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

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. GIVEAWAY: Adam is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.
Author:
Publish date:

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.

Image placeholder title

“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

Do you have an idea for a great novel? Are you at a loss
for where to start? Look no further.
You Can Write a
Novel, 2nd Edition
, gives you
concrete, proven
techniques to get from idea
to manuscript to bookstore.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

The Story That Drove Me to Write

The Story That Drove Me to Write

Award-winning author Stephanie Kane shares the book that launched her career and provides insights for how you can pursue your story.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Epiphany Moment

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Epiphany Moment

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character experience an epiphany.

Eat Your Words: Your 8-Point Checklist for Writing Original Recipes

Eat Your Words: Your 8-Point Checklist for Writing Original Recipes

Food writer, cook, and committed vegan Peggy Brusseau explains how you can craft a cookbook that engages your reader and stands out from the crowd.

Flash Fiction Challenge

28 Writing Prompts for the 2021 Flash Fiction Challenge Challenge

Find all 28 poetry prompts for the 2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge Challenge in this post.

How to Not Write in the Pandemic, Early Days

How to Not Write in the Pandemic, Early Days

Novelist Rebecca Hardiman gives us an insight into the obstacles that cropped up for writers at the start of the 2020 global pandemic.

7 Tips for Writing Police Procedurals That Readers Love

7 Tips for Writing Police Procedurals That Readers Love

Mystery and crime novelist Russ Thomas explains how best to create a police procedural that will hook your reader and keep them coming back for more.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 560

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write an alien poem.

3 Tips for Writing with a Co-Author

3 Tips for Writing with a Co-Author

Shakil Ahmad provides the top 3 things he learned while co-authoring the book Wild Sun with his brother Ehsan.

Viet Thanh Nguyen | The Committed | Writer's Digest Quote

WD Interview: Viet Thanh Nguyen on The Committed

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses the challenges of writing his second novel, The Committed, and why trusting readers can make for a more compelling narrative in this WD interview.