What Makes a Novel a Page Turner?

James Scott Bell

When you get right down to it, what is it that readers love most about the reading experience? I think it can be summed up quite simply. It is the emotional pleasure of being so engrossed in a story that they must turn the page to find out what happens next.

That means there is one thing your story absolutely cannot be, and that is predictable. To the extent that it is, reading pleasure is dissipated. This applies to any genre, of course. 
So one of your goals as you begin to craft a novel is to figure out ways to pleasantly surprise the reader. For example, you avoid creating flat characters. You give us rounded characters, which E. M. Forster described as being able to surprise us in a convincing way.
Another way you create the page turning effect is through the element of mystery. Not just something you find in a whodunit. No, it’s well beyond that. The skillful withholding of information is one of the best things a novelist can learn to do.
Especially in the opening chapters. My rule for openings is to act first, explain later. This simple guideline will greatly increase the readability of your first pages, and even beyond. Leave mystery inherent whenever possible and explain things only progressively. Drop in hints and actions that make the reader wonder, “Why is this happening?” or “Why is she doing that? Feeling that?”
Pull the reader along with unanswered questions, saving final revelations until well into the book.
Our own John Gilstrap does this masterfully in his novel At All Costs. In Chapter One, we see Jake Brighton, by all accounts a highly competent body shop manager for a Ford dealer. He’s going about his business when a heavily armed team of Feds busts in and arrests him. As he’s handcuffed and on the floor:
He fought back the urge to sneeze and tried to make the pieces fit in his mind.
We’ve been so careful.
Careful about what? Gilstrap doesn’t tell us. Not until the final line of the chapter:
He wondered if he and Carolyn still owned the tops slots on the Ten Most Wanted List.
Whoa! Another question raised: What could this outwardly normal and hardworking man have done to be at the top of the FBI list?
Again, Gilstrap makes us wait. For almost a hundred pages. As Jake and his wife Carolyn try to escape town with their thirteen-year-old son, putting a long-ago plan into effect, we are drawn further in by the mystery of their background. (In a nice twist, not even the son knows what his parents have done).
It is only when the chase is on that Gilstrap reveals their hidden secret. By then we care for these people and we are hooked by the action.
Here is an exercise that will pay tremendous dividends for you: Go through the first five thousand words of your manuscript and highlight all the material that is explanatory in nature, that tells us things about the character’s past.
Then step back and find a way to withholdthe most important information. I believe in a bit of backstory up front to help us bond with a character, but not in giving us an entire life history. It’s a judgment call, but that’s what this writing craft is all about. This exercise will help you make an informed choice.
For example:
Rachel had never been the same since her daughter, Tessie, died at age three.
Obviously, this is a major piece of information about Rachel’s emotional state. Instead of coming right out and telling us about it, consider showing us something about Rachel that indicates the trauma without revealing its source. For instance in a restaurant scene:
Rachel reached for the teapot. And froze. The tea cozy had a flower pattern on it, the same one––
“What is it?” Mary asked.
Rachel opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. She noticed her hand trembling in mid-air. She withdrew it to her lap. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Would you mind pouring?”
Only later will it be revealed that the last time Rachel was with Tessie they’d had a “tea party” with a set that looked exactly like what is on the table at the restaurant.
Look for opportunities to keep readers wondering what the heck is going on––in plot, in character emotions, and in the world of the story itself. If you want to see a master at work on all three levels, read Rebeccaby Daphne du Maurier, or see the film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Think back on some of your favorite novels. Do they not contain this essential element of mystery in the opening chapters, and even well beyond?
Note: the first part of this post is adapted from The Art of War for Writers

21 thoughts on “What Makes a Novel a Page Turner?

  1. ya good advice. Ha Dan Brown did that throughout Davinci Code. You’re always wondering what happened at that gathering the girl walked in on.

    Also, the whole mystery thing is basically the structure for the Harry Potter books.

  2. Continuing to raise the bar, as always, Mr. Bell.

    Thank you.

    Love my copy of The Art of War for writers.

    Steven James is a master at this with his Patrick Bowers series – unanswered questions, tensions, promises, and then payoffs.

    That single sentence at the end of the chapter that makes you go, “Hmm…gotta see what happens next.”

    Alexandra Sokoloff names it ‘the curtain’ – what gets the audience to come back in after intermission.

    Do those come organically to you, or do you find that when you revise your first draft you rivet up the tension then?

  3. Great stuff, Jim. In such a concise & entertaining manner, you packed tons of tips into this masterful post.

    Now I’m off to read my first 5000 words. Thanks for the homework assignment.

  4. The Virgin of Small Plains does this so well, piling question upon question in the first eight chapters that I almost felt like I couldn’t breathe.

  5. LIke the advice. It’s easy to add too much information without even realizing it. I’m getting my highlighter out, my coffee ready, my fireplace on and starting on the first 5000 words. Nice Sunday project.
    I often ask my early readers to look if I’ve added too much too soon. Helps to have someone else check.

  6. A friend of mine was just impressing the importance of this on me this week.

    Another thing withholding this info does is unify a story – it provides a throughline through several episodes that keeps the reader guessing. And it looks like one novel more than a series of shorts.

  7. Thank you for the nice word, Paula.

    Do those come organically to you, or do you find that when you revise your first draft you rivet up the tension then?

    Both, really. I plan for those page turning chapter endings (I call them ROPs — Read On Prompts). But in revision I’m also looking for way to ramp up the tension, throughout the novel.

    In fact, I have a whole book coming out in January on that subject, called Conflict & Suspense

  8. Happy revising, Jordan and Kristina! It’s always nice when you have a plan for edits and see it realized.

    Sam, thanks for the recommendation.

    Suelder, that “through line” idea is very important. Thanks for mentioning it.

  9. Excellent as always and I am posting this in a writer’s group to entice them to come here.

    I had posted the first page of a WIP and when I saw it in a different format (Facebook doc) my first thought was, “That last paragraph was too much, it needs to be moved to Act II.” Little did I know that at the same time, a pro friend was writing me a rather scathing note telling me the same thing. The vote is unanimous, and it is toast.

  10. Being in the midst of the hardest project I have yet to tackle I’m taking this lesson to heart as I beat my head on the wall. For whatever reason my muses have been otherwise occupied lately and I am having quite a difficult time getting 3 dimensional characters to inflate to full size and to keep the easy flow of tidbits of revelation flowing easily.

    Sigh…your advice is good. Perhaps it is just what I need before I run out of head banging on wall space.

    in the meantime, if you want to win a Kindle, an award winning audiobook, and to get a free ebook go to http://www.basilsands.com and sign up!

  11. Great article! I like to learn about the characters in a book or movie as you would in real life, when meeting someone for the first time–a little at a time–wondering early on what makes them tick, or what in their past makes them react the way they do. So…this is how I attempt to write. 🙂
    Melissa Murphy

  12. Taylor Napolsky mentioned the Harry Potter books earlier–those were some of the first books that made me realize how much planning needed to go into a novel to make foreshadowing and mystery a success.

    I like that exercise you suggestd about highlighting the material that’s explanatory in nature, and changing it up to heighten interest.

  13. Greetings from Senegal. Thank you all for creating this community and sharing all these useful tips.

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