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I've experimented with both critique partners and people I know (be they friends, family or colleagues) as unrewarded beta readers. The latter are very slow, sometimes reading slower than I wrote a first draft. Clearly, their reading periods are short and/or far apart. There are any number of personal reasons this may be understandable for an individual, but the pattern suggests I'm not writing page-turners people can't put down, which is presumably what every publisher and literary agent wants. And maybe that's why the former source of feedback often don't get back to me either.

We all know one kind of story that achieves that: the kind where the protagonist is always in danger and everything needs to be fixed now, and even then they'll still be in trouble. High-octane, so to speak. If you haven't read a book like that, you've probably watched a TV series that takes that approach, something like 24 or Death Note.

I really don't think the kinds of stories I want to tell, which explore themes and thrive on the ambiguous and thought-provoking, will ever look like that: at least, not if I'm their author, and my style stays as it is. But I do want to find some way to keep eyes on my work. (Apart from all the other obvious benefits, I'd get faster feedback on how to improve it.) So how else can a novel do that?

My stories are usually fairly fast-paced in terms of plot development; they don't have much in the way of padding or breathing spaces. But nor does everything that matters to the plot matter because a bomb might be about to go off. I'm worried I might be writing 20 years too late; because with so much choice today, people like to binge on something with the right kind of relentless addictiveness. Then again, if people are reading in the first place, they might be open to a broader range of experiences than those that TV as a medium provides.

  • 1
    What's your purpose in writing? Do you aim to become a best-selling author, or do you aim to tell the story you want to tell and if it happens to sell well then all the better, or do you simply aim to tell the story you want to tell and if it sells at all then that's just a bonus? – a CVn Sep 14 '18 at 20:27
  • @MichaelKjorling #2. – J.G. Sep 14 '18 at 21:02
  • Personally I find such books exhausting. Every once in a while you have to give the reader a little break. Let the character (and the reader) be calm for a bit and experience something of the world. – Stephen R Sep 15 '18 at 21:14
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"Page turner" does not need to be "high octane" in the sense of non-stop action and persistent danger. But it does need to have something (not necessarily action) going on, something that will keep reader's interest high.

You have mentioned TV series (24 or Death Note) as an example, and those are "action series". But let's take a look around and see if action series is the only series type that has audience glued to the screen.

Light sitcoms have a large share of viewers because of non-stop laughs and peculiar characters. In a world of books, this share imho is smaller, mostly because few writers have a skill to make readers laugh as much as comedy actors can. But sure, if you can put some good jokes and humorous situations in your book, this may turn it into a "page-turner".

Soap operas is another popular genre. I don't know if you want to make your book anything like a soap opera, but relationship drama can be an even more powerful page turner than high octane action.

More serious sitcoms (like "Sex and the City"), or movies like "Forrest Gump" or "Shakespeare in love" mix comedy and drama. Viewers very much care for the main characters, even though they rarely, if ever, get into a mortal danger.

There are many ways to make a book a "page turner", but this, I understand, is easier said than done. "High octane" action is a popular recipe that may be relatively easy to follow. Non-action drama I think is somewhat more difficult, and comedy is something that some people can create with ease, while others can't do even if their life would depend on it.

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What makes a page turner is that the reader is always wondering what will happen in the next few pages.

But, as @Alexander says, it doesn't have to be action, per se. It only means you have a constant hook (a long series of little hooks) of something unresolved, some problem that the MC must solve, and these are interwoven so that in the midst of solving one, another one begins.

Consider something like "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks. This is a man against nature film, basically (there is no villain persecuting Tom, just the difficulties of survival and escape, and then of reintegrating into a life where he was considered lost at sea and dead, his wife has taken a lover, etc). It isn't really an action movie, just a human drama, but the movie is good because they keep up this series of "Problem A solved but Problem B is going to kill him."

A mystery can be much the same. Puzzle A is found, solved, but leads to Puzzle B. We keep reading to learn about puzzle B, it is solved, but produces Puzzle C. Damn!

To be a page turner, even if it isn't an action story, you shouldn't go more than two or three pages without the reader having to wonder how the current situation is going to turn out soon. In a matter of pages. And it has to turn out, you can't keep up the same tease forever.

If you have a BIG reveal, your character can be thinking of that, worried about that, dreaming about that, and this can fill in for some spots where you don't have small reveals coming up.

For example, Amy must travel hundreds of miles to meet the witch in the black castle. The witch will grant her a favor she desperately needs to save her father's life, but will demand a price. Amy does not know what the price will be, but she has been told it will be painful, incredibly painful.

So you can give Amy some adventures and things to solve on the way to the black castle, things the reader will be wondering how they turn out in the short term. That keeps them reading. In between those adventures, Amy can be having nightmares and imagining all sorts of painful things the witch will demand of her. Perhaps a limb. Or her sight. Or she will carve a magical mark into her. Or perhaps she must be a slave to the witch for some time. Or the witch will take her soul! Amy will do it, she must save her father, but she dreads it the more she thinks of it.

Page turners are created intentionally, you must constantly stoke the reader's need to know what is going to happen next.

Some easy ways to accomplish this are through interesting conversations where Amy is learning something, and with new characters that come and go. When Alice is in Wonderland, she meets a series of characters that she may help or that she must get something from, or that persecute her or give her puzzles to solve. Situations also present puzzles to solve; e.g. the pills that make her grow big or small. That kind of thing works to keep the reader reading to find out how this encounter turns out: It won't be for the rest of the book, so they read to the end because it is interesting. But the end of one leads directly into the next situation to figure out.

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This is a little thing called pacing. Typically described as an upside down triangle for a scene / chapter.

Joe is going to the store - not very interesting, but starts the scene. Half way there, he notices a tremble. At first he thinks its the subway train passing underground and continues on not really caring about subway trains. He arrives at the store and notices the door is vibrating in his hand. Coincidence? He looks around, and at last up. His jaw drops open.

So yes, pacing matters. If you give the reader an excuse to close the book, thinking they have an appointment in the morning, or have to get to work early, then they may never pick your book back up. At least if the need to know what happens next is high enough, they'll do whatever it takes to keep your story with them until they find out.

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