Page-turner is a term that is thrown around a lot, particularly by those writers who’re hoping to make money from their books. This post will look at what a page-turner is, why it matters, and how you can write one.
What is a page-turner?
A page-turner is, as the name suggests, a book where the reader can’t help but keep turning the page. They have to know what happens next. These are the books that readers devour, that they stay up until 3am reading and then tell all of their friends about.
Why would you want to write one?
The answer to that particular question was given in broad strokes above – because readers devour them. A page-turner drags your reader in and leaves them eager for more. That’s fantastic from an author’s point of view, because those same readers are far more likely to pick more of your books. They’re also more likely to recommend your books to all and sundry.
Now, there’s no denying that there is something of a stigma attached to page-turners within writing circles. They’re quite often thought of as being shallow and poorly written. When someone mentions page-turner they’re likely to picture something that’s action-heavy with cardboard characters and quite a few plot holes. That isn’t always the case, but there’s no doubt that that thought process exists.
There is a problem with that line of thought, though; a page-turner must grab the reader, and a poor-quality book can’t or won’t do that. There are many different types of reader out there, and while some of them do enjoy the action-heavy, character-light style, a lot don’t. That is to say that you don’t have to sacrifice quality to produce a page-turner. There are many beautifully intricate page-turners out there, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle being my personal favourite. The narrative is rich, the characters leap off the page, the prose is stunning, and the world bursts with life and colour.
Now that you have a better idea of what a page-turner is, and why you’d want to write one, we’ll look at exactly how to go about doing just that.
How do you write a page-turner?
As with most things relating to writing, there are two levels to this: the superficial, easy level, and the much more complex, intricate level.
On the surface of it, you need constant tension and conflict to write a page-turner. The reader should be on the edge of their seat. They absolutely must know what happens next.
Now that we have the superficial out of the way, we can explore the details.
The first thing is the pacing. You can’t afford to potter about and drag your heels with info-dumps and elaborate descriptions. Those things may look pretty, but they risk your reader’s attention wandering, and that’s the end of the line. If your reader loses interest or becomes bored, then you’ve failed.
This means you need a reasonably quick pace overall, but your reader needs time and space to breathe. If everything’s a whirlwind of ninjas and explosions, then it’ll become white noise because it’s more of the same. That reduces the impact, and you’re back into the “risking boredom” territory. Impact is what you’re aiming for.
Let’s return to the conflict concept. There needs to be constant conflict and tension. That doesn’t necessarily mean explosions or arguments. It can be internal or external, huge or small, but it should still be there. When you really break it down, this idea of conflict comes down to question and answer. You need to be asking questions and giving answers throughout the scene, the chapter, and the book as a whole.
Open with the simple question, ‘What’s happening here?’
This is done through some form of action that puts more questions in your readers’ minds. Important, exciting questions. Then give them some answers, but not necessarily answers to those questions that you’ve just posed. Say that you’ve opened it with someone squaring up to someone twice their size. The reader wants to know who the people are and how they came to be there. You give them an answer, the protagonist thinks that it would never have come about had it not been for that cursed werewolf.
Now the reader wants to know what happened with the cursed werewolf, as well as what’s going on with the people squaring up to each other. This is where you make them really care, you introduce your characters in a way that makes them come to life in your reader’s mind, while still posing questions and giving answers.
This continues on throughout the book. You should gradually build the overall tension and conflict, every scene building on those that came before it. The stakes gradually grow as the character grows until the big crescendo.
As this is a page-turner, it’s not quite enough to keep building the conflict. You have to time it and build it in a way that pulls your reader forward. Each scene, each chapter, needs to end with more tension and conflict. You have to have the reader wanting to know what happens next. Putting them in the ‘just one more chapter’ state of mind is your goal here. End the chapter with some form of revelation or question, then hook them again immediately with the opening line of the next. Don’t give them a moment or an excuse to walk away; there’s always that one more thing to explore, one more question to get answered, one more riddle to unravel, etc.
This means that you need to build your conflict on all fronts. You want to balance going back and forth between drama and action, world-building, and character development. Make those quiet moments where the reader is breathing count. Use them to continue building that conflict on other levels; perhaps the character is looking back over their past decisions in the face of a big decision in the plot. That then reveals a key point in their history and expands on their personality, it gives some answers as to why they said and did some things.
The sense of forward motion, of always moving towards something bigger, something more, is important. You’re always building to that big finale.
On a line-editing level, there is more to building the conflict and tension than the actual plot and emotion. There’s also the way that you choose to write the story.
Short snappy sentences during action will keep things moving forward. It’ll hopefully shorten your reader’s breath and completely absorb them. Longer sentences are good for moments of contemplation and pause. Allow those images and thoughts to stretch out in your reader’s mind. Think of it as the score of a movie. Listen to a soundtrack and see how the beats and rhythms are used to add something to the images and scenes on the screen. That’s the beat and rhythm you should be aiming for with your page-turner.
In short, a page turner is a book that hooks your reader and has them ignoring everything in favour of reading your book. They will devour it and tell everyone they know about it. To write one, you need a relatively quick pace with plenty of conflict. The conflict as a whole needs to gather and grow into a big final crescendo that has your reader gripping their seat and desperate to know that everything turns out ok. That means they should be firmly attached to your character, so don’t skimp on the character development. Conflict means nothing if they don’t care about the outcome. Finally, your sentence structure and word choice, when used well, act as your soundtrack. The beat and rhythm there should add depth and impact to the scene.
Really, a page-turner is a book with a damn good story, well-balanced conflict and breathing, and a reasonably quick pace. Simple right? 😉