We’ve all read books that we couldn’t put down, that had us up into the early hours as we kept thinking, “Just one more chapter.”
It isn’t unique to a specific genre or a particular style of writing. All types of books can create this effect.
I think every fiction writer wants to hear a reader say, “I just couldn’t put it down.” But how do you turn a story into an unputdownable page turner?
Obviously there isn’t a secret formula (as if I’d tell you), but here are some ideas I had while pondering the imponderable.
The Killer Idea
Killer ideas don’t appear halfway through the first draft. It’s the thing that gets you to write the story in the first place. Obvioulsy it would be great if other people thought it was a good idea, but first you have to get excited about it.
I’m not saying you need to have it all worked out before you start. But you do need to be engaged and intrigued by what you’re writing about if you want anyone else to feel likewise.
An Unexpected Turn of Events
Once a reader thinks they know where things are headed things become less exciting. Predictable, clichés, familiar storylines, even when well written, aren’t very enthralling. You may find the retelling of Cinderella in the modern world very entertaining, but if it’s more or less following the classic story, are you going to stay up all night reading it?
Whatever you write, allowing the characters to do what’s not expected will add intrigue and interest.
This doesn’t mean they have to suddenly do weird, inexplicable things for no reason. But they don’t always have to do what they said they were going to do. They can change their minds. They can lie. They can have a devious plan. Or they can make a mistake.
There’s always room for more than one option. You don’t have to use it, but it’s worth exploring.
Characters who admit to things most people wouldn’t admit to are more attention grabbing. Characters who embarrass themselves, get caught in a lie, are responsible for a disaster, all make for excellent stories.
It’s not just that your character should be flawed, they should demonstrate that flaw, preferably in the most public way possible. People love to think, “Glad it wasn’t me.” Not just the other characters in the story, but also the people reading the book.
However, in order to make it feel like the real thing, you have to be willing to put a little of yourself into it. You can’t rely on the reader automatically relating to the feeling, you have to make them feel it.
There are of course some things that are easy to relate to. War is terrible, the death of a child is horrific, love is great. But the more general it is the more trite it will feel. You have to make it specific and authentic, and that can be quite painful for the writer.
That feeling you can’t stop, that you’re caught up in the flow of things and have to get to the end to find out what happened, is one of the best parts of reading. It’s exciting.
A story should have variation in pace, ebb and flow. But you should avoid bringing things to a grinding halt. Forward movement will keep the reader rolling along with the story.
In order to do this you first need a clear idea of where your characters are going. If it meanders about and every now and again bump into a plot point, it won’t feel like the train’s going anywhere interesting. And what’s more it will be very easy to get off at the next station.
Those are just some of my thoughts. What do you think makes an unputdownable page turner?