Tips For Writing Page-Turning Novels, by April Henry
Here are some tricks I’ve learned over the years about writing page-turners:
Act first, explain later
Many writers mistakenly think the reader needs to know all the backstory at the beginning of the novel. The problem with this approach is that it makes the real “now” of the story feel less important. Or writers think the reader will like the characters only if they spend a lot of time showing their normal, everyday lives. The problem with this is that the reader feels no urgency to continue. It’s much better if a novel starts on the day that everything changes.
Create a ticking clock
In a mystery or thriller this can be a literal bomb that the reader can’t stop worrying about. It could also be an ultimatum. Other ticking clocks could be the scheduled execution of an innocent man, the day the ship is supposed to land on Mars, the approaching prom, summer ending and the girl going off to college, the hurricane forecast to land in three days, or the lead actress for the big show coming down with mono leaving no one to play the part.
Play on common fears of readers
Common fears include: darkness, wild storms, something crawling on the skin, objects that cover other objects, a small sound when there should be silence, being alone, being helpless or unable to act, something under the bed, closed or partially open doors, hallways or tunnels that lead to the unknown, cramped spaces, basements, attics, heights, crowds, disease, death.
Give characters specific phobias
Give your characters phobias or fears – and then make them face those fears. Afraid of heights? The final confrontation should take place on a rooftop. Afraid of repeating the same terrible mistake? Give them the opportunity to get it right.
End each chapter with an unresolved issue
Have a character open a door, answer the phone, be confronted by someone with a gun, receive a mysterious letter, or make a decision not revealed immediately to the reader.
Look for passages that describe the weather, the landscape, the aftermath, travel, characters eating meals or drinking coffee, a character just sitting and thinking. Then cut them – or at least cut them back.
Hurt a main character
Hurt a main character early so the reader knows no one is off limits. Even better, kill the character – preferably a likable character. Readers will be on the edge of their seats, knowing that anything at all – even something very bad – could happen.
Make choices painful
Force the character to make a choice between two things she wants or to choose the lesser of two evils. Two loves. Two people to save (when only one can be). Addict/temptation. In a relationship/temptation. Maybe the main character knows brother will keep killing, but if she turns him in, he’ll go to death row.
Raise the stakes
Our main character was already nervous about singing in class, but now he has been asked to sing at the stadium. Or for a more mystery-related example, not only will someone die if our main character doesn’t catch the serial killer, but the next victim could be his girlfriend. Or it’s not just a child who will die – it’s a whole kindergarten! Ask yourself, “What could make it worse?” And then make it happen – even if you don’t know how your character will get out of it.
April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com
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