The Secret To Page-Turning Fiction

There is no actual secret to page-turning fiction — writing instructors, editors, top-selling authors all know precisely what makes readers devour a story, and many of them have shared what they know in books and blogs and writing conferences. So it’s no secret.

Still, I’m guessing the title of this post brought a few visitors who wanted to be let in on the secret. Or maybe they wanted to know if I know the same secret they know. 😉

The point is, the title created a level of curiosity — which is, in fact, the “secret” we’re talking about. Worded another way, suspense drives readers to turn the page.

All kinds of stories can have suspense, not just crime drama or action/adventure. As a device in fiction, suspense is simply that which teases readers into wanting to know more.

When the star player of the hometown baseball team comes up to bat in the ninth inning, behind by a run, one man on base, two outs, and the first pitch is a strike, fans — and readers — hold their breath. The next pitches are two balls, then another strike, evening the count at 2-2. The visiting team leaves their seats in the dugout to stand at the railing or on the steps, ready to spill out onto the field to celebrate. But the next pitch is a curve ball in the dirt, and the count is full. The pitcher has gone as far as he can. He starts his windup. The audience rises to their feet, their cheers reaching a crescendo . . . because they all want to know, will their star player come through and win the game, or will he strike out?

That little scenario above shows a couple things about suspense. First, there must be a real and believable expectation of success accompanied by an equal possibility of failure. If the home team had been behind by ten runs, fans wouldn’t really care if their star player came up to bat with one man on. No matter what he did, the team would still be behind. At the same time, having two strikes against him increases the plausibility of his failure.

Suspense also increases when the outcome matters. If the above was an inter-squad practice game during the preseason, the suspense would be much less than if it was game seven of the World Series.

Games, contests, arguments, elections, legal action, and so forth have a build in element of suspense — both (or all) parties can’t win. Somebody is going to walk away celebrating, and somebody is going to walk away sad.

But any unknown, not just a head-to-head battle, can create suspense. In the case of the losing team in our little example, did they walk away sad or suicidal or as sore losers, tearing up the locker room before they boarded the bus for the airport? Did the players blame the coach and look to get him fired? Did they turn on the pitcher who gave up the winning home run? Inquiring minds want to know, and will keep turning pages to find out.

The surefire way an author creates suspense, then, is to withhold information. It seems counter intuitive to writers who are starting out because our job is to tell the readers what’s happening, isn’t it? Yes, but not all at once. Some facts suggesting that there is more to come keep readers wondering, guessing, and most importantly, reading.

Suspense will not work, however, unless the important elements have been properly foreshadowed. Readers will not worry about the villain shooting the hero if he has no gun, so showing Mr. Bad Guy arming himself, introduces the possibility of a life-and-death struggle. Now readers want to know what’s going to happen with that gun.

Of course, it’s better to think outside the box and build suspense around something that readers haven’t encountered with great frequency. Predictability reduces suspense because readers, having recognized the situation, won’t have the same level of curiosity.

So, from page one of your manuscript, what questions are you creating in your readers’ minds?

Why is the protagonist despondent? Who is that woman he writes an email to every morning before going to work? Why does he delete it instead of sending it? Why did her boss fire her? Who can she trust? These are the kinds of questions writers should tease readers into asking as opposed to giving out the answers up front. When the answers do come — and they should — a new question should step into the gap. Then readers will keep turning those pages because they just have to know.

Oh, if you happen to be wondering about our star player and what he did with a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, you can read a similar scenario in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.” Enjoy. 😀

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13 Comments

Filed under Suspense

13 responses to “The Secret To Page-Turning Fiction

  1. Rebecca, outstanding article. You’re right. It’s no secret but it’s the lesson we writers need to be reminded of. From the start, you showed as much as you told. The more I read, the more I write, the more this lesson of arousing curiosity comes to bat (from the first pitch to the last, it’s essential to good storytelling).

  2. Great post, Sheila! Thanks for the reminders. 🙂

  3. Thank you, Tom. Yes, the lesson needs to hit home, and sometimes examples are the best way to make the point. For me, it’s taken any number of reminders and critiques.

    Becky

  4. Hi, Elaine. I’d really like to meet this Sheila who wrote a great post. 😆 Just teasing. I know it’s easy to lose sight of whose blog we’re reading. I appreciate you stopping by and also taking the time to give your feedback.

    Becky

  5. Rebecca!! Can you tell I didn’t have enough caffeine?? I am so sorry. I knew it was you, just called you Sheila!!! (as in “Hollingshead”!) I love her blog too but yours is always one of my favorites! SO sorry, my friend! 😦

  6. Don’t give it another thought, Eileen. Heheheh. Just another tease; I couldn’t resist. Seriously, I’ve done the same kind of thing when answering comments on my personal site. Oh my! 😳

    And I appreciate the kind comments about this blog. Very encouraging.

    Becky

  7. Well, be encouraged. 🙂 And I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called “Eileen” in my lifetime!! LOL OK, so now I have to strain my brain and remember to call you, “Becky”…oh, the hu-MAN-ity!!!

  8. I can imagine!

    No worries if you don’t remember to call me Becky. I’ve learned to answer to lots of different names. 😉

    And thank you again for your kind words, Elaine.

    Becky

  9. Pingback: Links from Around the Writing World: Great Story | Scienda Editorial

  10. Terrific post. I’ll be sending my clients here to help them understand how to develop tension (and why opening a novel with a dozen paragraphs of description doesn’t fill the bill 😉 ).

  11. Thanks, Linda. I appreciate the feedback and am happy you find it helpful enough to recommend to others. Yes, we all need to learn at one point why all the description and backstory we think is so important for readers to know going into the story, actually isn’t — at least not at first. 😉

    Becky

  12. (Tangentially:)
    I see your “Casey at the Bat” and raise you a “Joy in Mudville” (short story by Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson, one of a series about the Hoka, a race of sapient teddy-bears who are “so imaginative that [they] could hardly distinguish between fact and fiction and rarely bothered,” in which the Hoka get a-hold of “Casey at the Bat”). 🙂

  13. Hahah! Good one, Jonathan.

    “Casey at the Bat” sparked a number of rebuttal pieces too, at least one about a rematch in which Casey comes out the hero. Seems like some people just can’t abide by an unhappy ending. 😉

    Becky

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