Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to Create a Page-Turner

If you're a writer, you're probably also a reader, and if you're a reader, you've most likely experienced one of those nights when you stayed up far too late to see "what happened next" in the novel you just couldn't put down.  The author didn't accomplish this by accident.  Skilled writers manipulate readers by using tension to keep them turning pages.

Before introducing tension-building techniques to my students, I create a little tension of my own by telling them half the class is about to get an F for the day.  I bring one boy and one girl to the front of the room and tell them the participation points for every student of their gender depends on what they do next.

Next, I bring out a balloon (the kind used to make balloon animals) and hold up a pump.  I emphasize that the balloon is old -- the latex isn't what it used to be -- and this balloon will  pop quickly if overinflated.  Then I pump up the balloon until it's completely filled, and this is where the fun begins.

Each student gets to choose how many times I completely push down the pump's plunger.  If they pop the balloon on their turn, every student of their gender gets zero points.  Since I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy, I let the ladies go first.  Invariably they choose to pump it once.  The balloon doesn't pop, but the pressure is on for the boys.  How many times can they pump it without making it explode?

What the students don't realize is this kind of balloon can take another eight or ten pumps even when it looks entirely filled.  The boys -- wanting to look manly -- choose TWO or THREE pumps.  It still doesn't pop, and all around the room I see grimaces and watch students hold their fingers to their ears.

I don't really take points from the losers, but I have created a powerful opportunity to discuss tension.  What is it exactly that brings a movie goer to the edge of her seat or forces a reader to explore that next paragraph, page, or chapter?  It usually boils down to a combination of the following five techniques:

Unanswered Questions

Who was that creepy guy peeking around the corner?  And why was he watching Tara?  Beginning writers tend to tell us in the next paragraph.  They quickly explain his motives then plow onward to the climax of the story.  This might be because they're impatient, but it could also be that they simply don't recognize the power of an unanswered question.

The moment Tara sees her creepy stalker, you, the author, have made an unspoken promise to your reader.  The mere fact this man was important enough to mention implies he will -- for good or evil -- show up again before the story ends.  How will Mr. Reader find out who he is?  Naturally, he'll have to read Chapter Two.  Or is it Chapter Three?  Or Chapter Twenty-Three?  The point is, he has to keep reading to find out.  Authors should always be on the lookout for opportunities to force their readers to ask questions and forge ahead for answers.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling reveals troubling -- and often conflicting -- tidbits about Dumbledore's youthful escapades.  Harry begins to question everything he thought he knew about his hero, and the reader questions those old assumptions as well.  To discover the truth we must follow Harry as he searches for Horcruxes and more information.  Carefully examine any bestselling novel, and you'll find this technique constantly being put to work.

This said, our next powerful technique is. . .

Well. . .  Check back next Wednesday to find out.