Sunday, 2 October 2011

How to write a page-turner

A couple of days ago a reader put  review of my book on titled 'Better than Dan Brown...' Well, obviously I was chuffed, but it was partly because I read the Da Vinci Code while I was writing my book The Eden Paradox, and did borrow a few tricks from the much-celebrated (by readers) and much berated (by writers) author. It was also an interesting comment because although my book is a science fiction thriller, unusually it has an ancient religious sect (the Alicians) as a main player in its theme.

Since many other readers have told me (a) they don't normally read SF but liked this book, and (b) it's a real page-turner / can't put it down, I figured I must be doing something right. So, here is what I do, with some examples from the book and its sequel (Eden's Trial, due out before Xmas). All of them occur at the end of chapters, since that is the point at which a reader is most likely to put a book down.

Basically, a page-turner requires suspense, which must eventually be satisfied for the reader. For example:

As he crossed one of the myriad pedestrian bridges in underground Sylmar, Micah felt his neck prickling. He spun around, sure someone was behind him in the shadows, watching him. It wasn’t that late, and usually there were more people around, but not tonight. The lights were dim, and all he saw was a stray cat; but the cat was looking in the same direction as Micah, towards a closed street booth that sold coffee and snacks in the daytime. Micah waited half a minute to see if anyone emerged. No one did. He carried on, quickening his pace till he arrived at his door. Some distance behind him, a cat shrieked as if in pain. He had the prickling feeling again, but didn’t turn around. He fumbled with the lock, slipped inside his apartment, and double-locked the door. 

So, given that the first chapter is called 'Assassin', you get the idea: Micah is in trouble.

But you have to care about the characters, too, otherwise who cares if he get's whacked or not? Besides, maybe something good is about to start on the TV... The easiest way to do this is to have 'sympathetic characters', who are basically unassuming, modest, faulted characters (aka known as 'like us' normal people), who find themselves in difficult situations. Add to this some secondary interest, say, a love interest which is a one-way street and the other person doesn't even see you, and the reader can be hooked by both the plot and wanting to know if 'he's gonna get the girl...' Here's an example of just that: four astronauts (one female, Kat) are on their way to Eden, but they've just found out there is a stowaway on board: a legendary genetically-engineered warrior known as a ghoster. This excerpt is in Pierre's point of view - note that the POV chosen is neither the Captain's (Blake) who is heroic, nor Zack's, who is stoic and very tough; instead Pierre's head is the reader's reference point: Pierre is the slightly nerdy science officer who had a domineering father and has a terrible record with women.

Blake got up and ripped the seal off the weapons locker at the back of the cockpit, grabbed a pulse pistol and checked its charge. He passed one to each of the others.
Pierre felt his own fear rising. "You killed one, in Kurana Bay, though the records are vague."
Kat cradled her pistol. "How many were you when you met the ghoster?"
"Twenty," Zack answered, priming his pistol. It emitted a low start-up hum. "A full platoon of experienced soldiers."
Pierre swallowed. He was a scientist, he’d never seen any actual combat. He thought the next question, even as Kat asked it.
"How many of you came out?"
"Let’s go," Blake said, heading out, Zack right behind him.
Kat fumbled with her pistol, arming it. She glanced up at Pierre. "We’re so screwed." 
If he’d been someone else, he’d have held her, comforted her in some way. He glanced down at his own pistol – he wasn’t much of a soldier, certainly no match for a ghoster. His brain – that was the only weapon he had that could be of any use right now. He hurried after Blake and Zack. Think, he heard his father say, smacking the dining room table, think fast!

Notice also the dialogue, how the characters don't quite answer each other - something we do in real life all the time, by the way, but the reader can fill in the blanks (only Blake and Zack survived the ghoster attack in Kurana Bay), but this engages the reader, making her/him part of the crew, about to survive or die trying.

The reader can also sympathise with bad characters - up to a point. The one in the following section from Eden's Trial is a real bad-ass, out to kill the hero, but she has troubles of her own, namely an alien artifact called a Hohash which keeps attacking her on the gigantic ship which she pilots alone, having just lost her lover. The Hohash is banging on the metal shield door.

“More hide and seek?” She shouted through the door. “Okay, we’ll play again soon.” She recalled how it had chased her, she moving wildly to avoid its savage side-on thrusts, until she managed to reach the Regen-lab where she’d been reborn. By that time she’d been crawling, with a broken femur and fractured arm, not to mention concussion and haemorrhaging inside her leg. She didn’t know why it hadn’t taken its opportunity there and then to crush her neck or head, but the ship had intervened, extruding a metal skin door in a millisecond, sealing her safe in the lab.
Two weeks of accelerated healing. During which time Micah had eluded her again. She’d not seen the Hohash since that day, but she heard it haunting the corridors often enough.
Where are you headed, Micah? She called up the nav-charts, and located the nearest Grid Station. Too close, and too small – they’d need anonymity now. She picked a minor hub, six transits from Micah’s previous location. She zoomed in to the hub’s alien manifest. She smiled. Perfect.
The door bashing intensified, like a drum beating out a dervish. She heaved her hand-made high intensity thermal cannon onto her good hip. She aimed it at the door, and flicked the ignition on. Molten flame dripped from the tip of the muzzle. “Coming.” She slammed her good hand down on the door release.

Bad characters can be sympathetic if they have difficulties they overcome through sheer will of resolve (her injuries, her loss earlier in this chapter), and if they have style (in this case through her dialogue to the artifact, whose intentions are uncertain - e.g. why didn't it kill her when it had the chance?). Will she find Micah and kill him (she thinks he killed her lover, which is untrue)? Will she outwit the Hohash? Will it kill her? 

The 'cliffhanger' is the most obvious device for a page-turner but can't be used too often (as I felt it was in the Da Vinci Code) as otherwise the reader feels (rightly) manipulated. Here's a literal cliffhanger moment from The Eden Paradox, again in Pierre's point of view. He is about to abseil down a cliff, following Blake, inside a massive cave. There is no lighting as their torches have run out, and he has goggles which recorded the geography of the cliff and cave in the last moments of light - which means he cannot see anything which changes, and an alien has just entered the cave:

Pierre counted to twenty, attached his own auto-descent system to the wire, and replaced his goggles. He backed toward the edge. He thought he heard something, a distant rumbling, coming from the entrance. Uselessly, he looked toward it, but of course the goggles could show no movement. He leant back, bent his knees, and kicked off, propelling himself away and down the cliff-face.
            A shrill electronic whine, rising in tone, made him misjudge his descent, and his knees smashed into the cliff face, stinging with pain – the motion detector had sensed something approaching, fast. The whine was drowned out by the creature’s roar, and it felt to Pierre as if the whole chamber vibrated. He pressed the freefall button on his harness and dropped faster, but was suddenly yanked upwards. Pebble-sized rocks pummelled his head and shoulders.  
            "Cut the line!" Blake shouted from below.
            In disbelief Pierre looked upward and saw nothing, then raked his goggles down and managed to switch on his torch – the creature was hauling him up. He could see its trapezoidal head, the blood red breathing slits writhing on its black-blue face. The creature’s  roar made Pierre’s hands freeze, clinging to the cord.
            "Pierre! CUT – THE – LINE!"
            He rose rapidly in jerks, a metre at a time, the creature’s forelegs feverishly pulling up the line, like a spider reeling in a fly. Pierre could hardly breathe, as his right hand flailed behind him groping for the knife. His head bashed against the cliff face knocking his torch from his left hand as he tried to protect himself. He knew he had only a few more seconds. His outstretched right hand fingers brushed across the hilt and he gripped it with all his might. Another yank pulled him up almost to the ledge. With a yell not far short of a scream, he whipped the knife above his head and severed the line, feeling a gust of air as a claw lashed past his face. He freefell, hurling the knife sideways so he could lock his elbows around his neck and head, the creature’s howl of fury chasing him as he tumbled into the darkness below.

Note how Blake shouts what the reader wants to: "Cut the line!" But Pierre freezes, as we probably would too, then manages to do it just in time - but even before we can breathe a sigh of relief, we realize that he is now falling...

Of course it could have been written like this:

Pierre was abseiling down a cliff when the alien started reeling him upwards. He was very afraid. Blake told him to cut the line. What a really good idea, thought Pierre. He did so. Oops, he thought - now I'm a bit screwed.

You'd put the book down, right? I would.

Killing off a hero is a difficult thing to bring off as a cliffhanger or page turner, because there is sadness, and the reader wants to put the book down to come to terms with it. It is a dangerous device for a writer. But it can be turned around. Here is an excerpt from the prologue of Eden's Trial. One of the heroes of Book One (yep, a trilogy is also a form of page-turner, let's call it a 'book-turner') has just been vented into space by one of the female baddies trying to kill off humanity. For sure he's going to die this time. But I don't waste it, or make it sentimental, and nor does he (which is true to his character).

As he tumbled into space, he knew he had only a few remaining seconds of consciousness. As the minute quantity of air in his lungs expanded to bursting, he let out a space-silent yell of rage. He squeezed his eyes shut to protect them as long as he could, suppressing needle-like pains as nitrogen flashed out of his bloodstream into his joints, competing with the grinding ache from his bloating limbs. The naked glare of the sun slammed into him, searing his face like a whip with each turn of his somersault. None of it mattered anymore. As his body convulsed, venting blood at every orifice, he choked off the idea that she might be right about humanity. Instead, he willed his last thought out into the void: Prove her wrong, Blake. You and Micah can do this. Wherever you are, for God’s sake, prove –

He's not thinking about his wife or his life (in fact he does this earlier in the chapter when he realizes she is going to kill him). It makes the reader think what they might have thought in such a moment, but whatever that may be, the reader recognizes the sacrifice this man has made, and wants Micah and Blake to fulfill his last wishes.

Notice the details in all of these end passages from chapters. These particular details are based on NASA's website about what happens to a human body in space. For any page-turner passage, there should be sharp details - visual, aural, tactile - so the reader is brought sharply onto the surface of the scene.

A shift in a character (good or bad) we know can also be a compelling and more subtle page-turner, because we want to know what they are going to do next. In fact, a book in which characters do not change at all is usually not a page-turner. We often wish we could change in some way, and so we like to read fiction where people are pushed enough that they finally do. In this scene from The Eden Paradox, near the end of the book, Jennifer, who has stayed in the shadows, supporting others, sits with  one of her mentors as he slowly asphyxiates, having been poisoned. Gabriel is her dead brother - she always looked up to him and followed him (a pattern which she repeated throughout her life with lovers/mentors until now).

           "Jennifer, you stay too much in the shadows. Now is your time. Hendriks will try to take control of the ship, but he is not a leader, and will vacillate. You must take charge. Take the data crystal from my neck, and the nano-sword." There was no breath left. He mouthed his last words silently. "You said you wanted it."
            His eyes glazed, and his neck went slack.
            She reached forward and closed his eyes. "And I was just getting to like you. Do you know how rare that is?" She took a deep breath. "Tell Gabriel I miss him, but I’m still in the fight." She snatched the data crystal from his neck, grabbed the nano-sword, and sprinted toward the ship.

We know she's going to confront Hendriks, and for the first time she will not be standing behind anyone else or acting indirectly. Isn't that something most of us dream about (usually someone at work or in some other social situation)?

Here's a good rule for writing a page-turner:

You don't write about an explosion. Instead, you show someone in the dark lighting a fuse, their shadowy features - someone the reader recognizes - lit by the crackling flame of the ignited match. You let the reader hear the sizzle as it takes fire, smell the acrid smoke, and see up ahead people laughing and joking at a party, oblivious to the bomb as the fuse snakes its way towards them...

Page-turners at the end of chapters are most important at the beginning of the book, and then the middle, and then the end (I'm not joking). I use alternating chapters - e.g. in The Eden Paradox, one chapter is on Earth, the next is on the spaceship bound for Eden. This allows for cliffhangers, e.g. in the excerpt above with Pierre ("Cut the line!"), there would be little point in stopping where it does if on the very next page it said: And then Pierre... So instead, the reader gets a chapter about Micah or Gabriel or Jennifer, and has to wait until the chapter afterwards to find out what happens to Pierre.

This means a complex plot, but then that is often the way of thrillers. As said earlier, however, the plot must be credible, or else the reader will feel manipulated and will disengage, often without knowing why (readers are not stupid or gullible). This means a lot of work up front by the writer on the plot and basic storyline, and then a lot of head-scratching about sequencing the chapters and events and story 'arcs' (sub-plots within the overall story).

There are other methods, some deeper and more subtle, like ellipses, echoes and resonance, and usage of chapter titles and first lines of chapters.

But I'll save these for another time...

The Eden Paradox is available digitally (Kindle, Nook, IPAD, I-Phone) and in paperback on,, and other outlets. Official paperback launch October 15th in London (see home page).

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