Don’t you just love it when you read a book and become so involved, you miss sleep to finish the next page? When you’d rather read another chapter of a book than do anything else? I’m thrilled when I find those kinds of page turner books. Every time an author keeps me captive with his or her story, and after I’ve caught up on the sleep I’ve lost thanks to them, I analyze it to see just how they wove their particular type of fictional magic. I think about how they went about writing a page turner.
As a writer, that is my first goal too, writing a page turner. My favorite compliment is when I hear that I’ve kept someone up into the wee hours, reading. No matter what genre you write, a page-turning novel is the perfect goal. After all, who doesn’t want a reader to stay up into the night to read the next page? And the next, and the next!
Writing a page turner is so much more than planning plot twists and fast-moving action.
A page-turning novel begins with an idea that is so compelling it draws a reader in from the first word and never lets go.
So where do you start when thinking about writing a page turner?
At the beginning, of course. Every great page-turning novel starts with a Big Idea, so begin with one. Okay, maybe you don’t start there, but as you write, keep thinking about and working on your Big Idea. Trust that it will come because it will.
So how do you get a Big Idea?
Maybe you will be lucky and one will hit like a bolt of lightning. If it works that way for you, great! Even if you think it works that way, check the writing exercise below to be sure you’ve got a true Big Idea in the making. We all fall in love with what we are writing (which we should) and it’s hard to step beyond and look at your project objectively. But take some time to do so.
Don’t worry if your idea isn’t in the Big Idea range yet.
Even if you start with the mundane, or a situation that is ordinary—you’ve seen/read/heard of it before—brainstorm, jot notes and let your subconscious (muse) work until you get your idea to Yeah, that’s interesting.
But don’t stop there. Keep pushing until you find Hey, that’s a GREAT Idea! As James Bell Scott says in The Art of War for Writers, “The writer of potential greatness settles not for ‘mere fiction’.” And he’s right.
Don’t settle. Keep pushing.
So many times writers have a character in mind, or a place, or situation and they simply start writing to discover the story. There’s nothing wrong with this approach (it’s how I start, by just writing). But when you are writing a page turner, as you write, especially at the beginning, keep after the concept of your story.
It may come in pieces and may take you days, weeks or even months, but keep revisiting and developing your idea as you work on your manuscript until you find yourself thrilled by your book. Because if you are excited, the reader will be too.
The bottom line?
You want to entertain readers. That’s the goal of writing a page turner after all. To keep readers reading.
If you want to go the traditional publishing route and look for an agent and publisher, the concept and story are the factors that help your manuscript rise from the slush pile. If you are looking to e-format your book and get it out there, the same thing holds true for the reader. They want a fantastic concept and story.
Okay, you’re convinced. But just how do you go about building a Big Idea?
Does this mean your reader needs to see a car chase, explosion, a cruel and violent death, or the onset of the end of the world? Nope.
The first step to creating a great Big Idea when writing a page turner is to be sure your story idea contains two important elements—familiar and unique.
The opposite aspects pull readers into the book.
The familiar element gives your story mass audience appeal and connection.
Ask yourself, how is this story universal or something people will connect with and understand?
The unique angle is just that—unique, fresh, or something familiar with a twist—and unique appeals to people. Let’s face it, we all find new stuff fascinating.
Then one final piece for writing a page turner—add a hook. A hook is a question or reason someone becomes intrigued with your idea. Think of the hook as a catalyst of conflict and the closer for the “familiar/unique” deal.
So let’s look at some examples of familiar/unique/hook from a few page-turners. If a book keeps me up until 2 am, it gets page-turner designation. By the way—I strongly suggest you start keeping track of the books you read. Analyze what makes them work, as well as their flaws. This exercise on the Big Idea is a great way to begin your own analysis system.
Consider the following page-turner books and how far they “push” the unique:
The Likeness by Tana French
Familiar: A murder victim is found and Detective Cassie Maddox is called to investigate.
Unique: The body is Cassie’s double.
Hook: The victim carries ID identifying herself as an alias Cassie once used on an undercover job. (Okay, the reader asks, what is going on here?)
The Help by Kathryn Sockett
Familiar: Depicts race struggles in the South during the civil-rights era and explores what friendship means between women.
Unique: The story is told from three 1st person, up-close and personal POVs–two black maids (Aibileen and Minny) and one upper-middle-class white woman (Skeeter) who longs to be a writer. The three women forge a bond of friendship and understanding across race lines as they come to grips with civil rights issues.
Hook: Drawing courage from each other, they cross race and social lines as they work on a clandestine project together. (The “clandestine project” drew me in immediately–I had to read this book, and wow, I’m glad I did!)
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (yep, was made into a television show, Dexter.)
Familiar: Dr. Dexter Morgan, a highly respected police lab technician is a nice guy. But this isn’t just another CSI or serial killer fiction because…
Unique: Dexter (the protagonist) is a sociopathic serial killer (an example of been there, read that—serial killer—with a twist).
Hook: He’s the hero! It’s actually fun to see him figure out how to mimic emotional behavior so no one will guess he’s a sociopath. As you read, you find yourself rooting for a serial killer.
Prayers for Rain by Dennis LeHane
Familiar: A PI takes a case of a perky young woman stalked by a pissed-off womanizer (speaks to our core fear of being stalked and helpless, and a hero comes in to save the day).
Unique: The PI thinks he’s done with the case after he chases the guy off, but his client commits suicide by jumping naked from a building. He digs deeper and discovers she was mercilessly, methodically driven to take her own life.
Hook: The psychological stalker comes after the PI.
The Host by Stephenie Meyers
Familiar: Earth is invaded by a species who take over the minds of human hosts (several familiar fears going on here…)
Unique: The human host, Melanie, manages to keep possession of her mind…cool, now we have two characters in one body.
Hook: Wanderer (the alien invading “soul”) falls in love with the same man Melanie loves. Now we have a love-triangle—with two of the people in the triangle inhabiting the same body.
Do this exercise with books you read, but just as important, do this exercise with your own work-in-progress:
My book by Me:
Familiar: (does this speak to a core fear? Even better!)
Hook: (Catalyst of conflict)
As you can see, the above examples span different stories and genres, but they all have some aspects that are familiar to connect the reader and also unique enough to delight and entertain. When you can fill in all these pieces for your own manuscript, you will have a strong Big Idea and the start of writing a page turner.You will even the pieces you can use to construct a pitch for your page turner. When someone asks you “What is your book about?” you’ll have a ready answer.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com