Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Page Turners

by Stephanie Black

What makes a book a page-turner—a book that prods you to ignore the piles of laundry and the fact that your family wants dinner today too (even though you just fed them yesterday, for pete’s sake), because you can’t bear to put that book down until you find out what happens? What elements make a book grab you in a stranglehold?

I always feel gleeful when a reader tells me one of my books kept him or her up until two in the morning (which makes me sound somewhat fiendish. I don’t normally go around disrupting people’s sleep on purpose. Okay, that’s a total lie. I disrupt people’s sleep all the time. Six A.M. and I’m flicking on the lights and making annoying ding-ding-ding- noises. “It’s Christmas!” I say sometimes, but my kids never fall for it). And truth be told, I’m thrilled to disrupt readers’ sleep, because if a reader wants to know what happens in my book badly enough to miss out on sleep, I know that something about that novel really worked for that reader. And that is very good news for an author.

Does a book have to be a page-turner to be enjoyable? Not at all. I’m currently reading a mystery that is a delightful read, and I’ll read more in the series, but I don’t have trouble setting it aside for a while. It’s the kind of book I can read a little at a time, and not feel a compulsion to pick it up every time I have a spare moment—or every time I don’t have a spare moment, in that condition known as Page-Turner Psychosis, when I push everything else in my life aside, ignoring the fact that the dirty dishes have created their own ecosystem, a child is sitting on my head, there’s no food in the house except stale Cheerios, the roof is falling in, and my daughter has dropped out of school to join a motorcycle gang—never mind all that; I have to FINISH THIS BOOK!

What makes a book a page-turner? The short answer is probably “different things for different readers.” Readers have widely differing tastes, and what one reader defines as a rollercoaster ride from page one, another reader finds dull and he gives up halfway through the book. Here are some elements that help make a book a page-turner for me:

*Characters I really care about who are in high-stakes situations. I want desperately to find out what’s going to happen to these people. I’m a suspense fan, so usually the high-stakes situations in the books I read involve life and death, but I’ve read Anne Tyler family dramas that are page-turners because I’m so riveted by the conflicts in the life of these characters and so eager to find out how they’ll be resolved.

*Multiple sources of tension, raising lots of story questions in the reader’s mind. When I was in the early stages of writing Fool Me Twice, the plot seemed too thin to me. I had my central story idea, but there wasn’t enough to it—not enough threads of tension. How could I increase the tension? What if I gave this other character her own sinister motives? What did she want and why? Things started clicking, and this new plot layer ended up being the foundation for the whole novel.

Mary Higgins Clark is a master at raising story questions, weaving multiple threads of tension that that keep a reader rapidly flipping pages.

*Pacing. No long, draggy portions where nothing happens. New developments and new information come often enough to keep the reader engaged, but the author doesn’t reveal too much too soon.

*A steady build-up to a satisfying climax. Things get worse. The protagonist is in more and more trouble. How will it all resolve?

*All-around solid writing. It might be an exciting story, but if I'm bugged by writing issues, I'll keep bouncing out of the story until I either give up or finish it with gritted teeth.

So have you read any page-turners lately? What makes a book un-put-downable for you?


At 10/15/2008 1:43 PM, Blogger Just_Me said...

Explosions... Really, my first thought is action and pacing. If the characters are constantly moving, constantly in danger, I have trouble putting the book down.

At 10/15/2008 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are two kinds of un-put-downable books. The ones that have a story so engaging that you give up sleep to read. And then there are the ones that change your life.

It seems like the books you can't put down are plum full of action, suspense, a story that must be known. Now. They tend to be weighted toward a terrific plot. Better yet, multiple terrific plots.

It also seems that the ones that change your life are not as un-put-downable, but they have insights that draw you back again and again because they contain enough secrets for living that they become a guide to your own life. They tend to be weigthed toward terrific characters.


At 10/15/2008 3:53 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Mary Higgins Clark is really good at the page-turning compulsion - a couple years back, I read everything the library had of hers, just one after another. My impression of Stephen King is that his are slow burns. It takes me a good half of the book to get sucked into the story and then BOOM! a race for the finish.

I didn't lose sleep over reading one of yours, but I did overextend my lunch hour; that's equivalent, right? And despite giving myself ten days to finish a um, yet-to-be-published work, it drew me in so much that I finished it in three days. (I had written up a nice schedule, too - 3 chapters a day.)

I agree with the other commenters - pacing comes from action or just having to know what's coming next! Mini-cliffhangers, sudden jeopardy,
that feeling that a revealing clue is right around the corner - these all help.

And Stephanie, if you're reading what I think you are, see my comment on Jeff's blog this week. Same book. =) It's enjoyable, just not as compelling.

At 10/15/2008 7:29 PM, Blogger melissa c said...

Stephanie Meyer's books are definitely pager turners for me. The Eragon series was too. I don't know what it is but I think you are right. You have to find our what happens next! I love that!

At 10/15/2008 7:55 PM, Blogger Janet said...

The Twilight series are the only books that have kept me up at night reading them. They were addictive! But at the same time I hated them for that. I don't like being so sucked into something that I can't put it down. I actually prefer the type of book that I enjoy looking forward to reading, but I can put it down when I need to. It's a more enjoyable experience that way.

At 10/15/2008 8:51 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Stephanie, your blog is pretty closely related to Jeff's and some of the responses there pertain here. Perhaps it's action versus philosophy. Action gives us that "I've got to read just a little bit more" feeling while philosophy let's us set the book aside to think and ponder upon. There's a place for each.

At 10/15/2008 8:56 PM, Blogger Ronda Hinrichsen said...

I agree with all your comments, including the "glee" you feel with writing something that keeps a reader up at night. My yet to be published romantic suspense was read by a neighbor friend of mine--a man--and he said he stayed up til 5 in the morning to read it! Yes, I grinned. I'm sure you understand.

At 10/15/2008 9:56 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I really like suspense but in general I don't read it because too often authors sacrifice characters for plot. Meaning that they'll take an otherwise intelligent character and have him/her doing something completely out-of-character and boneheaded so they can build suspense in the novel. I'm not naming names, but there was one LDS series I picked up in the middle and the heroine forgets to lock the door of her house which contains all this high tech secret stuff. And she's a trained operative. So it makes no sense but it allows the bad guys to get in, so why not? How else should the author build suspense?

At 10/16/2008 1:49 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for the comments!

Jon, I consider the extended lunch hour and three-day read great compliments--so thank you! And no, the book I was reading isn't the one you're thinking of--I'm starting that one tomorrow.

Ronda--congrats! Having a reader stay up until 5:00 A.M. is awesome praise for your book! (I predict a bestseller!).

Melanie, that's an excellent point about not letting characters do stupid things just to build tension (hmm, that would make a great blog topic. Thanks for the idea!).

At 10/16/2008 4:09 PM, Blogger Anna said...

Harry Potter and Twilight series were both page turners for me.

When I read book 5 of Harry Potter, I didn't have any kids yet. I bought the book at Midnight and didn't sleep until I finished it. I wasn't planning on staying up all night to read it, but I just couldn't sleep, so I read.

It took me a bit longer to read books 6 and 7 though, even though I enjoyed them just as much.

With the Twilight series, I read all 4 books in 10 days. I couldn't stop myself from reading them. In comparison, it took me 11 days to read "The Host" I liked "The Host" just as much as Twilight series, I just was able to put it down a lot easier.

There are a lot of LDS books that I read very quickly and some that I take my time. Sometimes it is because I really enjoy the plot or characters a lot, that makes it so I can't put it down. But sometimes I really enjoy the book and take my time. I guess it depends on my mood and what I need to get done.

At 10/16/2008 4:12 PM, Blogger Anna said...

Oh, and I've also noticed that a lot has to do with how they end and start chapters.

If they can wrap up a scene with the chapter ending, it's easier to walk away for a bit.

But some books have those chapter endings that aren't really endings. They are a short pause until you turn your head to the next page and the scene continues. That makes it hard to put it down, because you want to know what happens next.

At 10/16/2008 9:11 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

I like what you said, "Characters I really care about who are in high-stakes situations." That's what does it for me. Also cliff hangers at the end of the chapters, where you have to know what happened. And shorter chapters--you tell yourself they're so short you can read just one more...

Fool Me Twice kept me up. (creepy) So did Josi Kilpack's, Her Good Name. (short chapters got me on that one.) And 13th Reality. And Water Keep.

At 10/17/2008 2:09 PM, Blogger Becki said...

I just finished Royal Target by Traci Hunter Abramson and it was definitely a page-turner for me. I think it was because the characters were well developed and there was that sense of suspenseful foreboding that something sinister was going to happen at any moment.

I think pacing and strong characters are the driving factor for me.


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