Writing A Page Turner: Pt 4~
Are You Challenging Your Characters or Cheating Them?
When a reader opens your book and reads the first page they should be immediately caught up in tension – not necessarily action (because not all genres work that way) but tension.
Something has to be happening to grab our interest:
An argument (silent or spoken, both work well)
Circumstances that have changed enough to unsettle the protagonist or those closest to them
A dramatic event that can’t really be processed while it’s happening
A death (or two or more)
A physical transformation (people who turn into werewolves are not always fond of night & the change)
Learning important information
Uncovering a secret
Revealing a lie
Being somewhere they shouldn’t
Whatever happens in that first chapter sets up a series of events or situations that you need to build on throughout the rest of your book.
There are two ways to go about this.
1) If your 1st moment in chapter one is a level 3 or 4 on a scale of 1 – 10, then you can continue climbing the scale up to 10 (the final climax) with each crisis your protagonist facing being one level higher than the previous. This will force your protagonist to stretch beyond themselves, and their comfort zone, creating tension and suspense.
2) If your 1st moment in Chapter one is a level 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 -10, then you can slowly decrease the severity of each consecutive crisis down to about a level 3 (you don’t go less than 3 because that’s normal everyday happenings that don’t really phase your character). This still keeps the interest of the reader as things are progressing but you are aiming to lull them into a false sense of security. Innately, they will begin to wonder when the next bit thing will occur and relish in it’s half-surprise. You could jump from a level 3 up to level 6 and keep building from there, you could gradually increase, or jump around from a level 4 to a level 7 and so on. The key is to keep building toward a level 10 climax.
Starting at level 7 or 8 and keeping each consecutive crisis at that high will exhaust your reader emotionally. You want to tease their senses not completely overwhelm them.
Starting at level 1 and steadily building your way up tends not to work out. It has worked in the past for some highly skilled and craft-conscious writers in particular genres (like literary fiction or memoir) but you risk giving the average reader in those early chapters the time to put your book down and not pick it up again.
How you build each individual crisis is just as important as the big picture. It’s all about balance: if you use too many cliff-hanger moments you risk having this exciting technique become anticipatory – and that’s not good.
Mix it up.
The slow dramatic build
The sudden surprise
The dawning moment
The high-action sequence
The moment where the reader knows more than the character
The moment where the character knows more than the reader
A confusing episode that sorts itself out later
If you find yourself relying on two or three ways consistently, try rewriting that crisis choice in one of those other ways. Variety is the spice of life after all.
Whether you are a planner or a pants-er you can utilize this information to your advantage. Planners will plot and organize in advance of writing a scene or even know which series of crises will work in what way. Pants-ers need to be aware of these techniques in advance (and have practiced them) to be able to pull them out of thin air as they are developing their story on the fly.
No matter what style of writing you employ, these techniques at the very least can be looked for and used in the editing of your first or second drafts.
Next week we’ll take a look at sentences – have you varied your sentence lengths and types to maintain flow and build rhythm?