Crafting a Page-Turning Plot
First and foremost I want to thank the Sassy Brit for allowing me to spin and dance in her well-crafted website. I promise not to break anything.
By the end of this post, you will learn a deep dark secret about me.
“The story held my attention…. In fact, I had to force myself to stop reading last night.” –Mackenzie Jones, Amazon customer
“This book has a compelling story line and was actually hard to put down.” –Troy B. Stengel, Amazon customer
“My husband and I read this out loud before bed for about a week. It was so exciting that we read two hours each night instead of our usual one hour.” –June Safran, Amazon customer
“This book is a page-turner that I found very difficult to put down.” –A.R. Cook, The Book Review
As you can see, creating a page-turner is a strength of mine. Now, many authors think crafting a page-turning plot is a challenging task, but actually a good plot can be created using a few time-tested, proven methods. And if you just follow a few of these tips, your fiction is bound to be hard to put down.
- Line the Cover with Glue -- Though not the most common method, this is a sure-fire way to make your book hard to put down.
- Have a Time-Lock
Incorporate a reason for why the protagonist needs to do something within a certain – preferably short – period of time.
Imagine a girl in high school being dared to tell the handsome boy in her English class that she likes him. That’s somewhat interesting, but there’s no sense of urgency. She can tell him whenever the moment is right, which may be never.
Add a time-lock and see what the result is: If she doesn’t tell him by the end of the day, her “friends” will tell the boy that she likes him and that she’s too chicken to tell him herself. Not only does it create a sense of urgency, but it also creates a sense of dread, especially since there will probably never be a “right time” to tell him, so whatever the circumstances are, there’s risk of humiliation, rejection, and even worse, what if he says he likes her, too? What will she have to sacrifice to be in a loving relationship with him? There’s a certain comfort we take in not knowing how the other feels, right? Because as long as we don’t know, the possibility of getting what we want is always there.
But I digress…
- Present a Deluge of ObstaclesFor using this method of creating a page-turning plot, first determine the protagonist’s main external goal. Maybe it’s finding the sunken treasure (before the competitors set out to do so next week), maybe it’s finding the killer (before he kills again tomorrow). I stress that the goal must be an external one, because any internal goal is typically a character arc and has next to nothing to do with plot. Overcoming one’s insecurity over committing to love is an internal goal and can be just as compelling, but my focus here is plot. This brings up the point that completing an external goal doesn’t necessarily solve the internal goal, right? Just because the girl and boy reveal their love for each other doesn’t necessarily mean the girl has overcome her feelings of loneliness. But that’s another blog post.Once you know the external goal, create a list of obstacles that could get in the way of achieving that goal. Perhaps the treasure-seeker has a sinking ship, a severe virus spreads among the crew, a traitor is on board, all of these are obstacles. The best obstacles to have not only depend on the goal, but also depend on the genre. For thrillers, the common obstacles are anything that threatens the life and safety of the protagonist or of the protagonist’s loved ones. Though I don’t write romance, I imagine the external obstacles would be more along the lines of succumbing to temptation, public humiliation due to reputation, experiencing rejection, or physical distance separating loved ones. I may be completely wrong about that, but the point is that the primary obstacle of the general romance genre (not counting romantic suspense, for example) is not focused on threats to the protagonist’s life as thrillers are.Now that you have your list of obstacles, either come up with creative ways or have the protagonist come up with creative ways to overcome each one. It could be that a resolution is found by not directly overcoming the obstacle. For example, the treasure-seeker resolves the sinking ship problem by, oddly enough, failing to stop the ship from sinking. He dives to his sunken ship to save the photo of his loved one, in the process discovers that the ship has coincidently sunk directly on top of the ancient treasure he set off to find.
- Consider Using a Cliff-HangerI understand that it may not be appropriate in every genre, but cliff-hangers always keep the reader turning pages. The simplest way to create a cliff-hanger is to simply restructure the format of the chapter. Often the chapter format is: a) the protagonist gets faced with an obstacle, b) the protagonist overcomes the obstacle. For cliffhangers, have the chapter format be: a) the protagonist overcomes an obstacle from the previous chapter, b) the protagonist gets faced with an even bigger obstacle. The reader will want to start the next chapter to see how the situation gets resolved.
- Consider the Antagonist’s Obstacles and ResolutionsIn my thrillers, I like to have a see-saw effect of giving obstacles back and forth between my protagonist and antagonist. The difference is that the antagonist is faced with and overcomes his/her obstacle within the chapter. The protagonist overcomes each obstacle in a later chapter. Often, the way the antagonist resolves their obstacle creates the new obstacle for the protagonist. So a typical chapter might be a) the protagonist overcomes an obstacle causing b) a problem for the antagonist, c) the antagonist solves his problem causing d) an even bigger obstacle for the protagonist.
- Create SubtextA simple boring dialogue can be made exciting by having one character not know what the reader or the other character knows. If a boyfriend and girlfriend meet for lunch, the dialogue won’t be nearly as interesting as knowing that this is the day she is working up the courage to break up with him. Now the dialogue is compelling. Every time she simply says to her boyfriend that she’s “fine,” and that her food “tastes okay,” brings us closer to yelling at her either “Do it! Do it!” (Break up with him) or “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
So we covered several tips on how to make a page-turner, but I’m sure I left out quite a few. Please comment below about how you make your fiction hard to put down. I’d love to learn from you!
Now for the deep, dark secret.
You know how every year in “Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!” Sally says, “It’s Thanksgiving already? I haven’t even finished my Halloween candy!” But every year in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Sally misses Halloween waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin! Where does she get her Halloween candy from? Not from Charlie Brown. When he went trick-or-treating, he only got rocks! I stay up nights trying to figure this one out.
BIO: Ezra Barany has been fascinated by codes and puzzles ever since he was a little tot. He started writing suspense and thriller stories in college and got seriously interested in the Bible codes while attending Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar in Jerusalem. The Torah Codes is Ezra’s first novel. Ezra has been a high school physics teacher, fiction writing teacher, songwriting teacher, ESL teacher to French children and pop performer. In his free time, he writes mushy love songs inspired by his wife and book coach Beth Barany. Ezra now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he is working on his next book. He is available for presentations and select readings. To inquire about an appearance, please contact Ezra[at]TheTorahCodes[dot]com.
Once at my house, Sophia entered through the garage and mudroom to the living room and sat on the couch. I still had the tarot card she had placed in my shirt pocket from the reading she gave me. Still wasn’t sure I wanted to look at it. Picking the Devil card twice would be close to impossible, and in my state of mind, if the card in my pocket was the same card I picked before, well…
“Fantastic place you have here!” She kicked off her shoes, jack-knifed her legs off the floor, and nuzzled into the corner of the couch. “Do you think I could get a beer? Or are you desperate to show me your bedroom?”
“One beer coming up,” I said. I went to the kitchen, snagged two beers out, and popped the caps off into the sink. They pinged all over the sink like pachinko balls. This time, it made me think of the Brownian motion microscopic particles have when colliding with the molecules of their surroundings. I returned to the living room and offered her the beer.
“Heineken!” She said. “Nice choice.” She took a drink and looked at the bottle.
I looked at the painting of the collie. Thought about the camera placed behind it.
“Why are you still standing? Have a seat.” She patted the place next to her. I sat on the couch wondering if I should still reveal my fears about the hidden cameras and have her validate them. Was I really being watched or was this just another manic delusion of mine?
“So, Bill. Can I ask you a question?”
“You just did.”
She giggled. “Here’s another. Tell me, Bill. What’s your real name?” She looked at me as she took another swig from the beer.
I studied her. Was she bluffing? Was she really psychic? She burped and smiled, dramatized her innocence by over-fluttering her eyelids.
She wasn’t bluffing.
“How did you know?” I asked.
She smiled wider. This was a game. “Alright, I’ll tell you. You know, people do interesting things when they remember things. They look up to the left. When you told me your name, you looked up to the right. Looking up to the right means you’re making something up, not trying to remember.” She put the bottle down on the coffee table in front of her. “But then, anyone who has to look up to remember their name must have recently fallen off a horse and hit their head on a rock.”
I nodded. Clever girl. “A woman after my heart,” I said.
“Better believe it.”
I drank from my beer. Thought about the bedroom mirror. All the cameras behind it. “It’s Nathan,” I said.
“Nathan. Now that’s a nice name. Sit closer.”
I stood up. “This isn’t really why I asked you here. Could I show you something in the bedroom?”
“Well, you gotta admire a man who says what he wants.” She put her beer down and followed me.
Inside the bedroom, she sat on the bed and bounced up and down. “Pretty good spring action!”
“Over here,” I said pointing to the mirror. I cupped my hands and looked behind the glass. Yep. Still there.
Sophia came and cupped her hands against the glass. Her hands peeked out of her long sleeves like kittens in a mailbox.
“Uh…” Sophia said. “I don’t think…”
“What do you see?”
She just looked at me like I had betrayed her in some way. “I think you should take me home, now,” she said with an uneven tone. She started walking away.
I grabbed hold of her arm. “What did you see?!”
“I see a guy who makes a living posting his escapades on-line. Now let go of my arm, or so help me…”
“You see them? The cameras?”
“Of course! Why? Was I not supposed to?” Her voice got louder. But I could tell she was trying not to yell.
I let go of her arm, cupped my hands at the mirror and looked at the cameras again. “They’re not mine,” I said. “They’re my landlord’s.”
“I found them today. Just before meeting you,” I said. “He’s been watching me ever since I moved here, I guess. Taking photos, videotaping me…”
“Jeez!” She looked at the cameras again, then back at me. “Sorry that I thought…”
There was no need for her to apologize. I brushed it off with a wave of my hand.
“What are you going to do about it?” She asked.
“I’ll call the police. See what they say,” I decided. “What about you? You probably want to get home.”
“I just got here!”
“I know, but you don’t need to get involved in all this.”
She smiled. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
“You’re trying to get rid of me.”
“No! Believe me. I think you’re gorgeous. But now is not the right time. And the truth is, I’m not a one-night-stand kind of guy.”
“I know.” She studied him. “I also know you’re the hanged man. Suspended in a major life change.” She took out a business card from her back pocket. “I’m willing to help. Call me if you need anything, okay.”
“Fine.” I put the card in my pocket without looking at it. “That reminds me.” I pulled out the tarot card from my shirt pocket. “Here’s your…” I saw the devil’s grin. As though he were laughing at me. Statistically, no way that card could have been pulled twice.
Sophia noticed my reaction and said, “I know what I’m talking about. So call me, okay?”
I handed her the tarot card, removed her business card, and looked at her number. Same area code as mine.
“Okay,” I said.###
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