What’s the secret to writing a page-turner – a book that you cannot put down?

What’s the secret to writing a page-turner – a book that you cannot put down?

This is the question that I think we would all like answered.

I have noticed that some books read really smoothly and quickly. You are swept along and cannot put the book down until you reach the final page. Other books are more leisurely but are very enjoyable in their own charming way, while some are difficult to get into, seem to block the natural flow and yet are deemed successful by ‘those who know’.

Having been made aware that much of my writing is ‘lumpy’ (a lovely description which makes me know exactly what it means) I plan to look at three different books that represent the three different types I have just mentioned to see what secrets they hold.

The first, the page turner: This book raced along. It almost seemed too simplified. Did it miss subtleties that make good literature that we can appreciate? This was by … no, I will not say the names of the authors for then you, like me, may already assume that they are brilliant – too good to criticise. This first author writes in short snatches of sentences, sentences that none-the-less create images that stay with you and speed you along with the action.

A sample of 76 words: (Sample ‘A’):

“A beer?”

“It’s customary to say a kind. Like … or something.”

“Oh, what have you got?”

The bartender started ripping off about a million titles. M stopped him on the Flying Fish Pale Ale, mostly because he liked the name. The beer ended up being awesome, but M wasn’t much of a connoisseur. He grabbed a wooden booth near a group of lovely young, uh, girls-cum-women. It was indeed hard to tell ages any more.” …

Comment: I find this really easy to read. My eyes sweep across the lines while I ‘get the picture’ immediately. I notice the sentences are nearly all short. They nearly always involve someone doing or saying something. The atmosphere and characters are created, I have decided, largely by the choice of vocabulary. The first person to speak is a man of few words, a man of action. The second has more time – slightly opinionated – why does he say “It’s customary to say” and not “People usually say”?, for example.

Now for Sample ‘B’:

“The wide reception squelched with the footsteps of my flat driving shoes as I walked over the polished stone slabs. To the right and opposite of the dark wood desk was a dark wood staircase with ornate banisters that swept up to the first floor. Coming down the stairs were two people. A couple.

They weren’t holding hands but had the air of being ‘together’. It was most likely their first holiday together. They’d probably spent the morning …”

Comment: This seems to be a more leisurely style. As the reader I have more time to savour the moment. Again the atmosphere and characters are created by choice of vocabulary – using the word ‘squelched’ rather than ‘made a noise’. The use of the preposition ‘of’ after ‘opposite’ made me stop for a moment – I was expecting something different – I was expecting opposite ‘to’. This sample is interesting and ‘easy’ to read because the sentence lengths are varied. There are even two words that are grouped as if making a sentence yet there is no verb to make it grammatically correct. However, I do not mind – it gets the point across. We are told not to repeat the same words close together but here the repetition of ‘dark wood’ emphasize the atmosphere, they do not detract from it.

Of the two styles, even though the first seems to fit the criteria of today’s successful writer, I prefer to have an opportunity or two to savour what is happening as in sample ‘B’.

sample ‘C’:

“She looked around the foyer. This being where N lived, and therefore some of the most expensive real estate around, the communal areas were furnished as if they were private, too; fresh flowers, sofas, a coffee table with magazines, thick carpet, artworks, no expense spared. It left her with a feeling that she was going to trespass into someone else’s apartment on her way to N’s. In the corner was a Victorian style desk with everyone’s  …”

This script I found less easy to follow. Why? I enjoyed the story and some of the most meaningful moments between the characters. Perhaps I find it more difficult because it seems to me that even though the sentences here are varied they do not seem to follow on from each other.

The first sentence lets me know who immediately and where she is. Good. However, then there is an awkward passage: “This being where N lived, and therefore some of the most expensive real estate around, the communal areas were furnished as if they were private, too; fresh flowers, sofas, a coffee table with magazines, thick carpet, artworks, no expense spared.”

Why say ‘This being where N lived’ and not “ N lived here” or “It was obvious that N lived here.” Or why not describe her looking directly at the objects mentioned later so that we are still with her and seeing the scene through her eyes?

The phrase “and therefore some of the most expensive real estate around” worried me. Why? I think it is because I became fixated with the word ‘some’. It was probably one property so why did the author not say ‘a most expensive piece of real estate’ – instead of ‘some of the most expensive  …’? Then I got hung up on the ‘too’ in ‘the communal areas were furnished as if they were private, too;’ I think the punctuation confused me here – I’d have preferred the words to flow on without the comma before ‘too’.  Finally the list of things in the foyer did not seem to help me absorb the atmosphere as well as the description in ‘B’ – why not? I think it is because there were so many different ones – too many to envisage or to appreciate fully. Maybe I would have preferred just one or two items mentioned and described a bit more. What colour were the flowers – what kind? Then the phrase ‘no expense spared’ worried me. it I expected would help me get involved with the scene but it did not seem to follow on directly from all the objects – yes the thick carpets, but everyone has coffee tables with magazines – they do not epitomize ‘expense’.

Perhaps I am being too picky but as one of the most ‘lumpy’ writers around, I hope I can take this to heart and look again at some of my own writing and improve it.




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