HOW-TO: Keep the pages turning…

May 20, 2013

Having just returned from delivering seminars in North Queensland to aspiring and emerging writers, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to share my writing journey with others and encourage them to follow their own writing dreams. I’ll post more about that next month after the final seminar in Brisbane. I was prompted to begin this ‘How-To’ series by some of the questions posed by participants at those events

The first question I will tackle is: ‘How do you create suspense?’

Conflict:  To create a page-turning novel, it’s important to give your main character a worthy problem. But it’s no good if your readers don’t care about Cheer Squadthat problem and can’t empathise with your character’s goal to solve it. Emotional connection with characters is what helps build the suspense as readers cheer them on to the finish line. How do you do this? Introduce the people we should care about early and show (not tell) us why we should care about them. Throw them into the middle of an insurmountable problem. Show us their motivation – there must be something at stake for the character. What do they have to lose? Give them flaws but show us that they want to change so they can achieve their goals. My newest character, Ricky Winger, is a down and out drunk at the start but once you share in his loss and suffering you will be rooting for him! 

Uncertainty:  Not knowing what will happen next is what makes a reader turn the page. If you give away too much backstory at the beginning then there is less reason for them to read on. Right from the very start, you can pose questions in the reader’s mind such as ‘who is this person’ and ‘how did they get into this situation’. You do this by putting the character in a scene that makes the reader ask questions, but you withhold some of the crucial information for them to be able to answer those questions. Set up as many questions as you can along the way then drip feed the answers by posing small questions that will be answered in the short term, and bigger questions that will not be answered until later on. Another of my new characters, Sol Ramirez, has a secret but she’s not going to reveal it all at once.

Insurmountable Odds:  Create impediments for your characters to achieve their goals. These can be external (physical disabilities, obstacles) or internal (psychological issues, personality traits) or both.  Ramp up the tension by throwing ever-increasing obstacles in the way that your characters need to overcome to solve their problem. This may include having to face their greatest fears, increased personal stakes, increased threats from villains, or inadequate solutions to their dilemma. In my latest novel, Cross Point, to save their kidnapped family members the characters have to cross the globe and take on treacherous terrain, while dealing with PTSD and agoraphobia, all while the clock is ticking!

Cliffhangers, Gaps and Hooks:  These are great tools for creating suspense to keep the reader hanging on. A cliffhanger is where we leave a scene at a Cliffhangercrucial point then move on to another scene involving different characters (we literally leave them hanging over a cliff). Leaving a gap between the cliffhanger and the resolution of that scene makes the reader want to keep reading until they get back to that cliffhanger to see what happens. These can be used at the end of chapters or between scenes within a chapter to build the suspense. Having two concurrent stories in my latest novel, Ricky’s and Sol’s, allowed me to switch between them easily. A hook is usually used at the end of a chapter. It poses an unanswered question that leaves the reader imagining or worrying about the character’s next move, and so propels the reader on to the next chapter.

Clues and Red Herrings:  Like backstory, clues should be withheld until the right moment to avoid the story becoming too predictable. Be sure to drip feed your clues throughout your novel. The number of clues and how much you give away will depend Red Herringon your genre.  In a ‘whodunit’ like my novel, The Ned Kelly Game, you might want to give only enough so that the reader thinks they have guessed the answer, but then alternate this with ‘false clues’ known as red herrings, so they are never quite sure.  You might also want to present your clues out of order to increase the mystery. In a ‘chase’ novel like Eclipsed, where the reader knows the answer but the characters don’t, you might give away more clues to the reader so they are always one step ahead of the characters urging them on.

Point of View:  Having a single point of view (ie. that of just the detective) creates a close attachment between the reader the character however it is limiting to suspense because we can’t see more than what the character knows.  That is to say, we can’t be in the minds of the other characters and know what they are thinking and feeling.  Using multiple points of view means we can cut away to scenes with other characters and know their motivations, which can create more suspenseful moments. If you use this method, take care to not overdo it and have too many point of view characters for readers to relate to – three to four is probably a good number and they should be supporting and not minor characters. When deciding whose point of view to use in a scene, a good rule to build suspense is to use the character with the most at stake. In Cross Point I use mainly the POV of the two protagonists, Ricky and Sol, but also some of the supporting family characters to show their background.

Pace:  After a week of back-to-back conference events in Hawaii, then plane-hopping to conduct writing seminars in North Queensland, I can tell you what it’s like to be constantly on the move. Exciting, but exhausting!  On reflection, this can be applied to a page-turning novel. While it’s very exciting to be in the middle of the action and not want to put the novel down, you do need to give your readers a little rest now and then. Mix up the pace with three types of scenes.

1)     Action – these are fast, dramatic and page-turning. Keep the events moving, the sentences short, the writing tight.

2)     Introspective – this is where things slow down a little to allow the characters to analyse, think and feel. The writing pace should be slower, sentences longer but still moving and emotional.

3)     Descriptive – the pace is static in these. Try to appeal to as many senses as possible to create atmosphere ie. sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch.

Spend some time considering how you can use these ideas to build the suspense in your novel.  Let me know how you go, or feel free to share any other methods you may use.

Lea

 

Comments

17 Responses to “HOW-TO: Keep the pages turning…”

  1. Rodolfo D.S Cabael on May 21st, 2013 8:55 pm

    Your “post” is much welcome by this 73 yrs. old novice. I’ve been working hard since September of last year in establishing my base camp – gathering and researching information about creative writing – before my ascent to my objective. My objective is not a goal. It is learning how to write fiction. I’ll impllement your technique and let you know the problem as I go along. If it’s alright with you. Thanks.

  2. Rob Bignell on June 2nd, 2013 10:00 pm

    Suspense occurs when the outcome for a character is uncertain. The more a reader is invested in finding out the answer to that uncertainty, the more suspenseful the story. In large part, suspense is enhanced by the building of tension.

  3. Kevin Cowdall on June 4th, 2013 4:35 pm

    I’ll tell you later…

  4. Icelema on June 6th, 2013 12:23 am

    You forgot DIRECTION – in the sense that there is a cycle that needs to be completed

  5. Barbara Morrison on June 12th, 2013 9:18 pm

    Great post and comments! I also like what I call the Chinatown Effect. We can learn a lot from films. The Chinatown Effect is where you drop a word or phrase in now and then without explaining it (“Chinatown”, “in Chinatown”). Only at the end, after the story has played out, does the reader understand (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”).
    Mystery writer Ian Rankin is a master at this technique. As a reader, I love the burst of satisfaction at resolving something I hadn’t even realised was lurking in the back of my mind. Have to be careful not to overdo it, though.

  6. Kathleen Schmitt on June 18th, 2013 3:19 pm

    Appreciated your description of creating suspense, Lea. One way I do it is to give the character a problem that s/he doesn’t understand. It has an external reality but also a deeply emotional connection internally. The character knows there is a big problem but struggles to clarify what it is.

    Best wishes to you all.
    Kathleen

  7. Cardy Raper on June 18th, 2013 10:16 pm

    Lea’s advice on how to build suspense and create a page turner is excellent. I’m trying to apply these techniques to a non fiction account of how a family of eight grew up on a poor tobacco farm in North Carolina in the early part of the last century and everyone of them left that farm to move on to other more lucrative endeavors. It has taken me years to figure out how to present this material in such a way as to compel the reader from one chapter to the next. The bulk of it comes from a recorded conversation amongst those siblings long ago. I want to use that conversation; it is in itself, full of humor, pathos, and touching sentiments; it conveys colorful ways in which a rural life without any modern conveniences, was lived back there and then and how, with the advent of technology, that began to change. I have rearranged the spoken words more or less by subject matter: hard work on the farm, religion, scandals, food preparation, education, communal activities, technological advances, introduced my own thoughts here, and there and tried to foreshadow. Of course backstories are built in. Any suggestions other than fictionalizing?

  8. Victoria Marie Lees on June 27th, 2013 1:02 pm

    Excellent tips, Lea. Thank you so much for these. I will be checking my stories using these criteria. And congratulations for your back to back conferences and seminars.

    I will follow your blog for future tips. ~Victoria Marie Lees

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Lea Scott