It’s that delicious feeling when you promise yourself one more page, one more chapter. Or maybe you’ll stop when the ‘read’ percentage on your Kindle hits a nice round number. Then you’ll go to sleep. Maybe.
I sometimes think I’m a bit addicted to this feeling, forever on the lookout for the next book, television programme or film that brings a feverish need for more of that story.
As an avid consumer of page-turners and writer of crime and thrillers, it’s fair to say I’ve thought about all this quite a lot (okay, obsessively). And I do believe it’s something you can learn, and improve upon, by paying attention to certain key elements of storytelling.
Alfred Hitchcock was a man who knew a fair bit about how to grip people’s attention. He once said, ‘The terror is not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it’.
And this, for me, is all about asking questions and making promises.
Firstly, you must set up burning questions about your story. These may range from the basic ‘whodunnit?’ to ‘why did they do it?’ and ‘what on earth will happen to them now?’ Here is the anticipation part of that quote. Set up questions your readers will be desperate to have answered.
Next comes the ‘promise’ part.
You need to set things up so your reader trusts you will deliver a really big and exciting answer at some point – the bang. All they have to do is stay along for the ride.
When and where you deliver all comes down to how you handle pace.
So what is pace? It’s simple. It’s just the speed at which your reader is taken through the book. You need to make decisions about how you will handle this. In strict chronological order? Partial flashback? That’s where you start with the present then go back to tell us how your protagonist got there. Or even, as writers like Julie Cohen and Martin Amis have done, telling the story in reverse chronological order – from the end to the beginning.
Along the way you must plant those questions, the ones the reader will have a powerful desire to chase through your book. But make sure you don’t make them wait for every answer for too long. That’s a sure-fire way to lose someone’s interest. Answer some, while weaving in new ‘must know’ questions along the way.
Page-turners also rely on strong, believable characters. Your readers have to care about them, even if they are dreadful people! If you create characters that seem to live and breathe off the page, and then throw all sorts of problems and dilemmas at them, your reader will have a strong desire to know what happens to them next.
Make life as difficult and uncomfortable as you can for them.
Do they make their own problems, or is it the people around them who make life hell? Think of Marty Byrde in Ozark, who tries to be a calm and ordered presence, despite the complications of his life. The trouble is, messy, unpredictable people keep on throwing new, potentially lethal problems at him.
Pacy, exciting story telling like this affects us on a fundamental level. Studies have shown that our brains actually produce more oxytocin – sometimes called the love hormone – when we are exposed to stories in which there is lots of danger and peril for the characters.
No wonder we can’t resist turning just one more page.
Writing as Cass Green, Caroline's debut adult novel The Woman Next Door was a Number 1 e-book bestseller and her second, In A Cottage, In A Wood was a Sunday Times top ten and USA Today bestseller. She is also an award-winning author of fiction for young people. Her first novel, Dark Ride won the RONA Young Adult Book of the Year and the Waverton Good Read Award. Cracks was recommended on Radio 4’s Open Book programme and Hold Your Breath won the Oldham Book Award. She is the Writer in Residence at East Barnet School and has taught writing at City University and for Writers & Artists. In 2021 she will publish the first of three genre-bending police procedurals, all to be published by HarperCollins.