Every author wants her book to be a page turner. How can you make sure yours is?
The short answer is write great scenes.
Think about why readers read. They are looking for a powerful emotional experience. A romance reader gets the vicarious opportunity to fall in love. The mystery reader shares the detective’s sense of urgency; if he doesn’t succeed, someone will die. The sci-fi reader is literally out of this world. And it’s not only fiction readers who are drawn in by the emotional pull of the world you create for them. Readers look to biographies, memoirs, narrative and family histories to provide the same kind of drama a novel delivers.
Here are five things to do to create scenes that will make sure you deliver on your promise to the reader that she will have an emotional experience:
Tie every scene to your book’s story arc. Your narrative is based on your protagonist seeking a goal he is strongly motivated to reach. If your scene doesn’t involve your protagonist striving to achieve that overriding goal, it doesn’t belong in the book. Each scene shows your protagonist taking a step toward his goal, but facing some sort of obstacle which must be overcome to get there. That means action. Something has to happen. It’s only through action that your protagonist advances toward his overall goal. That action revolves around the protagonist seeking to achieve some smaller goal or resolve some obstacle impeding his progress. The protagonist may achieve his immediate goal (although if this happens too often, the story won’t be very dramatic), partially achieve it, or be totally frustrated in his attempt. Whatever the result of the conflict, by the scene’s conclusion the protagonist should be presented with a new problem that he must solve in an upcoming scene.
Use your point of view character as a lens through which the reader experiences the action. What is the character experiencing as the action unfolds? The action is external and objective. The reader can see what’s happening. But what is your character feeling? What interior monologue is going on within the character’s head? Is the gorgeous hunk your romantic heroine is lusting after really going to choose that vacuous bimbo? And more important, let the reader see her reviewing her options to prevent that from happening. What she’s thinking and feeling may not be reflected in the actions she’s taking in this scene, but they will be important later in the book.
Heighten the tension by tightening the relationship between your character’s actions and feelings. Literary agent Donald Maas, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel advises, “… the most common flaw I see in manuscripts …is failure to invest every page of the novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest.”
Both what happens, the action, and what the character feels about those events and what may occur down the road are sources of tension. A good scene intertwines both. Confronted with a problem, the character acts anticipating a certain outcome. The action provokes a response from her antagonist. It’s not the one the protagonist hoped for. She reacts emotionally, and considers what to do next, then acts again. An effective scene is a feedback loop reflecting the tension between action and the emotional reaction it provokes moving the conflict which projects the story forward into the next scene.
Pay attention to world building. Wait a minute, you’re saying, I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy. The world you build for your characters is still essential to telling your story even if your setting is familiar in the present day. Your reader can’t experience the emotional impact of a scene unless she can truly feel like she’s there. Whether you book is set a gritty neighborhood in Oakland, features the glamour of Hollywood, is driven by the cut-throat pursuit of profits on Wall Street, or unfolds amid the languid beauty of a Caribbean resort, your setting creates an atmosphere which makes the action and your character’s feelings about it feel appropriate to your reader. Verisimilitude matters, and you have to provide it in a way that doesn’t interrupt the forward flow of the action and emotional tension of the story. If the action you’ve written could happen in either Paris or Peoria you have a problem with thescene.
Nothing beats good dialogue. “Readers tend to skip along through novels,” said Elmore Leonard, “but, they won’t skip dialogue.” One of the best ways to create strong scenes is to make them dialogue-driven. For one thing, a dialogue-driven scene will never fall into the trap of narrative summary. If your characters are talking your reader gets to eavesdrop. That’s about as immediate an experience of what’s happening on the page as you can provide. Just make sure your characters aren’t giving speeches. Unless they are politicians or lecturing in a college classroom few real people do. Find the crisp rhythm of the speech you would be likely to hear in the world you’ve created. Nothing builds dramatic tension in a scene like sharp dialogue.
Scenes which contain these five ingredients will create powerful emotional experiences for your reader, keep her turning pages, recommending your book to friends and buying your next one.