What makes a novel a page turner? How do we, as writers, know we are keeping the reader engaged? Is there some magic hocus-pocus or formula, or do we just hope and pray our stories are so engaging the reader can’t put it down? Too many books fail, yet even the bestseller list doesn’t always deliver books that keep us turning pages. Is it just a subjective phenomenon? There are many answers to this, but I would like to explore one of many angles.
We writers are a nervous lot. We can’t keep from writing but we fear what we write is not good enough, that readers will laugh at our make-believe worlds and close the book, that we’ve wasted our time, that our “sweat equity” was all for nil. After all, we aim to entertain, to garner an audience, to make some small impression in sharing a bit of our soul. Thus, what makes a book tick?
When a reader admits they were glued to the pages, that’s “music to a writer’s ears” and can be a very humbling experience. It validates all those hours behind a computer, exercising a precarious imagination and nimble fingers.
Again, what wields a book into the page-turner category? Is it an accident? Does the writer just get lucky? Or could it be something entirely simplistic like the writer beginning with the bare bones of a story arc minus the dreaded, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph story outline?
When a writer takes a journey, he sets out on a fantastic trip, and like a vacationer, the writer has has two options. Plan a detailed itinerary or be adventuresome.
The first option—scheduling: Outlining every minute of every day, where even lunch and dinner are preordained, a vacationer knows exactly what to expect. Yet, having no wiggle room or spontaneity actually fosters boredom. There is no excitement in knowing exactly where a person is going to be every given moment. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes may be new, but the experience has lost spontaneity and eliminated little to no new discoveries.
The second option—spontaneity: Having a flight plan, a hotel chosen, a car rental reserved and a list of possible activities can spawn the most anticipated trip of a lifetime. Arriving at the hotel and browsing the lobby’s endless brochures on local sights and entertainment leads the vacationer on a mysterious, gripping adventure. As the day unfolds, so do surprises, but the best vacations are those without a rigid plan or a single idea of what is going to happen next, where choices are endless.
I believe the second version is one technique propelling a novel into a page turner. As a writer who sits down with a complete but rough story arc (all main characters and subplots organized), I let the scenes unfold by allowing my characters to initiate their own discoveries. They often come up with more intriguing ideas then I do! I take an unpredictable, detailed journey with them. It is still a journey held within the constraints of the plot, counting on life to happen with actions and reactions consistent with my characters' personalities. They work through their life-changing crises and eventually arrive back home. I allow my characters to surprise me, teach me, infuriate me, and live life learning from their own mistakes. Just like real life.