Some books keep you awake till the early hours, while others gather dust by your bedside. If you’ve read a book that captivated you, so much so you couldn’t summon the heart to put it down, and you often find yourself reading it well into the night, or turning to it the moment you find yourself alone, then you know a page turner. Most readers might agree that an engrossing book, a book that lets you get lost in it, is a jewel.
The dream of every author, we think, is to write a book that readers can’t put down. As an author, perhaps the biggest compliment you can get is to hear “Oh, I couldn’t get enough sleep, I was up all night reading your book!”. It’s an amazing thing that would make any author’s heart swell, but how do you author a page turner?
Many page turners are thrillers but they are far from limited to that genre. Nor are they defined by size: George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords (part of the A Song of Ice and Fire series) has over a thousand pages yet many readers were unhappy to get to the last one.
So, what is in a page turner? We might not be able to say definitively (who can?), but we can give you a few pointers to help you on your journey towards authoring one.
To captivate your reader, you must consider your narrative style very carefully. You’ll want to give fitting descriptions for most things but they should be of moderate length; too much description can be a huge turnoff for readers if it derails the story from the plot. But if you’re doing some significant world-building (for instance, in a mythopoeic work), or if the inviting feature of your story is centred around creating a particular atmosphere or mood, then your descriptions become central to your work; they become the key to absorbing your readers and pulling them into your work.
Also, through the narrative style, you should create tension by introducing character flaws. Let each character have their own strengths and weaknesses; let them have their own nature – so they won’t just be obscure figures in your story; they’ll come alive. Creating personal and interpersonal conflict – that is, tension within a character, and between two characters, or among several – will generate excitement, apprehension and anticipation. It’ll keep the readers going. You don’t want them tossing the book behind their couch, do you!
The use of suspense will always be a classic for keeping readers on their toes. You need to make your readers unable to predict the story. If they can, they’ll turn off. Conceal important information for as long as you can. Additionally, space out key plot points and bombshells. Drag tension in the story; let it mount slowly while you fit descriptions of the environment and the characters’ feelings in between. Here’s an example from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:
When he looked back he found that he was alone: the others
had not followed him.
‘Sam!’ he called. Pippin! Merry! Come along! Why don’t you keep up?’
There was no answer. Fear took him, and he ran back past the stones
shouting wildly: ‘Sam! Sam! Merry! Pippin!’ The pony bolted into the mist
and vanished. From some way off, or so it seemed, he thought he heard a cry:
“Hoy! Frodo! Hoy!’ It was away eastward, on his left as he stood under the
great stones, staring and straining into the gloom. He plunged off in the
direction of the call, and found himself going steeply uphill.
As he struggled on he called again, and kept on calling more and more
frantically; but he heard no answer for some time, and then it seemed faint
and far ahead and high above him. ‘Frodo! Hoy!’ came the thin voices out of
the mist: and then a cry that sounded like help, help! often repeated, ending
with a last help! that trailed off into a long wail suddenly cut short. He
stumbled forward with all the speed he could towards the cries; but the light
was now gone, and clinging night had closed about him, so that it was
impossible to be sure of any direction. He seemed all the time to be climbing
up and up.
Only the change in the level of the ground at his feet told him when he at
last came to the top of a ridge or hill. He was weary, sweating and yet chilled.
It was wholly dark.
‘Where are you?’ he cried out miserably.
There was no reply. He stood listening. He was suddenly aware that it was
getting very cold, and that up here a wind was beginning to blow, an icy wind.
A change was coming in the weather. The mist was flowing past him now in
shreds and tatters. His breath was smoking, and the darkness was less near
and thick. He looked up and saw with surprise that faint stars were appearing
overhead amid the strands of hurrying cloud and fog. The wind began to hiss
over the grass.
He imagined suddenly that he caught a muffled cry, and he made towards
it; and even as he went forward the mist was rolled up and thrust aside, and
the starry sky was unveiled. A glance showed him that he was now facing
southwards and was on a round hill-top, which he must have climbed from
the north. Out of the east the biting wind was blowing. To his right there
loomed against the westward stars a dark black shape. A great barrow stood
‘Where are you?’ he cried again, both angry and afraid.
In this excerpt, the writer takes his time to build up the tension; he keeps the audience waiting, keeps them anxious. And in between the tense dialogue, he fits in descriptions of the gloomy atmosphere. Before you read on, study the quoted paragraph again – slowly.
What’s a better page turner than a story in which readers cannot predict the next line of action from the characters? The answer is a story with plot twists. Feed your readers a red herring (a false trail). Let them assume that something is true, or that a particular character is guilty of a crime, then surprise them with a disclosure. For example, you can make all signs point towards Character A as being responsible for a theft. Put in subtle hints in his actions that make this seem true. But then when the moment comes, make a revelation showing that he was innocent all along. Be careful when using this device, though. Introduce layers and layers of signs and meanings, so that your plot will not eventually seem forced and convoluted.
An example of a huge plot twist is Harry Potter’s stunning realisation at the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. He finds out that the hitherto timid and stuttering Professor Quirinus Quirrell was actually the thief trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone, and that Severus Snape, whom he thought was trying to kill him, was actually protecting him and trying to stop Quirrell from getting to the Stone.
As you write your own book, don’t forget that plot twists do not have to be about crimes. They can be about anything. And you can start with simple ones, building up as the story goes, misleading the readers with every opportunity you get. But remember not to force this!
The above methods are just three of many that can be employed. Each writer has their own writing pattern, so while following these hints, also find out what works for you. The important thing is to let your creativity shine through. Let it guide you. And no matter what, ensure that it stands out!