Top Ten Tips for Writing a Page-Turner
When I sat down to write my first thriller, I wanted to write something that moved really fast, a story that was so intense that you couldn’t look away. My goal was to write a page-turner that the reader could not put down.
The Couple Next Door has been called “a one-sit read.” Again and again, people have told me that what struck them about the book is the fast pace of it. So, here are my top ten tips to keep the pages flying:
- Use short sentences. Long, winding sentences with lots of clauses, beautifully written, haunting in their lyricism—you see what I’m doing here?—slow things down. I love long, winding sentences—in the right place. I love long, winding Victorian novels. But if you want a fast read, forget the long, winding sentences. Don’t get me wrong; you do have to vary your sentence length a bit to avoid monotony for the reader. But keep the really long sentences to a minimum.
- Use short paragraphs. Pages of unbroken type will have your reader nodding off. So break things up into shorter paragraphs.
- Keep chapters short, and end them with cliff-hangers. It’s true, if you’re reading a book and enjoying it, and you’re thinking of turning out the light and going to sleep, if the next chapter is twenty pages, you’ll probably turn the light off and wait till tomorrow. But if it’s just a few pages…you keep reading. Especially if you’ve been left on the edge of your seat!
- Don’t get bogged down in description. Description on its own doesn’t add much to the story. A bit of description deftly added helps the reader, and if you can use it to reveal more about character or enhance mood, that’s good. But don’t overdo description—it slows the story down like those pages of unbroken type and those long, winding sentences. In fact, I bet if someone did a study, they’d find that most pages of unbroken type and long, winding sentences are mostly description!
- Use dialogue. Dialogue by nature moves quickly. You have short paragraphs pretty much automatically, because nobody speaks in pages of unbroken type these days. Nowadays most people are so impatient that they’d simply interrupt somebody who goes on too long. And nobody ever skips reading dialogue the way they skip reading description, because they’re afraid if they skip the dialogue, they’ll miss something important. I love writing dialogue—I find it always speeds the plot up and ratchets up the tension. So if things are flagging, get your characters interacting with dialogue—nothing is more riveting than a detective and suspect playing cat and mouse in an interview, or a loaded conversation between a husband and wife who distrust each other.
- Use a time lock. That is, have a ticking clock that will give a sense of urgency to your story. A bomb will go off in six hours, or a baby has been kidnapped and the longer she’s missing, the less likely it is she’ll be found alive. You get the idea. Or, if it works for your story, have the action occur over a short period of time and use present tense to convey that sense of urgency.
- If it works for your story, use shifting points of view. Switching between viewpoints of different characters propels the story forward, as the reader has more than one viewpoint they want to get back to and follow.
- Make your characters emotionally complex, ambivalent, and unpredictable. No one is all good or all bad. Real people have mixed, complicated feelings about lots of things—other people, situations, and so on. By exploring that natural ambivalence in my characters, it makes them more complicated, more human, and more unpredictable—which helps propel the story. Your readers will want to find out what makes your characters tick, what they’re hiding—from others, and perhaps from themselves—and what they’re going to do next.
- Have every scene work hard on many levels. You can’t have any lazy scenes that are just doing one thing. Try to have every scene do as much as possible—revealing character, advancing and complicating the plot, raising questions and foreshadowing what might happen. I think one secret to fast pacing is having a lot going on in every scene, and planting seeds that will bear fruit later.
- Finally, have lots of unanswered questions and a twisty plot that keeps the reader guessing and second-guessing. People will read on to get their questions answered. Curiosity is a wonderful thing.
And here’s one last bonus tip, and it’s the most important one of all. Always remember that story is the most important thing. People will always gobble up a good story!