How to Write an Unputdownable Page-Turner in Seven Steps

Writers: follow these steps and keep your reader awake all night

How to write an unputdownable page-turner in seven steps

You’re a writer, or you want to be a writer. I get it. You don’t want to be a sell-out. You want to create something new. But no matter how innovative your story it won’t do you any good if you can’t get your reader to finish it.

It may be sad, but it’s reality, so sad isn’t relevant. Attention spans are shorter than ever. We’re bombarded by things that challenge our attention all day. Between our phones buzzing, the twenty-four hour media, and all our social media posts to keep track of, a story better hold our attention or we’ll never finish. Long, drawn-out prose has evolved-away to something more powerful.

There’s a solution and you can apply it to your writing.

Using simple psychology, you can utilize a series of principles, not only to keep your story moving, but make your reader late for work and stay up way past her bedtime.

The best compliment a reader can give you is “I didn’t sleep last night. I stayed up all night reading that damn book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What’s a page-turner?

This is a novel or story that’s so engaging the reader feels compelled to keep reading. This type of story compels the reader to talk about the story with friends.

A page-turner creates questions in our minds. We want to keep reading to uncover the answers. It’s all about questions. Our minds HATE unanswered questions. We crave answers and we’re willing to keep reading until we get them.

The page-turner recipe

  1. Open with a bang. You’ve got a minute or two. Avoid world-building and backstory here. You want the reader asking “What’s going on? Who’s involved? “Why is this important to the story?” What will happen next?” I write thrillers. I know if there isn’t a dead body in the first couple minutes of the novel I’ve failed. Open big, with the tropes for your genre.
  2. Release the thread slowly. If you give too much information too early you’ll answer all the reader’s questions. Your job is to plant question upon layered question and release the answers, measured, over the course of the book. If you dump most of the story by chapter two, your reader will predict the outcome and become bored — fast. A bored reader is a disappointed reader. We’ve all got stacks of TBR books. You don’t want your book at the bottom of that pile. It will NEVER be finished.
  3. End each chapter early. If there isn’t a tiny what the hell? at the end of your chapter, re-write it so there is. Build your chapter to crescendo, then cut it. This is hard to do. The main character opens the door, but we don’t see what’s on the other side. The gun goes off, but we don’t know if anyone was hit. Two characters go in for a kiss, but they don’t yet connect. Tease your reader almost to the point they’ll get angry at you for stopping. Remember, you want them to keep reading the next chapter. You want to make them late to work. The best compliment a reader can give you is “I didn’t sleep last night. I stayed up all night reading that damn book. I couldn’t put it down.”
  4. Delete the boring, self-indulgent parts. Writing can be very self-indulgent if we’re not careful. Re-read your scenes. Is this something you’d like to read when you’re pressed for time? Is the scene intriguing? Does the scene develop the story or the characters? Quick test: if you cut this scene would it effect the story at all? If no, delete, delete, delete.
  5. If it doesn’t propel the story forward, leave it out. This is especially true with dialogue. Conversations should remain only long enough to propel the story. We’re not catching-up with an old friend here. Fiction is not reality. That’s why we read it. If you mimic reality too close the story will be boring. Create movement and intrigue. Follow the thread. Don’t pad the pages.
  6. Write the shortest sentences necessary to deliver your point. Don’t use four words when one will do. Part of writing an unputdownable page-turner is getting to the point. You don’t have to write a short story, but your sentences need to be cut to the bone. White space is just as important as black space. Paragraphs should be short. Just write she ate an apple, instead of she bit into the best Golden Delicious the universe has to offer. The yellow apple was delightful. Unless your book is about apples, or takes place in an orchard we don’t care about the apple.
  7. The Hero’s Journey is your friend. We can debate whether or not the HJ is a cop-out or formulaic. But this is the story of the human condition. The path the HJ follows is timeless. There’s a reason all Disney movies and most other movies follow this format — it works. The path is intriguing. The HJ makes us care about the characters and we want to know what happens next. These are the core-values of the page-turner.

A page-turner is a choice

You can go rogue if you’d like. You can write the most-literary piece your fingers can type. But if you really care about your reader and you want to give her an experience, make it a good one.

Make your reader miss all her appointments.

Is it manipulative? Yes! It’s a story. You’re a writer. We’re manipulative. This is our duty. If we don’t manipulated the reader we haven’t done our job.

Wouldn’t you rather see all your late and tired readers leave comments in your reviews than the alternative “I’m still waiting for this book to get exciting…?”

We’re writers. Everything is under our control. Few vocations are allowed this privilege. We have a duty to our readers if we want to write commercially. Why not give them something they can’t wait to read when they get home?

Bonus: the master tip

Here’s an eighth way to build a page-turner. End the novel with a little something missing. With tiny cliffhangers, or hints of something more to come, you continue the page-turning madness between books. Netflix figured it out with binge-watching. You can do this too.

Full-on cliffhangers are 50/50. A lot of readers hate when a book stops unresolved. Remember, she may not pick up the next book years after the previous. We’ve all got plenty to read.

There are authors who write a deliberate, numbered series (like Harry Potter), where unanswered cliffhangers didn’t seem to hurt J. K. Rowling any. For the rest of us mortals it’s best to close the book, but leave a tiny cliffhanger to grab interest for the next book. You’ll make fewer readers angry with you.

What’s it gonna be?

Dedicating yourself to page-turners isn’t selling-out. It’s commercially smart. Wouldn’t you want your reader to consume your book in a couple days then buy the next one, versus slogging through your endless ramblings for months, hoping to read the good part?

I know what I choose.

We want your page-turner. We need your page-turner. The dentist can wait. Surgery? Who really wants surgery anyway? We want books we can’t put down. We want our family to stare at us and wonder if we’re alive. We want action, adventure, excitement, intrigue, and love.

All the tools are available for you. We’re waiting…

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