One Good Turn

Go for the unexpected.

This week’s question is tough. Telling you what I do to keep readers turning the page assumes two things—first, that people do feel compelled to turn the pages of what I write, and second, that I actually do things intentionally to make that happen.

I don’t have a big enough ego (yet) to be sure of either of those things. All I can tell you is what I try to do:

  • Go for the unexpected. If the story seems to be travelling in a straight line, swerve to the left or right and throw in something bizarre. In my books, this often translates to a lovesick satyr on the doorstep, a unicorn with a skin rash and no virgins around to treat the wounds, or a gremlin waylaying my heroine and dragging her off to break up a fight between his brothers in the tool shed.
  • Drop a bomb at the end of the chapter. Blow something up. Have someone unexpected show up and say something weird, threatening, or ominous. Toss the main character over the side of a ship into shark-infested waters. Have the ex-husband show up and bang on the restaurant window while the main character is on a date.
  • Alter the pacing. If the whole book is slow, people get bored. If the entire thing is one action scene that propels the characters from one problem to the next, it’ll feel rushed. Also, the reader will start to feel grumpy, twitchy, and a little hostile. Carry the story forward, but true character growth comes in the in-between times when both the characters and the reader get a chance to breath.
  • Give all the characters lives of their own. I do not write character back stories, despite my firm belief in planning everything out. But I do figure out what each character, no matter how minor, is doing through the story. I know the advice out there is to ask “what does this character want?” but I can’t always answer that. Maybe they don’t want a damn thing. Still, they aren’t standing there watching the whole thing and ceasing to exist during chapters they aren’t in. They’ve got stuff of their own going on. Find out what that is. Everybody has a story. Not only does this create subplots and side stories to support the main plot, it also makes those seemingly minor characters real. Cardboard characters as supporting cast can kill the entire story.
  • Don’t keep everything a secret. Big reveals are great, but if the reader can’t guess at anything, it can make them feel stupid and lost. Nobody likes that feeling. Sometimes it’s good to leak a little info that the main character doesn’t quite piece together, but the reader does. The reader is involved in the mystery. It’s tricky, though. It could go either way. Either the reader will be on the edge of her seat waiting for the heroine to figure out the answer, or the reader will be calling the heroine an idiot for being so blind. Like I said, that one’s tricky.

So, those are my two cents. I don’t always succeed at these things, but they’re what I try to do.

Did I miss anything?

Rachel is the author of the urban fantasy Monster Haven series from Carina Press. She believes in magic, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks, and putting things off until stress gets them done faster at the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas.

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