Writing Tips: 5 Tips for Building a Page-Turner
Recently I was a panelist at a conference for writers and readers. The four authors on stage were supposed to share, with a hotel conference room full of fans and aspiring writers, tips for keeping readers turning the pages. How does an author construct a plot that will entice someone to stay up another thirty minutes, reading in bed? How do you persuade someone you’ll probably never meet that the next chapter is more interesting than cruising social media, scoping the curated lives of friends? How do you create something more compelling than any of the ten thousand channels of streaming entertainment available everywhere, all the time?
When I mentioned that part of my process for plotting includes drawing the conflicts, another panelist asked if I’m a cartoonist. Was I doing story-board panels, the kind that movie directors use to lay out their shots?
“No,” I said. “I’m a recovering engineer, and I find it helpful to have flow charts and tables; I even use graph paper sometimes.”
This drew some chuckles from the back of the room and a few raised eyebrows from the other panelists. Apparently, it would have been less surprising if I’d said I used a Ouija Board to lay out plot.
Clearly my approach is not for everyone, but I’ll share a few tips. You’ll decide if any of this might be helpful on your journey.
- Conflict. All fiction arises from conflict. I start my doodling with plot ideas by drawing two big arrows on a page, facing each other, their points nearly touching. What forces or people are in opposition? Your first idea may wind up as a sub-plot, but you’ve got to start somewhere. In the category of “incredibly helpful book with a somewhat cheesy title,” we have Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel, which is chock full of thought-provoking advice. Zuckerman identifies some strong drivers of human behavior. To a) hide something, b) defeat something, c) overcome something, d) outlast something. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.
- The plot turns in on itself (another Zuckerism). I also think of this visually—there’s that engineering training again. Picture your two big arrows morphing into a swirl of multiple arrows turning around a central core. Great stories often have lots of overlapping conflicts. I’m thinking here of one of my favorite novels, True Grit by Charles Portis. Initially, you have fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross—one of fiction’s great and unlikely heroines—seeking to avenge her father’s death at the hands of “a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney.” Pretty soon you have Mattie in conflict with a horse trader named Stonehill, then with the incomparable Marshall Rooster Cogburn. When the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf shows up, Mattie locks horns with him. Mattie is also in conflict with herself, as she needs to stand up to these grown men, and at the same time win their cooperation. LeBoeuf gets into it with Cogburn, of course, and then the whole gang tangles with the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and, eventually, Tom Chaney. Each conflict is rich with possibility as these brilliantly drawn characters circle one another like prize fighters in a free-for-all.
- High stakes. If readers care about the characters, they’ll care about the outcome, whether it has earth-shaking implications or is important to only a few people. True Grit works through an array of high stakes questions. Will Mattie exact her revenge? Will the men help or exclude her? And finally, in the climax, will Mattie survive? High stakes doesn’t have to mean Armageddon; it can just be a bad outcome for one person. More than likely, it’s a conflict that the character cannot walk away from, for whatever reason.
- Revision: Because thriller plots are all about the twists and turns, I need a way to track who knows and does what when. I create a table with columns for a) chapter number, b) length of chapter, c) whose point of view, d) the date and time this part of the story takes place, e) the page in the draft and f) a brief synopsis of what happens in that chapter. I don’t write the story just to fill boxes, but the chart helps me keep track of what’s happening. If a character disappears for a third of the book, I’ll be able to see that at a glance and fix it early. High level revision, especially, is easier with this tool. If, during rewrite, you decide the protagonist learns the identity of her father in Chapter 10 instead of, as you initially planned, in Chapter 20, that will change everything in between. If a character has an epiphany in a revised Chapter 5, that will change whatever follows. The table lets me identify all these concerns by studying a single sheet, instead of re-reading three hundred pages.
- Kill your darlings. Stephen King is just one author who says you’ve got to be willing to cut stuff you love when it doesn’t serve the story, though “it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.” I got my own version of this advice from National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, who once told some of my students, “you’ve got to be willing to read what you wrote and throw away the last hundred pages.” I remember thinking, “This guy is nuts.” Years later I met Tim again at a dinner where I reminded him of his comments and confessed my initial reaction. He said, “Let me guess. You figured out I was right.” It’s a tough business, and of course you may not be sure what to cut and what to keep. With enough practice and feedback, you’ll develop your judgement muscle.
For some people, creativity comes from free-form association and dreaming. But it can also be the case that creativity arises within a structure, where resources are limited and where there is a process, a framework. There is no one approach that fits all; the good news is that one can try on different ideas and learn.
Ed Ruggero’s new book, Blame the Dead, is a mystery-thriller and the first in a historical fiction series set during the global calamity of World War Two.