I made up an acronym while writing, to remind me of some essential points to remember when trying to write a page turner.
No; not as in a flasher.
Actually, I suppose conjuring up an a mental image of one of those old school perverts would be as good a way to entertain yourself in these grim times as any, seeing him complete with long raincoat with his flies undone underneath, and a surreptitious air, sitting on a London tube, travelling out to the suburbs, eagerly awaiting his chance…
But more seriously, there are, after all, FLASH cards, used as a memory aid.
Anyway, this is what I came up with to remind me never to forget when writing a novel that it must FLASH.
F For Fast moving.
L For Lure the reader with excitement.
A For Abridge: merciless editing cuts.
S For Stakes, which have to be high.
H For Heights of emotion evoked in reading.
This is a tall order, of course. Besides, however skilfully an author might strive to include these lures, nobody can hope to impress all readers, when individual tastes are so varied. One only needs to read through a series of Goodreads reviews on classic novels to realise how impossible it is to please everyone. Anyone who tried, would write bland, boring stuff that pleased no-one with any taste.
I do have some regrets over the modern demand for a novel to be fast moving. One of the things I like about the Victorian novels, for instance Dracula, is that the excitement builds up slowly. That was expected in those days, when writers structured their novels to fill three volumes (it wasn’t economical to publish shorter works).
It is true that some writers took this to extremes: Vanity Fair moves along at a snail’s pace at the beginning, gradually building up to the famous word pictures of the middle of the novel. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers begins with a fairly dull description of ‘Monkshaven’ (Whitby) and its inhabitants in the late eighteenth century.
Wuthering Heights, by contrast, begins with Lockwood meeting the middle aged, grimly unsociable Heathcliff, in possession of the house.
That in a way predate the once fashionable device of writing an exciting episode by way of a prologue to give the reader a taste of the excitement to come, after that returning to a more leisurely exposition.
The prologue is completely unfashionable at the moment. It seems that readers, editors and publishers alike hate them.
I am willing to bet that some enterprising reader will find a way of writing one that works perfectly, causing readers to read on even as they call out in dismay, ‘Oh no! A prologue: yuk!’
After this, everyone will go back to including prologues in their novels: there will be hundreds of blog posts written on how to make your prologue the one that stands out…
In a way, the ‘Luring the reader’ bit is all part of the fast moving aspect. I am always having to remind myself that in a page turner there must not be too much discussion, not too much moral agonising, only enough to show how the main character is suffering from every sort of discomfort. Generally, the events must pile up one on another too quickly for the characters to have time to go in for that, anyway…
The ‘Abridge’ part can be painful. Writers often get down to that when writing the second draft. ‘Killing your darlings’ is a wrench, but if an incident doesn’t forward the action, then it should go.
But, it would surely be a shame to delete the best of these altogether. They might be useful as the basis for a short story (as suggested by Rayne Hall in her excellent book on writing short stories to publicise novels). They could form part of another novel.
I am always amazed at how clarifying and simplifying sentences reduces the word count. As for the adverbs and the adjectives, I don’t understand how so many creep in.
The ‘stakes being high’ bit is self-explanatory. If the protagonist doesn’t stand to lose a fair amount, then it isn’t going to be gripping.
I remember reading a novel about the sufferings of a group of young male volunteers in the army with a fanatically organised and clearly slightly deranged sergeant. The stakes would have been high, had it been set during a war, or if they couldn’t resign for years, or if their family backgrounds had been so deprived that this was the only way of their helping to support their families and they would have to stick it out, or if any of them had set their hearts on succeeding in the army – or even all four at once.
As none of these applied, the stakes seemed rather low. I probably kept on reading as I rather liked the protagonist.
Of course, if the reader is indifferent to the protagonist, then it doesn’t matter how high the stakes are, the dramatic tension all goes to waste.
I remember reading a short story years ago about a single teenage girl’s agonised letter to her baby, explaining why she was giving her up for adoption.
Obviously, the stakes here were about as high as could get for any woman. As a mother myself, you would think I would have been moved. For some reason I wasn’t.
Perhaps it was partly because the story was written in the second person, a form that I dislike, and which surely requires more skill than is usually to be encountered among novice writers to pull off.
Perhaps it was because the story was set in this century in this country, where the difficulties encountered by a single mother are extremely mild compared to those, for instance, met with by the intrepid Esther Waters in the late Victorian novel of that name by George Moore. She faces the workhouse and utter moral condemnation.
I also found the protagonist both self-pitying and ineffectual, an unattractive combination enough in any protagonist except a comic one – unless they are going to develop into the opposite – in which case, it’s a fascinating starting point. Perhaps this girl was intended by the author to be wholly inadequate, but showing the potential to transform; if so, though, the story showed little enough indication that she was meant to be anything other than a tragic heroine.
Anyway, I guessed at once that it would lead to the girl talking – or rather, writing – herself round into keeping the baby, and that is exactly what she did.
In a way, in writing that example, I have dealt with the heights of emotion aspect as well. I must remember to make my protagonists sympathetic, so that readers are drawn into their trials.
This is probably the hardest, most indefinable quality to aim for in characters. There are obviously pitfalls to avoid – very few readers these days like, or can identify with, a Mary Sue or a Marty Stu (though it seems that many did, as recently as the nineteen-seventies: Heather and the rapist hero in The Flame and the Flower, anyone?), for instance.
But finally, what makes a reader like or dislike a character, and/or identify with him or her, seems to be something difficult to pinpoint, and without a reader identifying with at least one of the main characters, it is difficult for that sense of catharsis to be reached in the conclusion following the emotional heights.
Difficult, perhaps, but not impossible, because I still felt it at the end of Wuthering Heights: though I found it impossible to sympathize with Heathcliff, I did, like Lockwood, feel that sense of peace at the end when he stands by the graveyard on the moor.