Sunday, August 27, 2017

Two Keys to Page-Turning Novels

Even Bears Sometimes Get Lost in the Woods
By James M. Jackson

Reviews of my Seamus McCree novels suggest many readers find them to be page-turners. Some even “complain” that they lost sleep because they couldn’t put the story down. I can sympathize. There are certain authors whose books I can’t put down—and it’s not necessarily because they are action thrillers.

I researched the issue and paid attention to how authors I can’t put down reel me in to reading just one more scene. “I’ll put the book down at the next white space,” I say, and two hours later I’m still reading. (White space is the term I use for a scene break or chapter break where there are a few blank lines separating the scenes (sometimes it includes a glyph) or—like with chapters—a new page where the next scene starts.)

I incorporated what I learned into Lesson 6 of my online course “Revision and Self-Editing.” Books that capture my attention and don’t let me go have two key components that books I can easily put down do not.

To keep me reading past the point I planned to stop requires a terrific “prompt” at the end of the scene. What makes a good prompt? There is no one way to do it, and if an author uses the same technique at the end of every scene, it could get as obnoxious as the cliffhangers of the 1914 serial Perils of Pauline flicks, where at every break the heroine is about to die.

The ending can be loaded with emotional punch, or a hint or premonition of change, or a question the reader wants answered. The scene can end with a line of dialogue that provides a twist or surprise. The POV character can make a promise (to another character or to herself) and we wonder whether she has really turned over a new leaf or what disaster will come from that decision. Whatever the actual content, it’s important to keep things open-ended. If there is no further suspense, there is no reason to keep reading. And if an author puts their POV character to bed and turns off the light, readers may decide to do the same. Zzzzzzzz.

An intriguing prompt is only half the battle. The terrific scene ending induces the reader to turn a page they didn’t intend to, but they aren’t yet committed to the next scene. That’s the job of that scene’s first few lines. They must set the hook to retain the reader while at the same time orienting him regarding who is in the scene (and who the Point-of-View character is), where and when it takes place, and what the first action is.

Lots of authors (including me in my early drafts) want to make sure readers understand the mechanics of the transition from one scene to the next. But, readers are smart. They know if the character was in California and plans to fly to New York, and the next time we see her she is in New York, she probably took the plane. Unless relevant conflict is involved, we don’t need to get her to the airport, through security and onto the plane, served tomato juice, deplane, grab a taxi, ring the doorbell, go through a long recitation of the last few days in California, etc., etc.

Let’s say we left our heroine worried about whether she was wise to dye her hair purple without letting her lover (who claims to adore her dirty blond hair) know. If the next scene opens with her lover throwing a fit about the dye job, the reader doesn’t care about the details of the trip. Or if the author wants a reaction scene to deepen reader connection with the character, she might cut directly to the heroine’s increasing anxiety as she self-talks her way through doing the laundry, waiting for her lover to get home.

Here’s another example to illustrate the point. Let’s say a scene ends with Barbara slamming out of her sister’s house (an action scene; her sister is named Molly). The next scene is set in a pub where Barbara meets her best friend, Trish, to kvetch (a reaction scene setting up the next action scene). Many authors would take the reader from the sister’s house to the bar: Barbara gets in the car, drives, parks, walks into the bar, her eyes have to adjust to the light, finally sees her friend in a back booth, smiles and waves and walks over, sits down and orders a beer.

I don’t know about you, but I start reading all that and think, “I don’t need to read this now,” and slip my bookmark in place (or close my Kindle).

But if the next scene began with dialogue like this (which assumes we’ve met Trish before), I could be kicking myself a half hour later because I still don’t want to put the book down.

“Next time,” Barbara said, “I’m going to rip her hair out and test her DNA.” She raised her mug high over her head to order another.

Trish’s hoot temporarily drowned out Lyle Lovett moaning from Lefty’s jukebox. “Oh, Molly’s your sister, all right. No one else can jerk your chain so bad. It ain’t even three o’clock and you’re already doin’ shooters with your beer.”

“You say so.” Barbara rolled her shoulders and a bit of tension released from her neck. Thank God she had called Trish. She had been in such a blind fury she didn’t even remember driving here. God, she hoped she hadn’t run that red light with the snitch camera like the last time she was pissed off at Molly. “Mama always said, ‘Don’t get mad. Get even.’ I owe her big, and I got a plan.”

“Oh Lordy,” Trish said. “What do I have to talk you out of this time?”

I’m sure the authors reading this blog could make this snippet stronger, but this example has accomplished a lot in a few lines. The author has defined the POV character (Barbara) and provided additional characterization.

We have a setting (Lefty’s — probably a bar, some place that plays Country music.)

There is a transition from the prior scene to this one as Barbara reflects on how she got here (and provided a speck of backstory about getting nailed for running a red light).

We know the scene objective (Barbara is trying to solicit Trish to carry out revenge).

We have evidence that Trish is going to resist Barbara and so we anticipate conflict between them.

Wouldn’t you want to know what the scheme is and whether Trish can talk her out of it. Of course, good authors make sure to vary their scene openings as well as their scene endings to keep them interesting and fresh.

Readers, does this jibe with your experiences, or is there something else that makes you read late into the night?

Authors, if you’re interested in learning more about Revisions and Self-Editing, the next month-long course starts October 1. You can find more information on my website at You’ll receive a discounted fee if you sign up before September 5.


Warren Bull said...

Thanks for the clear and helpful information.

Grace Topping said...

Thanks for the tips. Very helpful. The most valuable thing I've learned is to study the techniques of the writers we like. I was half way through a book by Frances Brody before I realized that she rarely used "said." But I had no problem identifying who was saying what because she had so beautifully used other techniques to identify the speaker.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Very interesting, especially when I compare it to Kurt Dinan's remarks yesterday at a Cincinnati Library writer-in-residence workshop.

Jim Jackson said...

Grace -- Yours is a perfect example of why most advice to those wanting to write is to read!

Okay, Margaret -- that's leaving us wanting to turn the page. What did Kurt Dinan say yesterday at the Cincinnati Library writer-in-residence workshop?

Kait said...

Excellent blog, Jim. And I scooted over to your page, looks like a great course too.

Gloria Alden said...

Very good, Jim, and I know you use the same technique in your books because they are page turners, too.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Kurt Dinan has published many short stories and a YA novel, Don't Get Caught. He teaches 10th grade English and HS creative writing. Here are a few gems from yesterday's Revision talk:

Revision is war. Be clinical and brutal. But don't over carve the pumpkin.

Think like a reader. If you're bored, the reader will be bored. Notice what the reader will notice. Ever wonder why cell signals are so erratic in fiction/tv/film? Characters need to call the police but they can't.

Study opening lines of books. Nail your opening line. Kurt Vonnegut: Start as close to the end as possible.

The ending: have you met your reader's expectations? A third act problem is a first act problem.

The protagonist should be active, not reactive. What lie does the protag believe?

Jazz up the middle with a ticking clock, a twist, or kill someone off. Overwrite conflict.

In dialogue, can it be removed and the scene still make sense?

Kurt deliberately used a fast pace in his YA novel, with a minimum of setting details or backstory. He's a plot guy.

Jim Jackson said...

Thanks Kait -- I always remember stuff I've forgotten and learn something new when I teach the course.

Gloria -- I certainly try to practice what I preach.

Thanks for satisfying my curiosity, Margaret. All good points he makes.~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

Fascinating, Jim. I love the way you analyze this and distill it for us. I appreciate your organized approach!

I'm going to pay more attention to the "hooks" presented midbook in the ones I read & see what keeps me reading.