6 Steps to Hooking Your Reader: How to Write a Page Turning Novel


by Ruth Harris

"First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, then you do it for money."

Ralph Ellison said it. Or was that Virginia Woolf? Depends on who you ask, but no matter where you are on the spectrum from Doing It For Love or Doing It For Money, the bottom line is that you want to hook your readers and make them read—and keep on reading.

Like Anne, I'd come to publishing out of college with Proust and Shakespeare, Camus and Joyce fresh in my mind. At publishers like Bantam and Dell, I was introduced to the world of popular fiction, bestsellers and genre paperbacks. I found myself working with experienced editors and successful professional writers and it was from those savvy pros that I first learned the tricks of the trade—the down-and-dirty nuts and bolts of how to create grabby, page-turning fiction.

Knowledge that once could be obtained only from pros working in the offices of NY publishers is now available on the internet. The pearl-clutchers can interpret this as fair warning to leave the room because we're going to get into the finer points of how to hook a reader—and keep him or her coming back for more.

Step #1: The first sentence.

Whether browsing in a book store or checking out the "Look Inside" feature online, the first sentence is the first thing your prospective reader will see. The first sentence can and very often will make the difference between an intrigued reader who keeps reading and one who shrugs and moves on to the next book.

The first sentence represents the reader's first impression and it must rouse curiosity, lust, anticipation, anxiety, recognition. The first sentence can also shock, surprise, evoke an atmosphere, set a tone, establish a voice.

The great first sentence will go down in history. For example—

"Call me Ishmael." - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it." J.D. Salinger, Catcher In The Rye (1951)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

"Last night I dreamt I was in Manderley again."—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." - Gabriel García Márquez, (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Short or long, character-driven or not, these examples make it obvious there is no single approach governing the creation of a great first sentence. All approaches welcome, the decision is up the writer.

Even so, here are some guidelines to help get you started when you contemplate writing your own memorable, sensational, absolutely awesome first sentence—

Step #2: The first chapter.

A conflict? An inciting incident? The main character? The theme? The tone? The setting? Your first great sentence needs to be followed by a great first chapter.

Anne runs down an on-target 10-point check list (with examples) for editing your first chapter.

How, strategically speaking, should you begin your novel? Here’s an easy-to-follow analysis from Writer’s Digest of 4 classic ways to begin a novel (with helpful examples).

Editor and author, Suzannah Windsor Freeman, analyzes the essential ingredients that make a first chapter irresistible.

Want to grab readers by the cojones? "Eschew Exposition, Bypass Backstory." Chuck Wendig offers 25 tips. (Warning: colorful language.)

Bestselling mystery author and writing authority, Elizabeth Sims, suggests 8 ways to write a 5-star Chapter One.

Freelance editor, Tessa Shapcott, focuses on the Golden Rules of writing the first chapter of a romance.

Top ranking author, Jacob Dunn, runs down first chapter musts if you’re writing Fantasy.

Jennifer Neff’s Pinterest board presents a menu of do's and don'ts + a checklist for nailing that first chapter.

Step #3: The Cliffhanger.

Readers say they hate cliffhangers. OTOH, readers can't resist them.

Cliffhangers at the end of a book rouse hostility and hatred. Cliffhangers at the end of a chapter are the engine that keeps the pages turning. The chapter ending cliffhanger forces the reader to wonder about what’s going to happen next.

The chapter ending cliffhanger is where the author must find his/her inner sadist and show no mercy. You will be shameless. You will not give the reader a choice. The right last sentence of a chapter will force the reader to turn the page and read on.

The end of the chapter is where the writer does something—anything—to make the reader turn the page: end on a note of irresolution, ask a question, heighten the suspense, turn the screws.

Cliffhangers are about conflict, internal or external, and leave the reader with no choice except to turn the page.

Scientist and author Cheryl Reif explains the someone and something of writing a cliffhanger.

S.M. Worth, author of speculative fiction, analyzes the power of the cliffhanger and offers some how-tos.

Examples of the cliffhanger from Shakespeare to JK Rowling.

20 great cliffhangers in TV.

Step #4: The Overview.

Russell Blake on how to write a page turner: it's all about structure!

Chuck Wendig relies on pacing, danger and escalation.

Author of mystery and psychological suspense, Hallie Ephron, lists 20 tips to writing a page turner.

An editor's advice about the how-tos of writing a page turner.

Author of historicals and regencies, contemporary suspense and paranormals, Nancy Gideon's 8 rules for writing a page turner.

How to write a page turner using movie trailer tips.

The need for speed: Don't slow your reader down so lose the baggage and cut the fluff.

YA author, Julie Musil, talks about the necessity of a good ask/answer cycle

Step #5: The Big O: How To Write A Killer Ending (That Will Have Them Breaking Down Your Doors For More).

Writer's Digest reveals the 3 guidelines for writing a great ending + the real magic of Part Four.

Joanna Penn talks do’s and don’ts about how to surprise—and satisfy—the reader.

Author Nancy Kress talks about the surprise ending, the barely-there ending, and the classic denouement ending and tells which different kinds of endings work for different kinds of books.

Wisconsin author Christi Craig takes a different view and discusses three ways to approach writing your ending.

From the Atlantic, an article about the matter of writing a believable happy ending.

Step #6:

Sorry, but you’re going to have to turn the page. ;-)

by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) January 31, 2016

Ruth Harris is a NYT-million-book-selling author and former Big 5 editor. She posts here on the last Sunday of every month.


CAMILLA FANS: This week Anne is over at The Camilla Randall Mysteries blog where you can see what actors she'd choose to play Camilla's bad boyfriends. Come on over and vote for the unsuitable suitors you'd like to see more of!



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