WRITING A PAGE-TURNER
by p.m. terrell
My first fiction was based on a real-life trucking industry kickback scheme in which I turned evidence over to the FBI. Writing a fictionalized version meant my genre had been chosen for me; because there was no mystery as to who the bad guys were, it fell into the suspense category. It was a natural fit because my career prior to writing had been in the computer industry with a specialty in computer crime and computer intelligence.
But what I have found over the last twelve years of writing full-time is the same principles used to keep readers turning the pages in a suspense/thriller can be applied to any genre. For example, when I wrote my two historical books, Songbirds are Free and River Passage, I wrote them in the same style as my suspense—and they are still my most popular books.
Here are a few ways to keep readers turning the pages, regardless of the genre you write:
Begin your book in the middle of the scene.
In a time in which attention spans are becoming increasingly smaller, it is particularly important to grab the reader’s attention with your very first paragraph. You can’t do that if you begin by building scenes that won’t grip them until much later in the book. You have to demand their attention immediately—and hold it.
End each chapter with a cliff-hanger.
A cliff-hanger is anything that causes the reader to want to move to the next chapter to see what happens next. I learned this by analyzing What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, which is not a suspense/thriller—but a book I could not put down until I had finished it. Every chapter ended with the build-up to the next chapter.
The first half of the book should aim at a pivotal mid-point.
I often see writers building their scenes to a climax that might occur 70,000 words into the story. But to avoid the middle sag that can develop in a full-length book, I always have two climactic scenes. One is in the middle and serves as an eye-opening pivotal point that causes the reader to sit up straight and realize that everything they’d read to that point was perhaps not what it seemed. From that point onward, it’s a roller coaster ride that never lets up. The end result, in creating that mid-point scene, is a first half that must happen fast in order to get all of the necessary components lined up—and a second half that is breathless.
The climax should be earth-shattering.
Because there is a jarring scene in the middle, the stakes are higher for a larger climactic scene at the end of the book in order for the reader to feel completely satisfied. That scene has to change the main character’s life in an earth-shattering way, and must also be strong enough for the reader to continue thinking about it long after they have set down the book.