My man-servant Igor stands at the door of the lab holding a tray of bread and water.
‘You must eat, Doktor!’
‘No, dear Igor,’ I cry. ‘There is no time. I’m almost there. The secret formula that has eluded and tormented writers for so long is within my grasp. How to write a page-turner.’
I dismiss him and attend to my work. The gods will surely punish me for this. But the people have to be told. A lot of folk labor under the misapprehension that the ability to write a page-turner is a gift from Mount Olympus, some secret indefinable and ineffable magic.
But it’s not true.
Yes, the great masters of old were gifted; they wrote page-turners instinctively. But we can study their works, study the craft and learn.
The secret to page-turning fiction has four ingredients and a simple formula First, you must visit the apothecary and fetch jars of curiosity, conflict, and causality, along with some wood from the Metaphor Tree. We will come to the donkey in a while. (You may want to open the window.)
Let’s roll up our sleeves.
First, take the wood and cut it into equal lengths. This is going to be used to construct a scene. We are all familiar with scenes from the theatre. In our novel, the scene is a metaphorical construction. It takes place in the mind.
The clockwork of page-turning
The way you construct your scenes and arrange them will form the clockwork of page-turning. But what exactly is a scene?
It’s pretty difficult to define; opinions differ. But sometimes in life, it pays not to worry about precise definitions. Think of it this way. Imagine in your novel a man walks into the room holding a gun and pointing it at your protagonist.
That all takes place in a scene. You see it in your mind’s eye: the man, the gun, the doorway. You ‘see’ them.
Scenes make up the movie in the mind.
Your story comprises a sequence of them. And the art of writing a page-turner involves contriving to whisk the reader through the sequence, effortlessly, like a ball bouncing down the stairs. And this requires three forces: pushing, pulling, and resisting.
Let’s look at those jars we got from the apothecary.
Curiosity. This is what ‘pulls’ readers through the story by making them continually wonder, What happens next? This is the carrot on the stick. A close cousin of curiosity is anticipation. Sometimes, instead of making the readers wonder what happens next, you tell them. And then they can’t wait to see it.
There is a great opening line by Iain Banks. ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded. As soon as you read it, you spend the rest of the book anticipating this treat. You will recall I mentioned a flatulent donkey? I imagine you can’t wait to see how he fits in? Good, we’ll get to him in a minute. (Delayed gratification is another crucial aspect of the voodoo.)
Scenes should follow like toppling dominoes
As well as curiosity pulling us, we also have a force pushing the reader from behind. This is causality. Nothing in a well-constructed story is random. Every scene is entailed by what went before. A causes B causes C. Like toppling dominoes.
Imagine the donkey following the carrot. Now imagine him violently breaking wind. This adds an element of propulsion to his ambling gait, the forward momentum instilled by causality.
But there is a slight paradox here too.
We need some resistance. Imagine a rollercoaster that is simply straight down, an incline without ups or downs. Boring, right? You wouldn’t want to go on it twice. In theme park terms, it isn’t a page-turner. You need things to get in the way and resist our progress through the tale.
Some call it conflict, but generally, it means things are going wrong.
If the causality impels us and the curiosity draws us, the conflict inhibits us, and the combination of these three elements gives a very pleasurable sense of tension, usually felt in the belly.
Our task is to encode these elements into the structure of each scene. To understand how, consider for a moment the definition of a story. It’s a tale of someone who sets out on a quest for something (the Grail/Elixir/Secret Formula) and encounters numerous difficulties. Eventually, the hero overcomes the challenges and comes home with the Grail.
That is the definition of a story. And here’s the great conjuring trick. Every scene mimics that paradigm on a small scale. Every scene involves someone wanting something and confronting an obstacle to achieving it. Usually, the protagonist fails to achieve it, things go awry, and this precipitates the subsequent scene. After the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, we, the reader, wonder, How will he get out of that? And we follow smoothly to the next scene in which the hero devises the answer to that question.
Within a scene, the ‘want’ can be minor, such as buying a map. But each scene is a stepping stone on the greater journey in pursuit of the Grail.
To see how it works, consider the essay assignment we were always given as school children. ‘My Summer Holiday.’ Imagine a little girl called Poppy wrote: My Summer Holiday. We drove to France. We picked up a hitchhiker. The hotel burned down. Dad went to prison.
That is a chronicle of events that are not linked by causality. So it does not constitute a story. Now see what happens when we add a smidgen of causality.
My Summer Holiday. We drove to France. We picked up a hitchhiker. He turned out to be an arsonist who had escaped from a secure psychiatric hospital. The hotel burned down. Dad went to prison.
See? Now we have a rudimentary story. We know why the hotel burned down. We understand why Dad — albeit in a cruel miscarriage of justice — got sent down for the hotel fire. At the moment, the causality is a bit rudimentary. It explains why the hotel burned down, but the rest of the story is a bit random.
Let’s fix this. Let us invent a compelling reason for the trip to France. Poppy, the little girl, is dying. A magician tells dad about a magic flower in France that will save her. Now we have an urgent need to make the journey. Let’s make it more urgent: we will add the storytelling device of a ticking clock. The flower will die in three day’s time.
Oh no! Now we break everything up into scenes.
The place where the magic flower is located is hard to find. So dad decides to buy a map. So we have a scene in which he sets off to the map shop. The goal of the scene is to buy a map. But the scene ends in disaster: he gets robbed and loses all his money. So we wonder, what will he do now? And this disaster and his reaction will precipitate the next scene, in a direct causal link. In the next scene, Dad’s goal is to get money. He steals the coins from the hat of a blind musician. The disaster? The blind man is an undercover cop.
And so it goes on. Things keep going wrong, and the things that go wrong get bigger. We up the ante. Out of the frying pan into the fire and then into the furnace.
Don’t forget to make the reader cry
But there is one more thing we need to make a true page-turner. This, too, is delivered inside a scene. Pleasure. We must reward the reader with dollops of pleasurable emotion. There is a peculiar quality to emotion in a story. To see what I mean, imagine a little addition to Poppy’s story. Imagine she took her dog, Bingo, on the journey to France. Everyone loves Bingo; he’s a wonderfully friendly, clever, loveable dog. We take him instantly to our hearts.
Then the hitchhiker feeds him poison sausages, and he dies.
We are heartbroken; we weep rivers of tears. But there is a strange quality to our tears. We quite enjoy them. In everyday life, when our dog dies, it’s horrible. But in a story, we enjoy it. And this is the true wonder of stories. All the bad things, the pain, and suffering that disfigure our ordinary lives are rendered enjoyable.
Igor returns. He asks about Bingo, the dog.
He loves Bingo. It would tear him apart if I told him about the poisoned sausages.
Bingo’s good, I say. He’s doing just fine.