Thursday, 12 April 2012

Knockout Storytelling


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.

Painful Truths
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.

Momentum
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?

48 comments:

Sandra Tyler said...

As my mentor over of over 20 years recently said to me, the story has to write itself. That is for great book anyway....

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for the checklist. A couple people told me my books are like that but I have no idea what I did right.
And be sure to stop by tomorrow, Moody!!

Donna Martin said...

Hi...I'm hopping over from the A to Z Challenge. Lovely blog...good luck with the challenge!

Donna L Martin
www.donasdays.blogspot.com

Cynthia said...

I came to your blog because Alex C. recommended it today. I like your ideas about writing and am following you now.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Thanks for all these great tips. I feel all these factors are very crucial for a good story.

A. K. Fotinos-Hoyer said...

Tension seems to be a huge motivator to keep reading. And that tension has to bridge between chapters. If there is a natural pause in the story at the end of a chapter, it becomes a very convenient place to stop reading for the evening.

mooderino said...

@sandra-i think a lot of thinking, daydreaming, musing and pondering goes on when you're not writing to make that possible.

@Alex-as if 'd missone of your posts!

@Donna-thanks for dropping by. Will be visiting yours.

@Cynthia-that Alex, he has great taste.

@Rachna-cheers.

@AK-Indeed.

Susan Roebuck said...

I'm going to pin your post into my Evernote to read very carefully when I have more time. A great protagonist (can be a faulty one too) is a way of hooking the readers as well.

Annalisa Crawford said...

I think my WIP has a killer idea, but I'm struggling with the unexpected turn of events - I know what needs to be done, but the specific plot twist is eluding me at the moment.

mooderino said...

@susan-good point. A cool MC is fun to be around.

@Annalisa-sounds like you're at the perfect spot for a bit of daydreaming. Find a sofa and put your feet up (it counts as work!)

J.C. Martin said...

Excellent points. Another way to keep readers reading is to end each chapter on a cliffhanger.

Saving this post for future reference!

Em-Musing said...

Hi, got to your blog by Alex also, I also write chapters with cliff hangars. I'd love to follow you, but don't see the link.

mooderino said...

@JC-true, a a moment of danger or an impossible choice can make for a great place to end a chapter.

@Em-it's in teh top right corner, but sometimes disappears. Just refresh (F5) or try the home page.

Sherry Gloag said...

Great post, thanks. I've been randomly picking blog posts each day and am delighted I visited you today. Thanks.

http://sherrygloagtheheartofromance.blogspot.co.uk/

Cecilia M. said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. Definetely a checklist I'm keeping. I enjoy a story when it takes a turn I wasn't expecting, and of course when they characters mess up abit. Show they are also humans and make mistakes. :)

Hopped over from Alex's blog. I'm so glad I visited your blog today.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

The magic bullet we all seek as writers. I know as a reader I've become more discerning and not every book does it for me. The most recent page turner for me was Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys - so intense.

kmckendry said...

Thanks for the great tips! Hopping over here from Alex!

Amy said...

Great post! :)

icedgurl said...

trekking your blog!!! I was trying to sign up for A-Z Challenge... Unfortunately, it is now closed... :_(

cheers!
..TREK..

Sara Hill said...

I think it's a combination of an intriguing main character and a cause-and-effect driven plot that makes you unable to put a book down.

Sarah Pearson said...

If I don't think my idea is the most exciting thing EVER, at least when I start, then I don't start :-)

Tasha Seegmiller said...

This is a great post. I had the idea for my WIP but found the creation of the characters took it to dimensions I never could have imagined. Found you through Alex - new follower.

Mina Burrows said...

These are excellent points. I have to go back again and rethink one of my books. Damn! Thx for the post. I'm following now. :)

mooderino said...

@sherry-glad you found me. kismet.

@cecilia-I enjoyed visiting your blog too.

@jaye-I feel more fussy as a reader too. All the better when I do find something that grabes me.

@kathy-my pleasure, just hopped over to yours.

@Amy-thanks.

@icedgurl-there's always next year.

@sara-cause and effect can really get a reader in its grip.

@Sarah-me too.

@Tasha- a good idea that gets better is just what you want.

@mina-thanks for the follow, following you back.

Tyrean Martinson said...

All of those and a compelling character which you touched on in the painful truths section. I think a truly compelling character goes beyong painful truth and gets under our skin, makes us root for them when they are down, and crow when they succeed.

mooderino said...

@tyrean-I think it's hard to make a character compelling just by wanting them to be, but if you get them doing interesting stuff it enables that side of them to come out and be seen. It's tricky because writers tend to see their characters as compelling already.

Lucy Adams said...

I love this post. You've spoken common sense that we commonly ignore because it seems so obvious. Thank you.

Happy A to Z,
Lucy

D.G. Hudson said...

Great image! A page turner needs compelling characters first, then a plot that will showcase the MC's ability to solve the problem or at least improve it.

A good story needs to have some purpose driving the action, mental or physical.

mooderino said...

@Lucy-you're welcome.

@DG-some emotional connection also helps.

Julie Daines said...

Another one I'd add is keeping the MC's main object of desire front and center. I think this goes along with momentum. If the reader is invested with the main character and their goals and motivations, they will turn the page whether it's a cliff-hanger chapter ending or not, just to see if the main character gets what they want in end.

Nicole said...

I love reading these types of stories! Writing one...well, that takes work. For me, I strive for intriguing characters, high personal stakes and a quick-paced, surprising plot. :)

Paula Martin said...

When several people left reviews for my novel saying they 'couldn't put it down' and that it was a real page-turner, I decided I must be doing something right!

Elise Fallson said...

Great list, great post. For me, humor and jaw dropping events keep me hooked!

Tracy Jo said...

Unexpected turns and painful truths are exactly what I love. When something is so honest it hurts and you have to look at it, face it...love that. Being surprised and wondering where the next page will go...the best! Found you over at Alex's place. Looking forward to following you!

mooderino said...

@Julie-I often read wip where teh protagonist seems not that bothered with their goal. Doesn't make for a gripping read.


@Nicole-seems a lot easier wehn somebody else has done it!

@Paula-maybe one day somoene will say that about my book (if I ever finish it).

@Elise-a good jaw drop always helps.

@Tracy Jo-And I you.

Nate Wilson said...

I was going to say superglue, but that only accounts for "unputdownable," not "page turner." Pretty much what you need is a combo of what you've detailed above. Unexpected turns, complex (especially duplicitous) characters, and just a hint of what's to come. Also, you need some sort of mystery. Not necessarily in the traditional sense, but some unknown the reader wants to have known. Then, mix all the ingredients, bake for 45 minutes at 400 degrees, and you're golden.

mooderino said...

@Nate-anyone else suddenly feeling peckish?

Daisy Carter said...

Excellent post. I love the hangover I get the morning after I've stayed up too late to read a book all night! I hope my books one day make people pull all-nighters. Great tips like these will get me there!

New follower!

mooderino said...

@daisy-you and me both, hopefully.

Patricia Stoltey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Thompson said...

-Being swept into an unfamiliar world
-Unforgettable characters
-What happens to them must be unusual, dramatic & meaningful
-It alters the way you see the world
-It has a message

I wrote my A to Z post on a very similar topic today The KEY ingredients for a breakout premise: Plausability, Inherent conflict, & originality

Great post, Moody! And congrats on being mentioned on Alex's blog today!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Sorry -- I had ugly typos in my first try.

You've pretty much nailed it...and you made me realize I haven't picked up a good page turner in months. I think it's time.

Patricia Stoltey

mooderino said...

@Nancy-thanks, it was a nice surprise.

@Patricia-I'm reading two really good books at the same time. Makes it really hard to know when to stop one and pick up the other.

Jolie du Pre said...

When I read The Da Vinci Code, I found that to be a page turner. The author took the reader just far enough to get them jumping into the next chapter.

mooderino said...

@jolie-mysteries and thrillers have an advantage when it comes to page turners, it's their whole raison d'etre. A good place to learn the technique.

See.Williams said...

Hey, still from the AtoZchallenge nice work here sure to follow you...Well done!

www.seewilliams.wordpress.com

Guilie said...

Great post, Moody--thanks for sharing! Intuitive insights all around. And thanks for the visit to my blog yesterday and your thoughtful comment--glad you stopped by :)

mooderino said...

@Charles-Hi, nice to have you here.

@Guilie-ooh, you're follower 666. Spooky.

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