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

Writer, This is Your Job

by James Scott Bell

Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it? ” Tears started down her cheeks.

I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.

The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…

…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.

Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.

The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.

Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.

Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.

No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.

Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.

The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.

A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.

Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.

Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don’t worry about things you cannot control. Don’t grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.

Keep climbing the pyramid.

That’s your job.

P.S. Adapted from the forthcoming The Art of War for Writers.