I’m a crime writer – not the blood and guts type though, I’m not brave enough for that – I’m interested in the secrets people keep, in puzzles and mystery and in characters and the way they behave. It’s a fantastic genre (admittedly I’m biased) as there are so many subgenres within it, from books with lots of blood and guts to psychological thrillers where the tension is often in what might happen, as well as what does happen. It’s a genre where the words ‘gripping’ and ‘page turner’ go hand in hand – all crime writers, in fact all commercial fiction writers, whatever area they are writing in, want to keep you, the reader, on the edge of your seat.
So what can you learn from crime writers, to make your book a real page turner? You’re probably doing many of these things already, but may not be aware of it…
In the past couple of articles I’ve discussed character and character motivation. Characters are the life blood of great fiction and understanding their characters’ motivation is key. Knowing why they are act in a certain way will give you a solid foundation on which to build on your story. In my latest book, High Pressure, Anna Lockharte puts herself in danger to help a girl she’s only just met, Brioni O’Brien, find her sister. Why does she do that? As we discover, Anna lost her own sister in a terrorist attack in Paris –one that she survived while protecting her niece, and she understands the pain Brioni is feeling when she realises Marissa is missing. Without this backstory (which was developed in the third Cat Connolly book No Turning Back), Anna would be going to an awful lot of trouble for a total stranger, which might not be plausible – even with your willing suspension of disbelief.
One key element of a page turner is high stakes for the characters, what do they want, what’s stopping them getting it, and what do they have to lose? The ultimate stakes are loss of life, but high stakes can also be the loss of a child/marriage/job – something that will be very hard for the character to overcome, something they fear happening. It could be exposure of a past misdemeanour, or a lie, or something that will embarrass them. When we meet Brioni in High Pressure, she’s having a bad time – she’s been mugged in Thailand and has come to London to see her sister, only to have her suitcase stolen. Marissa appears to be ignoring her calls, but then there’s an explosion in Oxford Street and Marissa’s bag is found nearby – Brioni is desperate to find out what had happened. For both Anna and Brioni the stakes get very high as they begin to uncover the reasons why Marissa may have vanished.
In crime, peril is an important element – in The Dark Room the story is partly driven by your fear that Rachel and Caroline, for separate reasons, are being threatened. It’s set in a mysterious country house hotel called Hare’s Landing in West Cork, where all sorts of spooky things are happening that make you (and them!) fear for their lives. If your character is in peril then we have no choice but to read on. That ‘peril’ can be applied to all genres – it’s another way of quantifying the stakes, and the higher the stakes, the more we want to read on.
Knowing the ending or at least a key event that happens along the way is important in any book – I’m saying this with the proviso that everyone is different, just as creativity is different, and some writers can sit down and write a fabulous page turner without a big plot planned out. EL Doctorow said ‘It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
At least have an idea where you are planning to go. I interviewed Cecelia Ahern a week or so ago about her new book Freckles and dug deep into her writing process. As she says, the magic often happens in the unplanned parts of a story, the parts where the characters take off on their own. Even if you’re a plotter, give your characters space to breathe.
When I wrote High Pressure, I had the final scene in my head. We go from sweltering London to a house beside the beach in Wexford. It’s night time, pitch dark, and there’s a very real threat, and a race to the end. But there was a final twist at the very end that I had no idea was coming – the characters surprised me and I hope will surprise the reader.
Chapter end cliff-hangers are something Linwood Barclay talked about when I chatted to him recently – they are vital whatever you’re writing. You want to keep your reader reading. Linwood thinks of them like the commercial breaks in a TV show – you need to ramp up the tension enough so that after your reader has gone to make that cup of tea, or looked at their phone, they are desperate to come back to find out what happens next. Look at your chapters – you might only need to lose a few lines from the end to give a really satisfying cliff-hanger. If a letter’s being delivered with big news (or even small news!) end the chapter when the character picks it up ready to open it – human curiosity is a powerful tool that will keep your reader engaged.
Understanding your genre, and understanding your reader is crucial whatever you are writing. Read in your genre, read around your genre. We’ve all got strong competition from Netflix these days, so think about how you can ramp up the action, how you can turn your reader’s expectations and assumptions around to surprise them, and how you can keep them turning the pages.
The most important thing in all though, is that you enjoy the process, just getting down and writing is more important than reading all the tips (which often seem to contradict each other I know – they actually don’t generally, you just need to cherry pick the bits that work for you, and make sure the person whose advice you are taking has top level experience and knows what they are talking about!!) Listen to lots of writers and develop your own process – we are all unique and our voices are unique, so find out what works for you.
(c) Sam Blake
About High Pressure:
As temperatures soar across Europe during the hottest summer for forty years, a series of hoax terrorist attacks is generating panic in London. Then a bus blows up on Oxford Street and the hoaxes have suddenly become real.
Student Brioni O’Brien has been desperately trying to contact her older sister since she unexpectedly returned early from travelling, so when Marissa’s bag is found near the site of the explosion, she fears the worst.
Teaming up with terrorism expert Anna Lockharte to search for Marissa, Brioni discovers that her sister had got herself into a very dangerous situation – and that now she and Anna could be caught in the fallout.
High Pressure is available as a world wide digital release now, and is out in audio in December.
Sam’s new thriller Remember My Name is available to pre-order now. The Dark Room is out in paperback in November.
Read more on my plotting process here.
Follow Sam on social @samblakebooks. Visit www.samblakebooks.com for news and events and get a bonus free short story in audio and text when you subscribe to her newsletter.
Get more tips for writing those killer chapters here:
Murder One Masterclass: Killer Opening Chapters with William Ryan, Nadine Matheson and Femi Kayode.
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Saturday 13th November 10.30am-12.30pm Book HERE
The first 3 chapters of your book are crucial to get right, not only to hook an agent or editor, but to hook your reader – how do you make them the best that they can be? William Ryan will explain the essential ingredients to create a killer opening and is joined by critically acclaimed debut authors Nadine Matheson and Femi Kayode to explain how they did it.