Ever read a book you just couldn’t put down? Want to write one? A key element of the ‘page-turner’ novel is the build up of a strong sense of tension and suspense. But how, as writers, can we achieve this in our own work?
One important rule is: Make your reader worry. Create a sense of danger and dump your protagonist right in the middle of it. By making the danger tangible you can show your reader exactly what will happen to their favourite character if everything were to go horribly wrong.
One way of doing this is to have a character explain the inherent danger. There’s a good example in Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz. When Herod Sayle first gives the the protagonist, Alex Rider, a guided tour around his mansion he shows Alex his pet Portuguese Man o’ War jellyfish, hinting at what would happen to anyone stung by its tentacles. As a result, later in the story when Alex wakes up in the Portuguese Man o’ War’s tank, the reader knows he has more to worry about then simply drowning.
A more visual way to ensure the reader understands the inherent danger your character has just got themselves into is to show the awful thing which is about to happen to the character, happening to something else first. For example, earlier in the Stormbreaker story, Alex is trapped in a car crusher. Now, even though most readers will already understand the concept of this machine, the author doesn’t rely on this. In the previous scene Alex has watched his uncle’s BMW getting crushed into a small block of twisted metal. Horowitz is leaving nothing to the imagination. By illustrating the danger on an inanimate object, his readers are in no doubt what will happen to Alex if he fails to escape the car crusher in time.
However, sometimes as a writer you need to be a little cruel. Sometimes you need to show the upcoming danger happening to another sentient being. A good example of this is in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. Central to this story is the idea that all humans are intrinsically connected with their daemon animal. When Lyra, the child protagonist, finds herself trapped in a machine designed to severe the connection between her and her daemon, Pullman doesn’t simply tell the reader this is a very bad thing and ask them to take his word for it. No. He has already set the ground work. Not once, but twice. Earlier in the story Lyra has found a boy who’s had his daemon severed, and she sees first hand the terrible consequences, when the boy dies. Then, moments before she is caught and put into the machine, she overhears a conversation her mother has coldly detailing the severing operation and how the machine works. So when she finds herself trapped in the very same machine, the reader knows exactly how bad things could turn out.
If we want our readers to worry, we need to show them in no uncertain terms what will happen to our protagonists if they fail to overcome whatever devilish obstacles we’ve placed before them. That way they have to keep turning the pages, to make sure the protagonist escapes.
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