How To Write a Page-Turner in One Easy Lesson

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.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

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9 thoughts on “How To Write a Page-Turner in One Easy Lesson

  1. Lorrie, you brought up two very useful tension-building techniques many writers forget to use: foreshadowing and foregrounding. Tension is great when it’s written into a scene, but it’s even better when we (the readers) know it is coming and can suffer anxiety about it along with the character.

  2. Thanks Lorrie. Really helpful :0)

  3. Foreshadowing and foregrounding, my, you got an interesting comment there to your interesting post, thanks for sharing your insight in what makes for suspense. The key here is that we all want to know how it ends, as you say, we want to see our dear protag with whom we’ve identified, manage to escape. As we would like to escape ourselves from danger…

    I believe the key here is psychological: you need to involve your reader, you want to somehow make him/her love your MC and identify with it. This is the crux. And MC has to be sufficiently “common”, with broad enough characteristics so that a lot of people are able to empathize, i.e. see themselves in that character. That’s why so often books that are bestsellers have women as an MC: after all, women are the biggest reading market and your chances to hit the best seller list is greater with a female MC.

    Yet, that’s not quite true, is it? Dan Brown has a male MC (his college professor)…and of course enough female characters around him to ensure his books will appeal to both sexes. And Dan Brown is particularly adept at writing page-turners…One way he does this is to have every chapter end as a cliffhanger, playing on the reader’s worry over the characters’ safety – which of course, goes back to what you’re saying. But he repeats this “worry” in every chapter, he harps on it and that system works wonders!

    • I so agree, all the danger in the world won’t matter if the reader doesn’t empathise with the main character(s), although I’m not sure the character has to be the ‘same’ as them. There are many ways to evoke reader sympathy, but that is a whole other blog post.

  4. Patrick Maher says:

    Anthony Horowitz is a master of the craft – his success establishes that. However, he is very hard to nail on the skills he employs as a master craftsman. I would sit at his feet for hours in the hope of standing on his shoulders to gain a real insight into how he sets about the blank page. Is it possible to get him to speak as a real teacher of the craft of writng and not just the voice a hyperactive enthusiast? Are you aware of any such interviews or craft tools developed by him?

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