Publication Date: March 19th, 2019. Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books. 224 pages.
“Between the very sentences of page-turning stories thrums an element that pulls you on beneath your notice, beckoning you forward with an outstretched finger, your heart beating in anticipation all the while.”
Jordan Rosenfeld, who is the author of four other books on writing, begins this book by talking about tension in your writing. She says, “Tension in novels, stories, and even memoirs is like the connective tissue that allows muscles to attach to bones, and thus flex their might.” Tension is what keeps the reader interested. It is what makes them want to keep reading deep into the night. She says that writing can sometimes feel like paint-by-numbers, but if you follow that easy approach to writing, your work will feel formulaic. This book teaches its reader how not to do this.
“A good story is a created, stylized, and crafted version of reality.”
The beginning of this book has a useful overview of the very basics of writing. For example, Rosenfeld lists what every scene needs: a protagonist, an antagonist or allies, a POV, momentum, new plot information, tension, a setting and time period, thematic imagery (also known as sensory imagery), and a small amount of narrative summary (i.e. it cuts to the chase when necessary to keep the plot moving).
“While we also read for noble reasons, such as to learn and expand our horizons, readers enjoy sloughing off the skin of their own life and entering the life of others.”
Rosenfeld uses examples from novels throughout the book to illustrate her points. For example, she uses sections of Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling in order to show how an author can skillfully capture the reader’s interest by putting a character in danger. These examples are often long. Some of them I found quite interesting (to the extent that I put the books on my Goodreads TBR list) and some of them I found so tedious or long that I just skipped them. Often in those cases, the point the author was making was so obvious that it did not need to be explained with a lengthy example.
“Your plot is built upon big conflicts, but every scene requires some amount of conflict to keep it tethered with tension.”
Arguably the most important part of writing a page-turner is to make sure that there is conflict and tension throughout. There are many types of conflict including person vs. person, vs. self, vs. society, vs. nature, vs. technology, and vs. the supernatural.
“Predictability may keep your life feeling orderly, but in fiction, it’s a death knell.”
Rosenfeld says that uncertainly about what is going to happen to your characters is a great way to build tension. When a character feels anxiety, it keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat. It is also important to withhold things (information, achieving goals, etc) from the characters for as long as possible.
“Goals drive scenes and plots. In their absence, tension slacks.”
The author says that the best way to create compelling characters is to give them goals (overcoming an obstacle, self-improvement, etc) so that they undergo “an arc of change” from who they were at the beginning of the novel to who they are at the end. She says that characters should not be too self-actualized at the beginning of the novel, or else they won’t be believable, but that they can and should grow and evolve during the course of the story. Flawed characters who strive to better themselves are just more interesting than characters without flaws.
“A significant amount of tension in your story will not come from big external plot events or antagonists directly but from within the complex and roiling inner landscape of your character’s emotions.”
Rosenfeld says that writers can create tension by making their characters emotionally complex. She refers to what she calls “surface feelings” (the four “primary colours of emotion” – angry, sad, afraid, and happy) versus “subset feelings” (more complex layers of emotion). She says, “single-note emotions can read as caricatures, as stereotypes of emotion or melodrama.” Each character should have a large range of emotions, for example, they should not always be angry for the same reasons or in the same way. The author says that giving the character an internal conflict will help mold a more complex character, but that “you don’t want conflict so unrelenting that the character seems neurotic or full of angst. Their conflict should rise and fall along with the stakes of the plot.”
“Readers connect with real people – people like us who have doubts and insecurities, who are haunted by past mistakes and family secrets, bad breath, klutziness, and more.”
Rosenfeld says to make your characters flawed. This can include having something tragic in their backstory, exhibiting bad behaviour, etc. She suggests that there should be a character arc in the book where the character learns to overcome their foibles. She also says that once you have identified your character’s flaws, you should exploit them, having their flaws trip them (or another character) up.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen to your character right now? Do that?”
This last quote was the advice that Rosenfeld’s creative writing teacher gave to her and she has taken it to heart. She says to put your characters in a jam whenever possible: take away something that is important to them, push them out of their comfort zones, give them some bad luck, etc.
“A reversal requires your protagonist to change course and rethink their strategy. It’s a defeat – sometimes tiny, sometimes huge – that forces change.”
I found many of the chapters a bit repetitive and the chapter on “radical reversals” was, in my opinion, too similar to the previous chapter on throwing obstacles in your character’s way. Reversals are more specifically when things seem to be going well for the character and then an obstacle gets in his or her way (as opposed to pure and simple bad luck), but I felt like they could have been combined into one chapter. Rosenfeld makes a good point that “when you reverse your character’s fortune or course, you essentially force your character to become creative and stronger.”
“Dialogue is an instrument or a tool that you wield for very specific effects. And the way characters talk to each other contributes to the necessary tension that drives the story forward. You can work a great deal of tension into just a couple lines of dialogue and deliver extended understanding of character”
Rosenfeld says that although pleasantries and casual dialogue might be realistic, they make for boring dialogue. She argues that there should be tension in all dialogue, not just between the protagonist and the antagonists, with very few exceptions. Dialogue is so important because it is a main way the reader gets to know the characters. Dialogue should also further the plot, though it should reveal rather than explain the plot.
“There is a tendency to equate antagonists with stereotypical evil villains like sociopaths and serial killers; however, the truth is that an antagonist is any force that opposes the goals and desires of your protagonist.”
Rosenfeld has a very informative chapter on antagonists. She lists the types of possible antagonists, including the natural world, which is one that people often forget.
“Most books have two beginnings: the setup of the story that lays out the ‘ordinary world’ as it’s called in the Hero’s Journey story structure, and the inciting incident, where your protagonist’s reality changes and the plot begins in earnest.”
The author has a chapter on how to tighten the tension of the inciting incident in your novel. She says that if your setup pages are mostly backstory, you will lose your reader’s interest. She lists the factors that will help create a tension filled inciting incident.
“The Energetic Markers are the moments upon which plots pivot and the characters transform.”
Rosenfeld explains that Energetic Markers are called that because they require extra energy. There are four of them in a story: the Point of No Return, the Rededication, the Dark Night, and the Triumph. She explains all of them very well. I highlighted this chapter a lot.
“A passing line of thought, a description of an ordinary event, a character’s impression of someone – all of these things can be full of tension if the language is lyrical, active, energetic, and full of life.”
The author says that ultimately what makes a page-turner is the quality of the writing. She says to use strong verbs because “they are the muscle and energy of your sentences.” Cadence and flow are important in your writing. Making sure the writing is lyrical, almost poetic, will keep the reader engaged.
“Images are powerful and can be loaded with tension and dropped like little unconscious bombs into your sentences in numerous ways.”
How to Write a Page-Turner is not a dry textbook about writing. It is a beautifully-written book that uses large passages from other books to illustrate each point the author is making. In 224 pages, Rosenfeld touches on virtually every aspect of writing a book and argues that as long as you maintain tension throughout, it will make your book hard to put down. I highly recommend this book if you are a writer, but it is also fascinating if you are a reader who wants to understand why some books keep you up past bedtime while others fail to hold your attention.
Thank you to Net Galley and Writer’s Digest Books for the Advanced Reader Copy of this book.