4 Steps to a Page-Turner


by Amy Maida Wadsworth

Forget the old adages you’ve heard: In a real race between a tortoise and a hare, the hare would win every time. It’s biology.

And what applies to biology applies to writing as well: no one wants to write at tortoise speed or produce a book that would make a tortoise yawn—especially when all the hares out there are rushing to compete for today’s readers (and their short attention spans).

In honor of the recent fantasy/scifi event Westercon (in Salt Lake City, where we had a booth—did you stop and say hi?), we’re going to share a little fiction-writing magic with you—a few steps to transfigure your fictional tortoise into a hare. Wands ready?

Step 1. Offer your tortoise a carrot. Every character needs a reason to press forward with increased purpose and vigor. Without a goal, we flounder then wallow in the comfortable couch of laziness. Long-term goals are vital to a plot, but short-term goals are the steps to get there; without them, your story will lag and your audience will drift off to sleep. If you want a title to study, Robison Wells offers lots of carrots in his book, Variant.  First, he establishes an environment that makes his character uncomfortable. Because the character is not the type to ignore an itch, he feels compelled to set short-term goals along the way—to find out more about what makes his environment tick. The more he discovers, the more unsettled he becomes.

Step 2. Remove distractions. If you’re going to offer your tortoise a carrot, you’d better make sure he doesn’t already have lettuce to nosh on. There are times when distractions are appropriate and interesting. But if your story is dragging and you need to speed things up, your character needs to focus. At a time like that, remember the importance of short-term goals: write less thought and more action. If your character is focused on beating that rival, delivering that package, or sending that life-changing letter, then the inherent conflict is more immediate and important, and your character has to fight harder to accomplish his goal. Without pesky thoughts to distract him, your character is free to follow his gut, which inevitably leads to mistakes, loss, and increased tension—all things that speed up your prose and force your reader to pay attention. In Divergent, Tris’s survival frequently depends on her ability to focus on the task at hand.

Step 3. Turn your tortoise on its back. It may be difficult to watch him struggle with his legs flailing in the air, but this struggle springs from his primal desire to survive, and it ultimately strengthens him. The writhing tortoise is in danger and may lose everything if he doesn’t set his life aright. This vulnerability is something with which every reader empathizes. Empathy ties your reader to your character’s fate, making every kick of every limb more important. If your readers cheer for your character, they won’t want to walk away in the middle of the race. In most contemporary novels, the inciting incident that puts your character’s physical, emotional, social, or spiritual world in danger usually happens in the first chapter of the book. The resulting vulnerability and struggle carries the reader to the novel’s end. Any time your character discovers the reality he has long believed is riddled with lies or half-truths (Variant, Allegiant, The Cabinet of Wonders, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) or realizes the depth of his personal flaws or challenges (I Am Not a Serial Killer, Pretties, Divergent),  your character has essentially been turned on his back and is forced to set his life—or his understanding of it—aright.

Step 4. Use magic words. The final step of our magic trick is a writing skill that separates the experienced author from the amateur. Active verbs and descriptive nouns illustrate everything your reader needs to witness without wasting time or crowding the page with heavy blocks of text. Experienced authors not only know which words to include, but they know which words to cut. Cut the words that slow your prose to a clunky, awkward creature carrying its house on its back. Twist passive phrases into active voice. Precision wordsmithing sculpts a lithe, muscular machine built for speed. One of the best wordsmithers I’ve ever read is Jerry Spinelli. He magically tells an emotional, intricate story with a few precise words. Maniac Magee  is still one of my favorite novels, and it is practically poetry—every word in this book counts.

Do This Now

  1. If you haven’t read Jack M. Bickham’s Scene & Structure,  read it, mark it up, and memorize as much as your brain can hold. Bickham’s amazing explanation of the importance of goals and how to create believable conflict will change the way you approach fiction writing and will give a nice backbone to your creative content.
  2. Read through your manuscript and break it down into goals. Do this either through highlighting or by writing a few words in the margin describing each goal. If you go a page or two without making any marks, odds are you’ve hit a lull in your story.
  3. Play the what-if game. This little game is one of my favorite plot/character developing techniques, and it’s a game that Orson Scott Card recommends in his book, Characters & Viewpoint.  Let your imagination run wild, asking what-if questions that put your character in different situations, have him come from different backgrounds, or challenge him with different types of conflict. Follow through on these questions and imagine where the changes would lead your character. This process has revealed some fantastic plot twists for many authors.

What techniques have you developed to keep your novel moving? How about other examples of effective “carrots”?

And if you like what you’ve read, please share!

Amy Maida WadsworthAmy Maida Wadsworth published three novels with Covenant Communications: Shadow of Doubt, Silent Witness, and Faraway Child. All three books are available for Kindle and Nook. Amy started teaching fiction writing in 2006 and has been a writing coach ever since. She works as a freelance editor and blogger for Eschler Editing and is pursuing her master’s in human development and social policy.

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