at the end of each scene. Promise them your heroes won’t like the answers. Ian Irvine lists 41 different techniques to heighten the suspense in your story. Speaking generally, he says:
To build suspense, make your readers worry about all the ways your hero’s plans could go wrong (see Klems). When readers say that your story starts slowly, or that not much is happening, they’re not (as a rule) talking about the action. They mean that you haven’t promised them bad things to come. So, instead of asking yourself What needs to happen? ask, What can I promise will go wrong? And make sure that the disasters are ones the reader can identify with. Make them emotionally wrenching; problems that could drive your hero to the limit – or even break him.
Promise your readers bad things will come, and then deliver, one at a time, relentlessly. They’ll find themselves caught up in the action, knowing that the reveals will come, but never knowing the exact moment.
And finally, build suspense and heighten the drama, but:
Don’t let technique drag down the pace
Sentence structure is a delicate balance. Long sentences slow down the action, forcing the reader to pause and digest what’s presented. Short sentences add fuel to a scene. They pull the reader into a quickening plot. Be deliberate in your use of sentence lengths to adjust the pace of your story.
When writing your sentences, remember to be concise and clear. Use active voice, transitional words, and positive phrasing to keep the sentences moving. Don’t use subordinate clauses to interrupt a main clause. Introduce information and then comment on that information, not the other way around.
Of course, sometimes it makes sense to break the rules, but do it deliberately and for specific effect:
Prince Charming: You! You can't lie. So tell me, puppet, where is Shrek?
Pinocchio: Uh, I don't know where he's not.
Prince Charming: You're telling me you don't know where Shrek is?
Pinocchio: It wouldn't be inaccurate to assume that I couldn't exactly not say that it is or isn't almost partially incorrect.
Prince Charming: So you do know where he is!
Pinocchio: On the contrary. I'm possibly more or less not definitely rejecting the idea that in no way with any amount of uncertainty that I undeniably—
Prince Charming: Stop it!
Pinocchio: ...do or do not know where he shouldn't probably be, if that indeed wasn't where he isn't. Even if he wasn't at where I knew he was...
We want more!
Drama and suspense will keep your pages turning, using proper technique will keep your reader engaged. Build each chapter around a pivotal moment, have each chapter lead to the final conflict. Do this and you will naturally have a page turner, and possibly a best seller, on your hands!