Monday, January 14, 2013

HOW TO MAKE YOUR NOVEL A PAGE TURNER – PART 1


In my next two blogs I’m sharing a very good article about creating a page turner blogged by Elizabeth Sims on January 12, 2010.  I found it a very well written article – and worth sharing with you.  J  Rita

When my father was a little boy, one of the last of the touring vaudeville companies came through his podunk town, and he got to see the show. The centerpiece was a one-act drama featuring a pretty girl in peril. The climactic scene began quietly, with her sitting next to a lamp, sewing. As the mustachioed villain sneaked onstage, the audience began to murmur in alarm. When the lovely young thing gave no sign of sensing the danger, the audience’s murmuring gained urgency and volume.
The innocent girl continued to sew her apron.
Closer crept the villain, drawing a knife from his coat.
In full voice now, the audience warned her: “Behind you. Turn around!”
When, incredibly, she bowed her vulnerable neck more deeply over her work, they rose from their seats, cupped their hands around their mouths, and shouted with the utmost diction: “Beee! hind! you! Look! beee! hind! yooooou!”
Unbearable suspense.
Ah, to be a master of it.
I used to beg my dad to tell that story, and I’d laugh maniacally every time. I fear that was what really sparked me to be a writer. The author of that playlet, subpar though it may be by today’s standards, accomplished what we all want: to hold audience members so firmly in our grasp they feel they’ve entered the story themselves.
And that, I guess, is a pretty good definition of a page turner.
Today’s best novels make readers so desperate to know what happens next that they’ll stay up reading well past midnight, blistering thumbs and all, until THE END. Then and only then will they be able to relax, their souls flooded with satisfaction, relief and peace. Only to be followed—ideally!—by a gnawing sense of unfulfillment, anxiety and a compulsion to read more books by you.
It’s our responsibility to feed their addiction.
Looking at successful authors and their polished products, you might conclude they must have some literary alchemy at their fingertips, or they really are slightly superhuman, or they’ve made a deal with the devil. (If only it were so easy!)
But no: Writing a page turner is an art and a craft. And you can learn to do it.
PLOT FROM THE GUT.
You’ve got a good idea for a story, you’ve got a few characters in your head, you’ve got some stuff that happens.
Now what?
At this point many people just start writing, hoping their book will take shape as they go.
The streets of New York are littered with queries from such authors.
To lift your work from the gum wads and pigeon merde, you need a coherent plot.
Now, you can get pretty complex with plotting. You can try to follow this or that guru’s rules, you can try to emulate this or that bestselling author. But if you do, you’ll likely find that the whole thing gets horribly complicated way too soon.
The following method for forging a compelling plot is as good as any, and simpler than all of them.
THE HCM PLOTTING METHOD:
1. List the Heart-Clutching Moments you’ve already thought of—you know, those pivotal points in your story that will evoke all the intensity of that “look behind you!” response in your readers.
2. Think of more.
3. Construct your story around them. I emphasize the difference: Don’t focus on your loosely formed story line. Focus on the key points in your story.
WHAT IS AN HCM?
• Love at first sight (Marius Pontmercy meets Cosette)
• A huge moral lapse (Judas takes the money)
• Murder (Miles Archer’s sets Sam Spade in motion)
• Death by other means (Injun Joe starves to death in the cave)
• A refusal of grace (Mayella Ewell sticks to her story in spite of taking the courtroom oath)
• Nature gone wild (shark dines on first recreational swimmer)
• Someone standing up to corruption (Shane picks up his gun again)
• A change of heart, for good or ill (Michael Corleone offers to kill Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey)
• An act of depraved violence (Bill Sykes cudgels Nancy)
• Betrayal (Sandy puts a stop to her mentor Jean Brodie)
• Forgiveness (Melanie insists Scarlett join her in the receiving line)
• A revelation (Pip’s secret benefactor is none other than … !)
HCMs can be active, whole scenes:
• A lifesaving attempt
• A chase
• A battle
• A seduction
• A caper
Make a list of Heart-Clutching Moments and put them on index cards in rough order. Then you can build an outline based on any form you desire, be it classical drama, farce or anything in between. If you get stuck, do any of the following:
• Start writing one of your HCM scenes. Immediately the scene itself should prompt ideas, perhaps for new courses of action or even new characters.
• Write deeper into an HCM scene you’ve written already. You’ll likely find yourself coming up with bridges between scenes—and thinking of more elements to enhance your story.
• Look for places to add conflict, suffering or frustration.
For example, Shakespeare wanted to take Macbeth from conquering hero to murderous traitor whose decapitation at the hands of one of his countrymen is the only possible, imaginable end.
How does he do it? Reread the play and you’ll realize that one HCM leads to the next, fast and furious: The witches’ stunning prophecies, Macbeth’s realization that he could be king, his wife’s corrupt ambition, one murder, two more murders, and more upon that, and prophesy again, and insanity, and suicide … all in the space of 98 pages!
SUPERCHARGE YOUR CAST OF CHARACTERS.
Readers get hooked on a novel when they meet a character they enjoy spending time with. Characters we love—or love to hate. How do you create them?
LET YOUR READER INSIDE THEIR HEADS. Sure, we see your characters in action, but show us their fears, their misgivings, their secret vanities. Many beginning writers expect the reader to assume too much along these lines. Let us know what your characters are thinking via inner monologues, dialogue or even unexpected action. (“Yes, dear,” he sighed, giving the cat a discreet kick.)
GIVE A CHARACTER A SECRET. Think Sophie’s Choice: You can bet William Styron, having thought of the choice first, built the whole novel backward from Sophie’s main, huge, character-defining Heart-Clutching Moment. If you bear in mind your character’s secret as you write, it will inform your whole novel, lending substance and subtlety.
BUILD IN A LOVABLE QUIRK. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is as cynical as they come—except when something charms him. Pure sincerity pierces his heart, whether it’s two nuns in a coffee shop or his naive yet sharp-witted little sister. Without that vulnerability, he’d be just another insufferable teen.
CREATE AN UNPREDICTABLE CHARACTER. Shakespeare’s witches, Boo Radley, Kurtz. A character with a screw loose, or one hidden in the shadows, will prevent your readers from ever feeling safe. What will that devil do next?
MAKE THEM SHARE. Do your research and, through your characters, share cool stuff you’ve learned about a time, place, person or pursuit. The Day of the Jackal gives specific, compelling information as to how the assassin works. In his books, retired jockey Dick Francis brings us into horse breeding and racing. Other authors give deep detail on subjects ranging from domestic arts to international terrorism.
END CHAPTERS WITH A BANG.
The most important page turns in any book are those at the ends of the chapters. Why? Because readers tell themselves, “OK, I swear I will turn out the light at the end of this chapter because I am committed to going to yoga at 6:30.”
An alarming 40 percent* of readers who put a book down before finishing it never pick it up again. Stuff gets in the way: kids, work, “Columbo” reruns, the J. Crew catalog. So you’ve simply got to keep them reading to the end.
As a novice writer, I pondered that admonition. How was I supposed to do it? I couldn’t throw in a car wreck or an assassination or a dangling hero or a miraculous cure at the end of every single chapter; that would be ridiculous. Luckily, the answer came to me in the middle of my first novel, Holy Hell: You don’t create Heart-Clutching Moments in order to end a chapter. You end a chapter when you get to a naturally occurring HCM.
More specifically, when you come to a point just before or just after an HCM, break your chapter. This works every time. Realistically, of course, you don’t have 33 true HCMs in a book; you might have five, or 10. So in the meantime, break chapters at transitions:
• A turning point (where something or someone is about to change)
• A jump in time or place
• A shift in point of view
• A settling of the action
• A ramping-up of the action
These chapter breaks tend to be quieter, but no matter, you must still give your readers a compelling reason to turn that page. It doesn’t have to be big: a pique, a hint, a whiff. More on that next.

4 comments:

coffeelvnmom (Jessica Brooks) said...

Love this. Can't wait to see Part 2! Thanks for sharing!

Jessica

Barbara Edwards said...

What great advice! Thanks for sharing.

Rita Karnopp said...

Thank you. .. . had catarac surgery yesterday... not seeing all that great yet today. :) Didn't even turn my computer on yesterday. Was a lonnnng day. Hope you enjoy part 2 as well. :) Rita

Rita Karnopp said...

Thank you. :) Rita

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