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What Makes a Page-Turner a Page-Turner?

page-turnerThe page-turner is a subject on my mind recently because I have just finished reading Douglas Kennedy’s Temptation, and, as usual whenever I read a Douglas Kennedy book, I just kept wanting to carry on reading – just another page… just another page…

Kennedy does not write in a very specific genre, although you might call them psychological thrillers, and each story is very different.  However, they all deal with the trials and tribulations of being human, and in most of the novels I have read, he takes his main character to the depths of hell, and back again.  When you pick up a Douglas Kennedy novel you know you are in for a real roller coaster ride.

Interested in exactly what it is that makes the reader keep wanting to turn every page, even though they probably have other things to do, I have put down my thoughts on the subject, and identified eight important elements for the page-turner.

  1. Engagement with Character. Unless we are talking about the kind of thriller that is completely plot-led – and for my liking, does not ultimately satisfy, the most important element is how the reader relates to the main character.  Even if you don’t particularly like the main character (e.g. Never Saw it Coming by Linwood Barclay), you must have interest in them.  They must be real in that they are neither completely perfect, or so awful that the reader doesn’t give a damn what happens to them.  They are flawed, but interesting.  How do you make a character interesting?  Give them a back story, make your reader understand how they came to be who they are, and give them needs and desires they aspire to and have not managed to acquire yet.  If the reader can relate to the main character, then the reader will want what they want, and ready to ride that emotional roller-coaster with them.  Perhaps one of the best examples is Scarlett O’Hara.  She may be a spoiled, self-centred and selfish little madam, but she fascinates us, and we love reading about her.
  2. Laying Breadcrumbs. A page-turner does not need to leap into dramatic action straight away.  In fact, in Kennedy’s Temptation, the real drama, where the proverbial manure really does hit the fan, doesn’t happen until more than half way through the book.  How on earth does he keep you avidly turning the pages until then?  Well, it is in the laying of what I call breadcrumbs.  Little clues sprinkled about in the early parts of the story that all is not well.  The main character may well be unaware of these little clues – in fact, it’s more satisfying when they are not!  You, as the reader, know something is not quite right: a shady character here, a dubious decision taken there, a strange episode that is seemingly random, but you know will come back and hit you later on.  It can be subtle; perhaps a gentle hint that a character holds some secret, or is not all that he seems.  All these little hints and clues – not always obvious – will, if the writer has done it well, give the reader a sense of unease, a feeling that something is going to happen any minute now…. so that, when the drama really starts, they will say, ‘Ah, yes – of course!  That makes complete sense now!  So how is he going to get out of this one….?’
  3. Secrets and Conflicts. This is really part of the laying of breadcrumbs I have discussed above.  Conflict is one of the most important elements of any story.  Without it, you do not, in fact have a story.  In a page-turner, conflicts are the bedrock of setting up a need in your reader to want to read on, to see whether and/or how they get resolved.  Secrets are extremely effective in keeping you turning the pages.  For example, other characters in the story have a secret that your protagonist doesn’t know about, but needs to know about.  Or, the main character has a secret which would be explosive if known.  Of course, it’s going to come out at some point, and don’t we all want to know what happens when it does?  The book I am currently reading (Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann), set in the 18th century, has just this element.  One of the main characters, a gentile, naïve young lady, is now married to someone who, unknown to her, is a cardsharp, the son of a whorehouse owner and known amongst some very shady circles in London.  Oh boy, I can’t wait for the young lady to find out just who she has married….
  4. Cliff Hangers. More obvious, this one.  We all know about the cliff hanger, also known as ‘the hook’, whether it’s the end of a chapter in a book, a scene in a film, or the end of an episode of Eastenders, that dramatic scene, or even just a last, dramatic sentence, where the characters have arrived in a tricky or even life-threatening situation, and all you want to do is read the next chapter or watch the next instalment to see how they get out of it, or how they react.  As long as the readers are engaged in the characters, this is what will make them read on.
  5. Development of Main Character. This is not just limited to page-turners; it is, I think, essential to any good story, but particularly so in a page-turner.  Why?  Because if the hero of our story is human and therefore flawed, as they should be, then we want to see them learn from their mistakes and grow and develop.  This is one of the great satisfactions of the good story.  And often it is what the character has learned that saves them in the end.  Alas though, Scarlett O’Hara learns all too late that Rhett Butler was the man for her (I read it at a tender age and was inconsolable for a week), but in the book with a happier ending, it is extremely satisfying when the protagonist has perhaps learned that all his/her problems are his own doing, or is able to put the past behind them and move forward – or whatever message it is that the writer is trying to give.  One of the reasons that we keep turning the pages is that we want to see that development, and how it happens.
  6. Keep the reader waiting. It is no good setting up a hook, or a hanging thread early in the story, only to satisfy it too soon.  That is how Kennedy manages to keep you reading all through the first half of Temptation, while he builds up the story, laying down little episodes and questions that need answering, but not answering them.  You know they will make sense, or be answered at some point, and if you just keep reading you will find out the answer. Those trails of breadcrumbs I mentioned above should be long ones.   Or, while your main character is hanging by his fingernails from the cliff (metaphorically speaking, mostly), you might move over to another set of characters and see what they’re doing.  It is such fun, as a writer, to drive your readers mad with impatience!
  7. Pace. A page-turner should not all be in the fast-lane.  Some plot-led thrillers may be, if you like that kind of thing, but an in-depth, character-led novel which is too fast, can be an exhausting and ultimately shallow experience which leaves you dissatisfied.  A fast, high action, thrilling chapter, which perhaps ends on a cliff-hanger, is often best followed by a slower-paced chapter, giving exposition or back story.  This also builds up our knowledge of the characters in the book, and makes us understand them, and makes us care whether they get out of their predicament or not.
  8. 8. High stakes.  The obvious, most extreme kind of high stakes is the life or death situation.  Either your main character’s life is in danger, or someone they love is in danger.  But, as long as the main character has been well written enough for the reader to care very much about them, the stakes don’t have to be quite as high as that.  It could be their career that is at stake (as in Temptation), or whether or not they lose/get the girl/guy, or anything else that is highly important to the main character.  The higher the stake, the closer to the end of the novel should the resolution come.

Well, those are my ideas.  If you have any other ideas, please let me know.  Also, do let me know of any really good page-turners you have read in the comment box.