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. 😀