That’s what some people say about certain books. Some of my books, actually, have earned the declaration — and I always thought, well, that’s a curious thing to say. It either sounds like maybe the book has met the bare minimum requirement for being a book (I was able to grudgingly turn each page to the next page until no more pages existed in that particular book) or it is, instead, some kind of magical Harry Potter shit (the book’s pages turned themselves when I said the words ‘Bibliotekas Slothfus!’).
What they mean — or I hope they mean — is that the book was exciting enough that they “could not put it down.” (Another declaration that has me worried. Is the book shellacked with some sort of cruel epoxy? Have you been cursed by a sorcerer? ARE THE PAGES LACED WITH DELICIOUS HEROIN AND NOW YOU NEED AN INTERVENTION? Put the book down! You need to eat!)
These comments — compliments, surely! — suggest that the book drove them to consume it in great heaving gulps. “This was no pokey read,” it seems to say. The reader blasted through it like a Taco Bell meal geysering through and out the large and small intestine.
More seriously, this is something I genuinely strive for in my fiction. I used to love those books (still do, obviously) where you pick it up at 4PM and next thing you know it’s midnight and you’re almost done the book and covered in a sheen of sweat and you forgot to eat and all of reality’s many lines have blurred. It’s like you’ve been abducted by aliens and are experiencing lost time. That’s a wonderful thing. A book that consumes you as much as you consume it.
I like that effect.
I aim for it.
Could not put it down.
The question is: how?
It’s not something I’ve always thought consciously about — but it’s worth considering, isn’t it? How do you write one of those relentless, throat-grabbing, whip-cracking reads? How can you write a book that gets its claws in and just won’t remove them until its done?
I AM FULL OF THOUGHTS.
1. Thriller Pacing
Even if your book isn’t a thriller, you’re trying to achieve what would be considered thriller pacing. A thriller isn’t ponderous — it moves like a starving shark. It doesn’t dally. It careens forth with a sense of barely-controlled energy, like a car barreling down a ruined mountain road with its brake line cut. It doesn’t matter if the book isn’t a thriller — you can still lend some of that energy to the fiction just the same. A sense of breathlessness, of anticipation, of sheer gotta-know-more. Thriller pacing — to me, at least — means the story moves. No fucking about. A boot mashed against the accelerator. (A good example of this in television is: Orphan Black. Every episode ushers that story forward. No hesitation. Nothing dragged out.)
2. A Gut Punch Of Danger
Danger. Peril. Grim menace and unparalleled jeopardy. Many such “page-turner” books are shot through with an unyielding dose of danger. This isn’t occasional — this is persistent. We get the feeling that characters aren’t ever really safe. We know that at any moment the Vatican-trained orangutan assassin could appear and end another life. This doesn’t just need to be mortal peril, either. Emotional danger (the surety of a loved one discovering betrayal). Spiritual jeopardy (one’s soul as a battleground for malevolent forces). Constant pitfalls. Many depths, dark and deadly.
3. Escalation, Escalation, Escalation
The danger sprouts many heads. It feeds and it grows. It no longer appears from just one angle, but now: another, and then another, until the characters are beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. And you will KNOW that I AM THE LORD — whoa, hey, sorry, I think I’m channeling Jules from Pulp Fiction. Point is? The danger needs a volume knob. You need to start it on 1, and then end it by spinning it to its maximum, breaking it off its mooring, then using the jagged plastic to stab the reader in the throat. (Metaphorically. Uhh, please do not stab your readers with anything except the viciousness of your fiction.) Put more succinctly: make things worse and worse for the characters. Complicate the problem. Add layers.
4. Behold: The Cliffhanger
The cliffhanger — which sounds like a weird sex move or a particularly diligent dingleberry — isn’t just for use at the end of a book. The cliffhanger is a sinister toy that you can use throughout the work. This is how a cliffhanger works: you are, at periodic intervals, going to say to your reader: “I have a cat in this box and the cat could be dead or alive. You can open the box now and see, or I can walk away, and the box will remain closed and maybe the cat will simply die and remain dead and then a gaggle of evil feline specters will haunt you from the cat-flavored afterlife and that’s on you, pal. That’s on you.” And, ideally, the reader is like, WELL FUCK I GOTTA KNOW ABOUT THIS CAT and then proceeds to open the box. The mechanism for this is simple: you end a chapter or a section of the book with a moment of intense what-the-fuckery. It can be a character in a moment that would seem to intimate her death. But it doesn’t actually have to be about danger — any shocking action or nugget of information will do. The appearance of a character the reader thought dead! Something everyone said shouldn’t or couldn’t be done just happened! A marriage ending with a cruel declaration! The revelation that everyone is a robot! Whatever! You want the reader’s eyes to bug out like bulging Champagne corks, leaving her only one choice: READ MORE BOOK NOW PLEASE.
5. An Uppercut Of Mystery
Said it before: the question mark is shaped like a hook. The question (i.e. mystery) is bait. The question mark at the end of a question is the hook that sets in the cheek of the reader and drags them along. Populate the work with mysteries big and small. Mysteries of all types, too — mysteries related to character, to big plot, to subplot, to worldbuilding and metaplot, to backstory, to future happenings, and on and on. Every chapter should contain some iota of mystery, for it is the question that keeps them reading. And when you solve one mystery, more must arrive. Each answer creates two more questions. It’s like: finding the key to the locked door just reveals a room with more locked doors — or a room full of keys. Or a room full of wombats wearing tiny top hats and solving baroque-looking puzzle boxes. WE HAVE SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU, one such sinister wombat says. Then the door to Hell’s sex labyrinth opens.
6. The Timing Of Mystery Matters, Too
Readers don’t like to feel overwhelmed, and a good unputdownable book knows to dole the mysteries out swiftly, but not all at once. Your first chapter shouldn’t be 2000 words of questions. A simple way to visualize this is to see the overall story as a straight line, and then along that line are little arches and loops — like stitching. But there are also larger arcs above that, like rainbows. So, you’ve got little mysteries introduced chapter-by-chapter, and solved one or two chapters later, but you’ve also got larger and more persistent mysteries that cover whole acts or even the entire book or even the entire series. (Again I point you to: Orphan Black. Every episode does a fine job of asking new questions but also answering them. And yet, two seasons later, we’re still in the dark about the creation of clones or their overall purpose.)
7. The Power of the Pivot
The pivot. One of my favorite devices. The pivot works like this — you’re going one direction. Say, north. The reader is going along with you because that’s how the reader rolls. And then, just as everyone’s comfortable with the direction, you suddenly pivot and head northeast. Or east. Or you spin around heel-to-toe and go back south. The act of the pivot is one of surprise: you’re sending a signal to the reader: “You thought I was doing one thing, but really, I’m doing another.” You want them to gasp. In the Matrix, when you find out this isn’t just a movie about hackers and instead is about a war against robots based in a virtual reality? That’s a pivot. In Die Hard, when we realize Hans Gruber isn’t really a terrorist but, in fact, is a thief who desires the trouble that’s being brought down upon his head because it serves him: yep, pivot. The pivot is a good way to make the reader feel a sense of urgency, uncertainty, excitement. And excrement. In their pants.
8. The Role Of Misdirection
The author is a magician. Not a sorcerer whose magic is cryptic and unknowable, but rather, a proper stage magician whose tricks are well-practiced to completely fuck with the audience. One of the critical components to composing an illusion is the art of misdirection. The stage magician holds up a honking duckling puppet and says, LOOK, I WILL TRANSFORM THIS PUPPET INTO A HONEY-GLAZED HAM, and then as the duckling flaps and quacks, ninjas sneak into the theater and stab all the audience members. Or something. I dunno, I’m not a magician. What I do know is: readers love being tricked (when it’s fair, at least). They love you setting up three characters who could be the killer, but then revealing how really, it was the fourth character. The one they never suspected. They think the bomb has been under one of these three tables you keep moving around but really, it’s been up the character’s ass all along.
9. What The Hell Is The Author Gonna Do Next?
What all this speaks to is the author’s willingness to fuck with the story — they want to see what you’re going to do next. As such, it is your job as the storyteller to be bold and unpredictable (provided that it makes sense within the rigors of the story). Kill the main character. Blow up the bomb that they thought couldn’t ever go off. They think the story’s ending will be X, so you have X happen at the midpoint of the book, leaving them in completely unanticipated territory. It is the storyteller’s job to say, you cannot trust me, and once that is firmly and irrevocably established, the reader will read along just to see what you’re going to do next.
10. What The Hell Is The Character Gonna Do Next?
We like characters who surprise. Just as we want an author we can’t trust, characters are interesting, too, when we cannot be sure what they’ll do next. The moment where a protagonist does something supremely bad-ass or the villain performs some truly heinous fuckery, those are great moments. Jaw-dropping, kick-ass, I-did-not-see-that-coming moments. When readers are promised characters who Do Interesting Things, they want to keep reading. Sounds simple in theory. Not always so easy in execution.
11. The Role Of Humor
Humor might seem to have no place in a compulsively-readable book, but I’d disagree. Humor isn’t a spice you want to overdo — too much sweet-and-sour will pucker the mouth — but a little humor here and there puts the reader at ease. You want them at ease for two reasons: one, so that the entirety of your story isn’t one unpleasant trachea-punch after another; two, so that you can, just as they get comfortable, trachea-punch them. HA HA HA THEY THOUGHT YOU WEREN’T GONNA DO THAT. The fools. The fools! *punches you in the trachea*
12. Rhythm of Language
Vary your sentence length and structure. Short sentences and dialogue press the accelerator; long paragraphs and description hit the brake pedal. Language lubricates the fiction. Sometimes you want to speed things up — particularly in a work you want to be nearly addictive in its consumption. Big giant blocks of text always run the risk of building a wall that the reader will choose not to surmount. Leaner, meaner sentences are the order of the day. (An excellent example of this was the author Charles Grant. Lots of dialogue and short throat-punch sentences. Sometimes his chapters were literally a single sentence in length.) Every sentence needn’t be short, and long paragraphs aren’t a no-no — but make sure that the language used is meant to create a sense of urgency and excitement rather than a soggy swamp of pondering ponderousness.
13. Rhythm of Narrative
Narrative, too, is subject to rhythm. Action and conversation — something always happening, something always being said. But everything doesn’t need to be go go go every moment of the story, too — think, if you will, how a good hard-driving rock song will at times slow shit down. Things go quiet. The drums fall away — or maybe it’s the guitar that fades back. But you know what’s coming. The beat’s gonna kick back up. The music’s gonna start layering back in, louder, louder, louder still, and then it’s gonna be like a wave crashing over a seawall as the song roars back bigger and meaner than it was before. A roller coaster isn’t all downward momentum — part of the power is the slow rise, the calm before the storm.
14. Fire Needs Oxygen To Burn
Put differently — your story needs to slow down sometimes because that’s how the story breathes. The metaphor of fire needing oxygen is apt — we need time to think, to consider, to go deeper with characters and let the story fill out a little. Your job is to tighten the noose, yes, but you still need time to tie the damn thing. These oxygenated moments give us reason to care about the story — it is during these periods that we are allowed context and reflection. (Just don’t let them go on too long. Eventually you have to throw the latch on the RABID METH-BADGERS box and once more upend those nibbly motherfuckers so they can again run rampant.)
15. Treat Exposition Like An Ugly Band-Aid
Exposition isn’t a bad thing, per se — sometimes, details must be conveyed for the situation and the world to be understood. You can only get so far in a story utterly bewildering readers with little half-ass hints and cheeky winks before somehow, in some fashion, expository data sweeps into glue the broken parts together with the epoxy magic of context. Just the same, exposition always runs the risk of being boggy. Bad exposition is like clayey mud clinging to the bottom of one’s already heavy boot. And when you’ve got a fast-moving page-turner of a tale, even good exposition might stall the momentum. How to handle this? Treat it like a dirty, grim necessity. It’s like an old, gummy Band-Aid: you have to rip it off fast. This is combat landing time: get in, deliver exposition, and get the hell out again in as short a time as you can muster.
16. The Suspense Of Bad Decisions
Suspense is that feeling in your gut that something bad is gonna happen. Bomb’s gonna go off. The beast will escape its cage. Old Homeless Dave with his Butt Plug Bludgeon will once more menace Central Park. That gut-feeling is tightened as you give hints that the Very Bad Thing is getting closer to happening: the bomb ticks down, the hinges on the cage are breaking, Old Homeless Dave’s potter’s grave has been torn open and his body is missing. But there is, for me, a more refined version of suspense and it’s one that’s driven by characters: my favorite form of suspense is that caused by characters we love making decisions / taking actions that we hate. The teen in the slasher film goes out into the dark garage. The cop compromises his ideals by taking a bribe. The necromancer summons Old Homeless Dave to do his bidding. That kind of suspense is the kind driven by people; it invests me deeper in the story and makes me want to move more quickly through the narrative to see how those bad decisions bear their poisonous fruit.
17. Make Them Want It, And Then Deny Them Ha Ha Ha You’re Evil
The protagonist is the reader’s proxy. What the protagonist wants is what we, the reader, also want. You, the storyteller, are the chiefmost antagonist in any tale, and so your job is to rob the protagonist — and thus, the reader — of satisfaction. It’s cruel. It’s dangling candy in front of a baby and when the baby reaches for it, you yank the candy away and then also punch the baby. Readers want the satisfaction you do not easily grant them. They’re like drug addicts. (And sometimes this necessitates giving them a little taste now and again: a hint of sweet satisfaction before once more plunging the protagonist into your narrative piranha tank.) It’s like telling someone they can’t itch their nose. That person didn’t even have to scratch her nose, and now she’s like, AHHH MY NOSE ITCHES LET ME ITCH IT I WANT IT I NEED THIS SONOFAGODDAMN GGGNNNH — *claws at face*
18. Point To The Shoe: “That’s Gonna Drop,” You Say
Sometimes it’s not about surprise. Sometimes it’s about spoiler alerting your own story. “Heather dies in seven days.” You’re giving away the end of the magic trick. You’re saying: “I’m going to turn this donkey into a bushel of mangosteens.” You just gave away the ending — or, at least, gave away something that’s going to happen. You’re pointing to the Sword of Damocles dangling over our heads and saying: “This shit right here? It’s totally going to fall. Head’s up. Like, literally.” And then you get to spend the story showing us how. It’s a tease, a hook, a taste — and if it pleases, the desire to want more will power them to turn pages oh-so-quickly.
19. The Creation Of Doubt
As has been said, the storyteller cannot be trusted. A trustworthy storyteller is a boring storyteller. And so, you must create doubt in the reader’s mind that you, the storyteller, will eventually do the right thing. They must be uncertain as to the health of the future in the story you’re telling — victory cannot be clearly predicted, the protagonist’s hopes and dreams are held in increasing danger, the power of good over evil cannot be assured. You create doubt by, well, being an asshole. That character everyone knows you won’t kill? *stabs them in the neck* Just as hope gets within sight? *pushes red button, hope explodes* Think of yourself as a bank robber — one who has to shoot a hostage now and again to prove how serious you are. Doubt brings them back. Because they want to see how you’re going to convince them otherwise. They want to be tricked.
20. Tap Into Common Fears
Simple fears and threats, elegantly executed, can make for a helluva page-turner. Sharks. Terrorism. Serial killers. Vampires. Bees. Toddlers. Lindsey Lohan. Mangosteens.
21. Tantric Information Delivery
Show the reader only as much as they need to continue reading. This is a trail of breadcrumbs left for a hungry little bird — make them hop for it. Tease it out slowly.
22. The Book And The Hook
Describe the story’s hook — the core premise, the narrative throughline — in a paragraph. Then, revise it so that it’s only a sentence. You might be saying: “What does this pitch have to do with writing a page-turner?” HOLD STILL I’LL TELL YOU. You’re so wriggly! Anyway. The point is: if you cannot succinctly describe something cleanly, clearly, and with much enticement, you probably can’t translate that to the page. Distill the pitch. Clarify the hook. Find out what matters — what’s catchy about it? What is the most delectable part of the character, the conflict, the plot? Sharpen the hook to catch the readers.
23. Will They, Won’t They?
A page-turner of a book has a kind of manic energy — and while a story like that can have a lot of complex things going on in the background, often the story itself has a very simple crux to it. And that crux is, almost literally, a crossroads. It is the question WILL THEY, or WON’T THEY? Will she cure her disease? Will the couple get together? Will he save his son, or blow up the moon, or avenge his chihuahua, or whatever. This is it: the binary question. Yes or no. Let this question infect every page. Let it grant the tale the energy it needs to compel readers. Practically speaking, it means never letting this question drift far from the story you’re telling. Always circle back to it.
24. Get Excited, Goddamnit
If you’re excited by what’s on the page, we will be, too. If you write with a kind of gotta-catch-em-all lip-biting nail-scratching lunacy — we’ll feel it, too. Write with vigor and intensity. Get excited. Infect us. Take us for a ride. You’re the one driving: press the pedal down, take all the hard curves, turn right when you said you were going to turn left. Love the journey. Addict yourself to the tale and we’ll find ourselves addicted, too.
25. To Reiterate: Stop Fucking Around
The books that sink their teeth into me and hold my gaze steady do so because they don’t fuck around. They move quickly. They’re brave, bold, sometimes batshit bizarropants. It feels like somewhere early on the author said, “You know what? Fuck it,” and then stripped naked and ran into traffic. That’s an author you want to watch. That’s a story you need to see unfold. Kick off the kiddie wheels. Thumb the safety off. Fling rocks at hornet’s nests. (Okay, don’t really do this — I literally did this today and, uhhh, it didn’t end well for me.) One of the most compelling things a reader will experience is a writer who is operating at a blistering, almost careless level — an author who will blow it all up just to keep you entertained is an author worth reading.
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500 Ways To Write Harder aims to deliver a volley of micro-burst idea bombs and advisory missiles straight to your frontal penmonkey cortex. Want to learn more about writing, storytelling, publishing, and living the creative life? This book contains a high-voltage dose of information about outlining, plot twists, writer’s block, antagonists, writing conferences, self-publishing, and more.
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