I have just finished reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s ‘How to Write a Page Turner’. I thought the advice in it was invaluable.
Not only that, but it is detailed; too many ‘how to’ books for writers are not sufficiently specific. You might be told to ‘infuse the pages with tension’ and to ‘keep raising the conflict’ besides, ‘creating memorable characters’ , but the writers might just as well say ‘be talented’ ‘write with flair’ or some such thing.
This advice is also concise. There is no waffling and rambling. You are told exactly what to do and how to do it.
The author’s main argument is this: what is needed to create a page turner is tension, tension all the time. We are often told that tension and conflict are what drive a plot forward, but in fact, conflict is arguably another aspect of tension.
The author breaks down the specific forms of tension into four elements, danger, conflict, uncertainty and withholding. She describes how these can be utilised, and in further chapters goes on to discuss in detail tension with characters, plot tension, and tension in exposition.
In the part on plotting, there is an especially helpful bit on a plotting device that may well prove priceless for people like me, who generally start out without any but the vaguest plot in mind.
Ms Rosenfeld divides the sections of a book into various ‘Energetic Markers.
Firstly, there is the Set Up: that is, your character’s ordinary world. This is closely followed – usually, within approximately 30 pages –by the Inciting Incident, namely, some sort of threat to the order of that character’s ordinary world. About a quarter of the way through comes the Point of No Return, that is, when your character becomes inextricably caught up in a course of action or events from which there is no returning to the old status quo. In due course, the Dark Night and the Triumph follow.
The latter is when your protagonist takes on the antagonist, be that antagonist an arch evil dictator or a series of impersonal conventions. This does not necessarily lead to a happy ending, but should be some sort of moral triumph.
(This interests me, as Nineteen Eighty Four, in the final confrontation between O’Brien and Winston Smith, far from there being any sort of moral triumph for the forces of good, they are in the person of Smith completely destroyed; he not only betrays Julia, but he comes to love Big Brother. The reader is left with a sense of complete despair).
There is detailed advice about how to maintain that tension at each of these points. Obviously, however, with regard to keeping up a reader’s interest, the most important part is the beginning. If people are going to stop reading, it is usually in the first quarter of the book (here, I think I can claim a record; at least two people stopped reading halfway through That Scoundrel Émile Dubois when I thought that I had really ramped the excitement up, with vampirism and time warps raining down.)
Ms Rosenfeld provides some important hints about retaining reader interest early in the novel. She points out that here, to keep your readers’ attention, you must have as much excitement as you can. You must make the character sympathetic, not by giving a lot of detail about past trauma, etc – but by putting him or her in a situation where there is tension from the start, due to unhappiness, some sort of imminent threat, external or internal, and perhaps due to some unspecified past event that has brought about this state of unease or threat.
She describes how large chunks of back story, an excess of exposition, or an unexplained or not sufficiently relevant inciting incident can lose readers’ attention in those first, crucial pages up to the ‘call to change’ in the inciting incident.
There are also some excellent hints about style and the use of imagery to create gripping word pictures.
Another interesting aspect of Rosenfeld’s approach is her recommendation that rather than thinking in terms of plot development – apart from through those ‘Energetic Markers’ that is – the writer should think in terms of individual scenes, each of which must have its own goal and arc of tension, the combination of which create the plot structure.
My main criticism of this book is that I didn’t understand why the author made reference to, but chose to use almost nothing in the way of example from classic, brilliant writers ike Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King.
Instead, she quoted extensively from a range of less distinguished authors. Some were excellent, but unfortunately, some, far from making me want to turn the page, made me want to stop reading on the spot.
It may have been that I was in a particularly cranky mindset when I read this. Still, in the extracts I came across sentences without subjects or verbs. As Ms. Rosenfeld shows from her advice that she has an expert knowledge of grammatical rules, I think there must be a general understanding that in YA fantasy these can be abandoned for effect.
There were also fantasy worlds apparently based vaguely on European feudalism that even from the extracts sounded economically impossible with such a small economic surplus (unless they maintained their oversized courts largely through magic). There was an astonishing historical anachronism in a serious historical novel that made me snort into my tea.
Many of the characters seemed to be flaccidly self-indulgent and self pitying (I hope these were the tension creating flaws that they needed to overcome). Finally, a large number of the names were (seemingly unintentionally) ludicrous.
As these are best selling books, my objections are obviously a minority viewpoint. A couple of the books sounded so interesting that I may well get round to reading them myself.
Overall, then, I would recommend reading this book for the excellent advice about tension, and only skimming through the extracts.