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Writing’s Most Essential Skill: Keep Them Turning the Pages

Categories: Children's Writing, Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns.

What should you write? How should you judge if you’re any good? How do you choose between two plot paths, two possible jokes, two possible protagonists? Should you aim for high art? Or just high sales figures?

During my first serious attempt to write a novel, these questions plagued me. Every night, I’d lie in bed, and the whirring of the fan was as incessant as my arguments with myself. I’d made a bad choice. No, a good one. This chapter would get me roars from the critics. And yawns from the readers. My old English professor would hate this passage. But that little girl who sits in the front of my class would eat it up like ice cream. What should I do? I have discovered, since those sweaty, tormented nights, a single answer to this host of questions: Keep ‘em turning the pages.

(What a movie can teach writers about how to start a story strong.)


 


Guest column by Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grimm, a
debut that was named a Best Children’s Book of the Year by Publishers
Weekly and School Library Journal, an Editor’s Choice by The New
York Times, and was selected as an ALA Notable Book. In addition to
writing, Adam teaches second grade, fifth grade, and high school in
Brooklyn, NY. See the book trailer here. See his author website here.

 

 

“Blasphemy!” cries my English professor. “Harlotry!” proclaims The Times.

But it isn’t. It is, rather, the first and most important skill that any writer can learn. Making your reader want to turn the pages—through tension, pace, humor, what have you—is the foundation of effective writing. A writer who can’t make his reader want to keep reading is like a painter who can’t draw accurately, or a composer with no sense of melody. If you can’t make people desire to turn the pages of your book out of sheer pleasure, fear, tension, or joy, then you haven’t written a book that anyone really wants to read.

“Obviously,” most aspiring authors agree. “We all want to write words that make our readers gasp and giggle and sigh. The question is, How?”

(Do writers need an outside edit before querying agents?)

HOW TO KEEP READERS TURNING PAGES

Here’s my method: Write with a friend, or a student, or even a critic, in mind, and think about how you could make that person want desperately to read every single page of your book. What can you put on that blank page that will make her devour it? And what can you put on the next page that will make her flip to it with such alacrity the ivory paper begins to tear near the binding? Choose a tough-minded friend, critic, student. Choose an honest one. Someone whose taste you respect and share, but not someone who would flatter you or laugh at just anything. Since I’m a teacher, and I write for young people, when I’m writing I try to keep in mind my smartest, most disruptive students; the ones who demand to be engaged on every level of their imagination, intellect, and emotions. The ones who want to answer every question when the lesson’s good, and are writing unflattering limericks about me when it’s bad. If I can keep those kids engaged, the rest are a piece of cake.

(Quick note: Keeping the pages turning does not mean death-defying action, which must be used sparingly, or the reader will get just as bored as if you didn’t use it at all. Sometimes it’s humor that keeps these tough readers gripped. Other times it’s high tension. Other times, it’s a tender scene—but, in my estimation, these should be used even more sparingly than action.)

To be a writer, you’ve got to be empathic, because you’ve got to be able to picture that friend, that critic, that student, and imagine how he or she would react to what you’ve written. Once you’re doing that—once you’re making that imagined image of that person laugh and gasp and sigh in your head, you are on the high road to success. The next step, of course, is finishing your manuscript, giving it to that person, and finding out if you were right. If you were, if you wrote something that a tough, smart individual genuinely loved, you are no longer a writer. You are an author.


 

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 4.12.53 PM

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43 Responses to Writing’s Most Essential Skill: Keep Them Turning the Pages

  1. bdmiller2556 says:

    Sage advice for writers of all types. As a professional trainer, I am writing content all the time. The only way to be effective is to constantly keep your audience top of mind. I try to imagine the learner sitting at his desk reading our training material. Granted, it’s not meant to be fun reading… but if it makes their jobs a little easier, than they will retain more information and come back more often. Nice work!

  2. mlnuttgill says:

    They always said, “Write with no one over your shoulder.” It is supposed to mean write honestly and if you have your mother in mind, you might not. Keeping a reader, your audience, in mind is the best way to write. I am also my audience so like another commentor said- if I am bored, your reader probably will be too. I would love to read either book, The fire in Fiction or A take Dark and Grimm.

  3. I always try to write with those “Heart Clutching Moments” strung throughout the book as little hooks to keep the readers going. After my first draft, I make a list of HCMs and edit to make sure there are no “dead spots” in the action. A HCM in each chapter–when done correctly–can keep your readers up to 3 am and get them waking up the next morning wishing to keep reading. Because, really, as writers, don’t we kind of want to make someone forget to take their kids to school because they couldn’t stop reading?

    No?

    Oh, maybe that’s just me…

  4. j.carnes says:

    I have always used my wife as my main reader. She is a discerning book carnivore that has no trouble telling me or highly published author when they are being lackluster and boring. I also use another method to tie in with that. I try to picture my scene as a movie playing on the big screen. Is this the moment that everyone goes out for popcorn refills? If I can keep THAT audience in their seats, and keep my own Constant Reader (Wife) turning the pages, then I know that I have something worth keeping.

  5. SimplyKatera says:

    I think THE pages –> sorry for typo!

  6. SimplyKatera says:

    *I absolutely agree with the point that writers need to be empathetic…I came from a health related field where I had to truly try to understand the discomfort and frustration my patients were going through. I try to twist that empathy that came from real experiences and incorporate it into my novel (or any writing). If the interactions and stakes are impressive and beyond what most people experience I think it the pages will keep flipping as you said! Thank you, it’s tough when as the writer you know what’s about to happen… so it’s good to sit back and imagine what someone feels who doesn’t know the characters fate!*

  7. LeftWrite says:

    Yes, I always write for one person: myself. That means I always have to be honest with myself, and the writing has to keep me entertained and intellectually challenged from the first word until the last. If I am bored or I cringe, even for one second, that means I have failed. Of course I will show it to other people, but If I can’t keep myself happy with my writing, how can I expect anyone else to be happy with it?

  8. kmcka says:

    Thanks for the information and looking forward to reading your book to learn more things!

    I find that the books that have 2+ threads running keep me turning the page because I want to see what happens next in each thread and they may not be just back to back chapters.

  9. ruqiwong says:

    Great advice to keep in mind the reader. The story’s clear in my mind, but when I transfer my thoughts onto paper, the reader may not think the same. Thanks.

  10. DSA says:

    Very timely. I’ve got a bright nine-year-old halfway across the country beta reading my middle grade novel. I’ve asked her to honestly tell me the boring parts, the parts that made her skim. She’s wonderful and I’m taking her comments very seriously.

  11. M&M says:

    Thank you so much for your advice! I’ve recently been struggling to write my own novel and wondering how I’m going to keep my readers turning the pages without having to do an action-packed scene every other page. I’m finding it quite useful to think of my book as if it were going to be made into a movie what would interest someone to want to make my book into a movie. So thanks again for your advice, I’m using all the advice I can find to build an amazing novel!

  12. smichel says:

    Since I work as a librarian and read to many kids, I know exactly what you mean by keeping your readers engaged. And the noisy, disruptive ones will still often listen to a gripping story. Good essay.

  13. wondering04 says:

    Makes sense to visualize a reader, but I suppose it would be good to have a reader in mind that would appeal to a broad audience.
    Heather

  14. chris13 says:

    Great idea, visualizing a reader. Guess it isn’t like the method to forestall stage fright when giving a speech: imagine the audience naked! I’m imagining teens reading my book while sitting outside school waiting for a ride.

    And I also love the cover…and the title.

    • chris13 says:

      Great idea, visualizing a reader. Guess it isn’t like the method to forestall stage fright when giving a speech: imagine the audience naked! I’m imagining teens reading my book while sitting outside school waiting for a ride.

      And I also love the cover…and the title.

      my email: chriskellywriter1@verizon.net

  15. ajkilbourn says:

    I have kind of mixed feelings about this article. First, the agreement: I definitely feel like it is important to write something that will keep people turning the pages. After all, the whole point in writing is to tell a story, and a story needs to be engaging and interesting enough that people will want to keep reading. My disagreement, though, comes from the idea of writing for someone else. For me, if I start writing for someone else I’m going to stop writing for myself, and I find that thought a bit sad. I don’t mean to sound self-centered or narcissistic, but if my writing isn’t for me anymore, I think it would turn into something I dreaded instead of an escape. Personally, I need that escape.
    As was mentioned before, I think it is important to write something that I would like to read. If other people like it, too, then that’s even better!

  16. auntstace says:

    As a grad student and writer of literary fiction, I get so frustrated with all the “authorities” that look down on any inclinations towards suspense, tension, engagement as something belonging only to the “lesser realm” of genre fiction! Every reader opens a book with the hope that it will be enjoyable to read. We may not expect it, but we still hope for it, and any form of writing can benefit from taking some time to think about the reader, what they feel while they are reading. You don’t have to sacrifice the story you have to tell, just tell it in a way that makes people want to read it!

  17. Jen1313 says:

    Thanks for the advice! And, love the trailer. So fun and inventive!

  18. countessj says:

    Absolutely! Considering audience is the first step of any endeavor, from cooking to writing!

  19. Awritingmachine says:

    Can’t wait to read the signed copy of your book!! I’d love to make my writing more page turning and sizzling. If you choose me, I promise to read the whole thing cover to cover. Seriously! Thank you!

  20. Martha Ramirez says:

    Your book sounds awesome! Great tips. Thank you!

  21. kmilligan says:

    Hi Adam! Great title because it’s a play on words, which in itself is intriguing and makes me want to read your book. Sound advice you shared because you present a target, a goal, a person to reach. Superior ideas because at the end of the day each of us yearns to touch a life, to make a difference, to reach out and change a life.

  22. gaylelynnm says:

    I would add one thought: Imagine that person was sitting in a chair in front of you, and then read the story aloud. Imagine their reaction.

    p.s. I do prescribe to the Swain, Bickham method of Motivation-Reaction units in scenes/sequels.

  23. sbsommer says:

    My husband is my hardest critic and my enthusiastic supporter–I’ve been keeping him in mind as I write my first novel, a fast-paced natural disaster story. I’d think that the person you keep in mind would change depending on what type of book you’re writing. I’m also writing a humorous ?book? on marriage, and wouldn’t expect him to pick that up in a million years, so as I write that, I’m thinking of a friend who’s just gotten engaged. Also, thanks for the reminder that we must FINISH writing our book. That’s the hard part for me.

  24. KC Frantzen says:

    Adam,

    Sounds like you are a wonderful teacher, for kids and writers.
    Thank you and congratulations.

    BTW, saw your book in the library earlier this year. Stunning cover!

  25. Clay says:

    love the title to the book. keeping the pages turning… the ultimate goal. thx for the post. good luck.

  26. barbie22 says:

    I write same genre that I read–I am my own target audience. So when I choose at a fork in the road, I think what I would like if I was reading it, not writing it. If it’s boring to me as a reader, then I go another direction as a writer. You’re never going to make every reader happy, so I make myself as a reader happy. If I’m lucky, others will be happy, also.

    Great article with great advice.

  27. andreadorn says:

    Great advice. When I write my children’s books I keep my niece in mind but I haven’t found an adult to focus on when I write adult books.

  28. Tim says:

    Okay – have to admit I’m on the fence on this one. Gonna have to give it a try, that’s for sure. Sounds like it would help focus for one thing – instead of thinking of a group, or type of reader (and trying to figure out their wants and desires) just focus on one particular reader — the quintessential reader — yeah, I guess that can work. What concerns me is that it sounds over-simplified, but hey, I’m not a published (fiction) author yet, so who am I to doubt? ;-)

  29. SBCole says:

    I always write for me, but a younger me. I write the stories that I would have loved if I were back in my teens again. I can’t imagine the mess I would make if I wrote certain passages for different people. Maybe with just one other person in mind…

  30. drdr2020 says:

    I write for my daughter. Nothing makes me happier than making her laugh. If she loves it, it doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks.

  31. mlh513 says:

    Writing to one person is an excellent idea. When I’m writing a letter to someone, the words just flow. In fact, I’ve thought of using the letters I’ve written to my niece over the years to create a book. She’s been in and out of prison and the letters show the progression of her in and out and why it keeps happening.

  32. jjohnsontate says:

    While I agree we need to keep that one reader in our target audience turning the pages (and Troublemaker is my middle name!), I still find myself sweating over the inevitable ONE person on a judges’ panel or group of readers who hates my writing. One said, “People don’t talk like that,” when I’d lifted a real-life conversation almost word for word. Another said she didn’t like my hero because he glanced at a woman’s breasts (not the heroine).

    I should just let go and fix obvious problems, but concentrate on the readers who “get it,” right?

    jjohnsontate (at) aol (dot) com

  33. meheart826 says:

    This is great advice. I’ll definately keep this in mind while writing. Thanks!!

  34. KLTickle says:

    I had to think a bit about who would be my one person. My children? They can be partial and probably somewhat biased. My sisters? They are already very involved. My friends? Ah-ha! My friend from Jamaica. She has a Master’s degree in education. She is a very talented musician. She has a quirky sense of humor and she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. I’ll finish my book picturing her eagerly reading it, unable to put it down, laughing her killer laugh, shaking her head and wiping away her tears, sitting in her big bed, reading late into the night. I can see her amusement at being my inspiration, but I won’t tell her now. When it is published, I’ll share it with her in the acknowledgements. Thanks, Adam. I can’t wait to get back to my writing.
    KLTickle
    http://ThreeSistersExclusive.wordpress.com

  35. jldela says:

    Good take on it.

    You have to get them to pick up the book in the first place.

  36. InoAAai says:

    Cool article! It was some really helpful tips that I’m definetely going to use and share.
    Your book looks so exciting. I love magic and kidsstories, even though I’m 22 :P I would like to read it.

    I’m writing a book myself, fantacy, knowing that it will get published one day! And I hope that I’ll make my potential future readers (including one smart person I know already) turn the pages all the way :)

  37. Jamie says:

    Good advice, to write with one person (as opposed to a group of people) in mind. As a previous poster stated, I usually write with a group of people in mind. In fact, I usually write with a type of person in mind and it has left me wondering which path to take on one particular manuscript. (As you stated in the very first sentence, I am stuck between 2 plot paths.)

    Thank you for your advice. I love your book cover.

    http://www.jamieb-baker.blogspot.com/

  38. right2write says:

    Okay . . . a little miscalculation on my part–it’s the second paragraph below the picture.

    http://www.rosiepovapicturebooks.weebly.com

  39. right2write says:

    Congratulations! I am anxious to read your book.

    That second paragraph of your article is an excellent one. I’m gonna share it, post it, book it, memorize it and use it. On every page. Very enlightening.

    Thank you.
    http://www.rosiepovapicturebooks.weebly.com

  40. Lyndasc says:

    My first reply came back as an error – didn’t know you could post too quickly.
    Anyway, I think I said I had never thought of writing to one particular person, I usually write for a group of people which might be my big mistake since inevitability some of the people in the group are always yawning (my internal critic). Thanks for the insight!

  41. iolerugger says:

    I love that cover!

    And the idea of fairy tales that aren’t sugar-coated.

    Great advice, thanks so much:)

    iolerugger at gmail dot com

  42. l-mcdonald says:

    I love the idea of writing with someone particular in mind. I have found that if I can’t make that person love me as a writer, I can make them despise me and they will still turn the page. As long as I can get a strong reaction, I feel I’m doing something right.

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