Infuse Your Fiction with the Powerful Tug of Tension! Tension is the heart of conflict, the backbone of uncertainty, the hallmark of danger. It keeps readers guessing and characters on their toes. When you've got tension in place, stories leave readers breathless and wanting more. When it's missing, scenes feel inconsequential, plots drag, and characters meander. Learning the craft of writing can sometimes feel like a paint by numbers approach--connect compelling character A to plot event B. To avoid writing that's formulaic, predictable, and slow, How to Write a Page Turner will help you sew the threads of tension tight for an unforgettable story. You'll learn how to:
- Recognize the essential tension elements of danger, conflict, uncertainty, and withholding, and add them to your fiction
- Create levels of tension in your characters through flaws, dialogue, power struggles, and more
- Build tension at energetic markers throughout the plot
- Use intimate imagery, strong sentences, and well-chosen words to build tension in exposition
While this book walks you through the key areas that need tension building, from character to plot, it also delves deeper, analyzing exceptional examples from contemporary fiction's most gripping page-turners. So as you dive into the inner conflicts of a character's deepest psyche, to the mechanics of how you reveal information to the reader, you'll also discover how to craft a story your readers can't put down!
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Read an Excerpt
Picture these scenarios: You peer out your window and see a child running into the road just as a car is headed its way. Do you go back to your dishes, or do you snap to attention and run out to attempt to intervene? Or, you're backpacking with some friends up a steep trail. Your friend stumbles and goes over the edge, where a tough root she clings to is the only thing keeping her from falling to an untimely death. If you reach out to help her, you might fall, too. Do you sit back and call 911 or rush to help? Or what about this: A father who is twice as big as his young daughter looms over her with an angry sneer for not having made her bed military neat. If she doesn't make it perfect, he tells her, in the next five minutes, she doesn't get to eat dinner. Again.
In each of these scenarios, the fictional person is in some kind of danger. Physical danger. Emotional danger. How do you feel when you think about these scenarios? Calm and sedate? Anxious and agitated? Did you notice your heart began to beat a little faster, your mind readied itself for alertness? Danger is such a primal element that we are physically hardwired to anticipate and respond to it not only in real life but even when reading about it on the page. As readers, our built-in human empathy for the character in danger engages, and we instantly want to do something: rescue them, take action, or help them marshal the strength to get themselves free of it.
Danger is a master tension tool. When it's present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What's more, it's a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.
Of course, like any element, you don't want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you'll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader's heart and mind so they don't stop reading.
In this chapter we'll explore two main types of danger: 1) threat of harm or death, also called "physical danger" and 2) psychological danger, ranging from mind games to mental abuse to when your character stands to lose someone or something they love.
Characters can get into all kinds of physical danger: danger they seek out on their own because they're adrenaline junkies or reckless individuals; danger that comes to them by accident, such as an act of nature or a car crash; and a very important kind of danger — that which the antagonist creates for them.
When your protagonist gets into danger, the reader will be unable to put down the book, especially if the peril is imminent. Physical danger, or the threat of it, is especially compelling because it often signals future harm or death if the character doesn't get out of the situation. While it might not seem very nice to make readers afraid for your characters, it's an incredibly effective page-turning technique.
Here we'll look at a passage, which is just one of many in Gabriel Tallent's dark literary novel My Absolute Darling. Julia "Turtle" Alveston is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives with her survivalist father, Martin, and elderly grandfather in a ramshackle cabin somewhere near Mendocino, California. Turtle's mother died so long ago that Turtle doesn't remember her.
Tallent doesn't tell us that Martin is abusive; he demonstrates it constantly as Martin puts Turtle in danger over and over again as a way of toughening her up, forcing her to be sturdy and strong in the world. To Martin's way of thinking, he's doing her a favor. Turtle doesn't know differently, though she starts to chafe against his behavior, but the reader does know and so we fear for her.
In an early scene in the novel, Turtle gets on her dad's case for having filed her good hunting knife too short, so that she feels it isn't sharp anymore. Martin gets testy. He feels that Turtle is questioning his judgment, something he will not allow. ("Kibble" is one of his nicknames for her).
"I want to show you something," he says.
"What?" she says.
"Jump up to the rafter, kibble."
"What are you going to show me?"
"Goddamn it," he says.
"I don't understand," she says.
"Goddamn it," he says.
"I know the knife is sharp," she says.
"You don't seem to know that."
"No," she says, "I trust you, I do. The knife is sharp."
"God f*cking damn it, kibble."
The dialogue goes on for some time until, goaded out of fear, she jumps up to the rafter and pulls herself into pull-up position on the beam. The danger intensifies.
Martin overturns the table from beneath her, spilling the deck of cards, the plates, candles, beer bottles ... leaving Turtle hanging from the rafter above the floor.
She thinks he'll let her down right away but he does not, and the danger intensifies yet again.
Then he raises the knife and lays the blade up between her legs, stands scowling up at her. He says, "Just hang in there."
Turtle is silent and unamused, looking down at him. He presses up with the knife and says, "Upsy-daisy."
Turtle is forced to do pull-ups to keep the knife from cutting her. She's strong and used to his abuse, but her resolve weakens and her physical strength falters before long.
Her legs quiver. She begins to lower herself but Martin says, "Uh —" abruptly and warningly, the knife resting against her crotch. She trembles, not able to fully raise herself back to the rafter and so puts her face against its splintery side, holding her cheek there. She strains, thinking, please, please, please.
He keeps her in this terrified thrall and forces her to do thirteen pull-ups. When she thinks she can do no more and is nearly crying, when any reasonable parent who is not abusive would have stopped, he says:
"You think the knife's sharp now, don't you?" he says. "You believe it now, don't you?"
And lest the reader think he wouldn't really hurt her, when she can take it no more and finally has to drop, he takes the knife away, but not fast enough, so it does cut her on the thigh. It's only a flesh wound, but enough to let the reader know that this man means business when it comes to his ability and willingness to harm his own daughter. Worse, he finds the situation funny and even laughs at her, when Turtle feels something entirely different.
Caught up in fear and hope for Turtle's safety, the reader is hooked despite the terrifying scenario.
The entire book is a tapestry of these threads of danger, both physical and psychological, which become more and more intense and push Turtle to new, dark edges of herself. The reader remains invested through this awful abuse because we are rooting for Turtle, who has taken some lessons from her father's abuse and turned out tougher than the average fourteen-year-old-girl. We are desperate for her to find a way out of this situation.
Here's another example of the threat of physical danger from Colson Whitehead's literary novel The Underground Railroad, which envisions a parallel reality in which there was a literal railroad, as in trains on a track, to help black slaves escape slavery in the American South (rather than the actual network of people that historically made up the Underground Railroad).
Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation where life is nothing short of hell, eventually escapes through a harrowing series of events that nearly kill her. She experiences a brief period of freedom, but eventually the slave chasers get wind of her whereabouts and she must go back on the run. Eventually, after she has gotten off the railroad in a town where she knows no one and is uncertain of her allies, she is taken in by a white couple, Martin and his reluctant wife, Ethel. In their house, she must live in a tiny, cramped, hot attic with one small window, where she stays silent and hardly moves most of every day in order not to be caught by incoming slave hunters.
One night, the infamous night riders who hunt down escaped slaves come to Martin and Ethel's home, and Cora waits above, trapped in her tiny room, to see if she will be discovered.
Cora had closed her eyes when their loud rapping on the front door shocked her. They stood directly beneath.
The next minutes moved with appalling slowness. Cora huddled in a corner, making herself small behind the final rafter. Sounds furnished details of the action below. Ethel greeted the night riders warmly; anyone who knew her would be certain she was hiding something. Martin made a quick tour of the attic to make sure nothing was amiss, and then joined everyone downstairs.
* * *
"Do you mind if we go up?" The voice was gruff and low. Cora assigned it to the shorter night rider, the one with the beard.
Their footfalls were loud on the attic stairs. They navigated around the junk. One of them spoke, startling Cora — his head was inches below her. She kept her breath close. The men were sharks moving their snouts beneath a ship, looking for the food they sensed was close. Only thin planks separated hunter and prey.
Notice how Whitehead focuses on specific details that hold Cora's attention: the sound of their footfalls on the stairs. The timbre of their voices. She quickly begins to think of them as literal predators. For Cora, being found means certain death at best, torture or rape, at worst. As the reader waits with Cora to find out her fate, we are compelled to turn pages at a furious clip as we root for her survival.
There's another form of physical danger that has nothing to do with the menace of another character — danger that originates from nature.
Numerous blockbuster films and books feature a character or cast of characters who survive a harrowing physical event or catastrophe. Nature is frightening because it is so often out of our control. We can't stop the avalanche, the hurricane, or the tsunami; we can only try to survive it. And in surviving such a disaster, characters are often stretched and tested to point where they reveal their most essential selves. It's during such danger that people often reveal themselves for who they truly are: altruistic and caring for others, or only looking out for their own survival.
In Claire Kells's novel Girl Underwater, nineteen-year-old competitive swimmer Avery Delacorte is one of five people who survive a plane crash (no spoiler — this happens in the earliest chapters) along with her classmate Colin. The scenes in which Kells details their escape from the plane and subsequent survival are riveting for how they inspire fear for Avery, Colin, an unnamed pregnant woman, and two small children.
It hits me like demon's breath, angry and sharp. I wasn't sure what the actual dying part would be like, but this feels all wrong. Everything is too dark. Too noisy. And the cold isn't a dull passing-over from one place to the next; it bites.
I take a breath, my ribs splintering with the effort. Oxygen finds my lungs. I'm not dead. I'm not dead.
Icy water is rushing in from somewhere, and it's already past my knees. My toes are numb, and my fingers are getting there. I try to move them, but my pinkie is broken and the others are damn near frozen solid.
Colin. His fingers are still intertwined with mine, his knuckles whiter than the tray table. I pry them open, but it takes some serious effort. He's got me in a viselike grip.
"Colin!" I shake him hard. "Colin!"
His size makes him an easier target for flying debris, but he seems to have avoided a mortal injury: no obvious head trauma, no penetrating wounds. His shirt, though, is spattered with a decent amount of blood. Selfishly, I hope it's someone else's because I want Colin to make it. He needs to make it.
What's even more amazing about the power of danger and its ability to create tension is that the scenes of survival take place in the past; we already know that Avery and Colin survive, but we don't know the details or why Avery avoids Colin. Even with our knowledge of their survival, the past-tense chapters quaver with tension as we read to find out how they navigated their near death in a snowy and unforgiving landscape.
Considerations for Creating Physical Danger
When characters are in true danger, or think they are, they are most likely not going to do a lot of thinking and instead live in the realm of instinct: action and reaction. Danger is a terrible time to have your character stop and think too much. Keep analysis to a minimum unless your character is in a situation in which they have no choice but to try to think of a way out.
Here's what to do instead:
Keep to sensory imagery. Instead of relying on expository habits to tell the reader how your character feels, use bodily sensation and metaphor to communicate emotion. What sorts of emotion does danger evoke? Terror, fear, anxiety? Sometimes regret and anger at the self for having put oneself in the situation. What does terror feel like in your character's body? Is it a wildly beating heart in the throat? Full-body sweating? A sick gnawing in the gut? You get the idea.
Draw upon forces outside your character (nature, antagonists, accidents) to exert pressure upon your character. While characters do sometimes put themselves in danger, the danger that brings the most anxiety comes from forces they didn't summon and cannot control.
Take the power or control away from your character (powerlessness is a key factor in danger). Raise the stakes so that with the blizzard comes the threat of an avalanche. An earthquake seals off an escape route. A mudslide threatens to push a car off a cliff.
While danger is key to creating tension, you must be able to resolve the danger at some point, so don't create scenarios that come without rescue eventually. The solution can be a creative one from left field, and whenever possible, it should, involve the ingenuity, quick thinking, courage, and strength of your protagonist and main characters. Even when your characters are rescued by someone else, you don't want them to be passive victims in their rescue. They should play some kind of key part.
EMOTIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL DANGER
Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character's personality or choices.
What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is "emotional danger." This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person's trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist's marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you've entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorizes, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.
Here's a good example from Sara Pinborough's thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he's her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger — a relationship with a boss could put one's job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he's also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.
But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David's wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn't work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can't help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.
Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.
Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David's wife and in a secret affair with Adele's husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.
It only gets worse when Adele starts to act like an abused spouse, describing her husband as controlling in the extreme. This is very different from the person Louise sees in David, but she cares for Adele and believes that somewhere in between David's and Adele's stories lies a more benign truth.
As Louise begins to justify her actions, the reader senses that she is setting herself up for trouble. She stands to lose a lover, a friend, her job, and her self-respect.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How to Write a Page Turner"
Copyright © 2019 Jordan Rosenfeld.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author iv
Part 1 Essential Tension Elements
1 Danger 6
2 Conflict 19
3 Uncertainty 36
4 Withholding 48
Part 2 Tension with Characters
5 Tension in Character Goats 63
6 The War within Your Character 78
7 Use Character Flaws against Them 87
8 Torment Your Protagonist 100
9 Create Radical Reversals 108
10 Tense Talk 122
11 Power Struggles between Protagonist and Antagonist 135
Part 3 Plot Tension
12 Tighten the Tension of Your Inciting Incident 147
13 Build Tension at the Energetic Markers 157
14 Eliminate the Unnecessary 171
15 Shore up Scene Tension 180
16 Maximize Setting Tension 194
Part 4 Tension in Exposition
17 Create Sentences That Sing 208
18 The Power of images 219
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have a journalism degree and have been writing marketing copy and news article type stories for more than 20 years. But being tired of the "same old thing," I decided that I would take on a new personal challenge: to write a fiction book. Because fiction writing is so different from what I've done in the past, I've been poring over books that will help me learn all about the craft of fiction writing. That's why Jordan Rosenfeld's "How to Write a Page-Turner: Craft a Story Your Readers Can't Put Down" caught my eye. I was happy to have the opportunity to read and review it, thanks to NetGalley and Writer's Digest Books. "How to Write a Page-Turner" is filled with ideas and information that will turn your writing into compelling stories that the reader can't put down. Rosenfeld discusses the essential element of tension, and how to achieve it with scenarios that involve danger, conflict, uncertainty and withholding. She shows how you can use your book's main and minor characters to create tension, not only through power struggles, but also through the use of specific words, timing and internal struggles. Then she moves on to discuss how you can add tension to your story through plot elements. A well-placed and unexpected twist in the story can keep readers on the edge of their seats, for example. She also talks about how important it is to eliminate unnecessary words, which can deflate the rising tension. For each of her suggestions, she includes passages from fiction books which successfully created tension using her recommended techniques. It was very helpful to read tight, descriptive passages that often built tension in just a few words or sentences. These passages were so compelling that I found myself jotting down the names of these books and adding them to my "Books I've Got to Read" list. And that's the biggest disadvantage of this book: I now have a huge list of well-written books that I'm dying to read. When am I going to have time to write my own fiction story? (smile) I definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in writing a fiction book that will capture and hold your readers until the very end!
Tension is Key to Page-Turner Writer Jordan Rosenfeld has authored two books before this one about writing scenes, Make a Scene and Writing Deep Scenes. Having already delved deeply into two different approaches to writing scenes, she now pulls back and looks at writing a page-turner in a broader sense. The book is made up of four parts: Part One is essential tension elements, Part Two is tension with characters, Part Three is plot tension, and Part Four is tension in exposition. As you can tell, what Ms. Rosenfeld sees as the key to a page-turner is tension. I particularly enjoyed Part Two character focus, as it made me laugh out loud to contemplate chapters like The War Within Your Character, Use Character Flaws Against Them, and Torment Your Protagonist I find it interesting that plot is not really looked at until Part Three. Rather, it seems like the author believes that the elements of tension and how tension affects character are more important than how it affects plot. The term *more important* might be too strong of a phrase, but I think you must first understand the elements of tension at a basic level; then, too, characters in tension themselves can inspire plot. In the introduction, she discusses ideas like scene versus plot, breaking down basic ingredients for a scene and then defining plot. Some of this is pulled from her previous books. The chapters within the book have a similar structure: she defines what she's going to talk about, discusses her interpretation of the topic, gives examples from literature, and wraps up the chapter with takeaways that neatly summarize what you’ve just read and a *Now You* section that asked you to contemplate how this topic works in your own writing. This book does an excellent job of looking at conflict and tension both broadly and more specifically in terms of character, plot, and setting. I think most writers of fiction would find this a valuable addition to their library. I received a free advance copy of this book, but this did not affect my review.
If you want your readers to lose sleep because they can’t stop reading your book, How to Write a Page-turner will explain step-by-step how to it. Beginning with the four types of tension (danger, conflict, uncertainty, and withholding), the book explains exactly how to add each one to the characters, plot, and wording of your book. With copious examples from books of various genres, it is easy to see how other authors have used the described techniques to good effect. I have never read a Writer’s Digest Book that wasn’t a great tool. How to Write a Page-turner is no exception. This book assumes that you are editing your draft manuscript to ratchet up the tension. However, it would also be an interesting read for those still struggling to write that first chapter. 4 stars! Thanks to Writer’s Digest and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.
This book is written in a straight forward and practical manner, offering succinct advice into the plotting and drafting of a story and its characters. My favorite thing in this book were the several excerpts that were given as examples of what to do breaking the monotony of only being told what to do. Those books are in many cases works that many ya and fiction fans have already read or from authors that are a permanent fixture on the bestseller columns. I found myself making it a game of how many of those I had already read and how many authors I recognized. This book is well organized and the text is broken by several points as to make it less threatening, with each chapter, ending on a summary of what had been read and a "Now You" section where it challenges the reader to apply the new information to their own work.