Creating a Book Readers Can’t Put Down

Ideally, every writer wants to create a page-turner. No one wants a reader to get started into her book, get bored, and then put it down and forget about it. That’s the kind of nightmare we all hope to avoid.

However, an overwhelming number of books clamor for the reader's attention. Often, readers (like the rest of us) lead busy lives with little time for the quiet pleasure of reading. Other louder, more demanding entertainments pull readers away from the written page. And thus, too many books get shoved aside, left unfinished only to accumulate layers of dust.

In today’s market, we HAVE to write gripping stories if we want to keep our readers’ attention.

But . . . how can we do that? What goes into making a page-turner?

I don’t claim to be the expert. But reviews and comments on The Preacher’s Bride have rolled in over the past couple months, and readers have said things like, “I couldn’t put it down” or “Couldn't stop reading—kept picking it up whenever a moment presented itself between chauffering, cooking and errands!!” or “I was hooked from the very beginning and had to make myself go to bed last night and finish it today!”

Those kinds of comments make me stop and contemplate what kinds of things I did within The Preacher’s Bride to make it a page-turner. I don’t necessarily have a specific formula. Much of it is an accumulation of years of learning and practicing fiction-writing techniques.

And yet, if I had to break down a few of the page-turning techniques I used within my story, here’s what I’d say:

Develop relatable characters:

Our goal should be to present our characters in such a way that our readers can feel as if they’re inside the person’s head, experiencing everything with that character. But they can’t come to life for our readers, if they haven’t come to life for us.

Before starting my first draft, I spend quite a bit of time developing my main characters. I want to know not only the details of their outer lives (appearance, likes/dislikes, family background, etc.), but I also delve deep into their inner lives (their motivations, dreams, goals, what drives them, etc.). Here's the Character Worksheet I've developed.

We can bring our characters to life so much that they jump off the pages, but we also have to make them jump into the hearts of our readers. Our readers want characters they can love despite their faults. Since none of us are completely all bad or all good, we can’t identify with characters who are too heroic or too villainous. We relate best to characters that are a mix.

Create and prolong suspense:

No, The Preacher’s Bride isn’t a suspense novel. But every book can benefit from having elements of suspense laced throughout. Noah Lukeman in his book The Plot Thickens, describes suspense this way, “Suspense, simply, is about creating and prolonging anticipation.”

Once our readers are invested in our characters, suspense is process of dangling our readers breathlessly along, continuing to put our characters into situations where readers longs to find out “what happens next.”

Lukeman says this, “One can have underdeveloped characters and weak journeys and a hackneyed plot, but if suspense exists, and audience will often stay with the work . . . suspense, more than any other element, affects the immediate.”

Increase conflict:

When I look at developing conflict, I generally target three main areas for each main character: physical (or outer) conflict, emotional (or inner) conflict, and relational (or romance) conflict. I weave all three strands together like a braid. These conflicts are often inseparable yet distinct. And the writer’s job is to keep intertwining the strands without letting one sag.

Yes, the conflicts will ebb and flow. Perhaps we will bring resolution to some issues, but then we must introduce new situations and circumstances that continue to push our characters. Ultimately, we want to prolong the tension for as long as possible throughout the book—keep the braid tight until we near the end.

Use Read-On-Prompts (ROP):

At the end of every scene and chapter, every time we switch character points-of-view, every break in the action—we should look for ways to keep the reader wanting to find out what happens next. We want to make it hard for them to put the book down at a “natural” resting place.

However, we need to be careful about tacking on a ROP. It needs to flow naturally out of the scene. If we resolve something within one of our conflict strands, then we should make sure we start introducing a new problem or issue before we wrap up the scene. In other words, we should try to end our scenes with unresolved conflict of some kind.

So, those are just a few of the techniques I try to employ within my stories. Now it’s your turn. What do you think makes a book into a page-turner? What techniques do you use or have you seen other authors use that makes the book difficult to put down?

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