I like high stakes, angst ridden novels that force you to keep turning pages long after your bedtime. With my romantic suspense series (Retribution, Resurrection, and Redemption), I set out to write the kind of novels I will gobble up like candy any day of the week. Who needs to sleep when you can convince yourself one more chapter will give you the answers you seek?
So, what’s the secret to writing a page turning novel? Tension, essentially. You need tension points or unanswered questions to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The questions can be big or small, but finding the answers needs to drive the narrative. In Retribution, the big questions are the ones with the highest stakes, and their resolution comes later in the novel. Will Kimi survive? Who killed Finn and Lorcan’s father? Who murdered Kimi’s brother?
In the first few chapters, you want to front-load your questions. Rather than providing answers, you’re weaving a narrative where it becomes increasingly imperative for your protagonist to uncover answers for her peace of mind, for her safety, or perhaps for her to find happiness.
Each scene should build tension or answer questions. Ideally, when a question is answered, the answer creates at least one more question, and sometimes, multiple questions. As the writer, you need to keep track of the roads and paths you open. At some point, those roads need to be declared dead ends or followed to their logical conclusion. Every time the writer raises a question in the story, it’s a promise to the reader to explore that road at some point. Of course, if you’re writing a narrative arc across several books, then dangling threads can encourage readers to pick up the next book in the series where you’ll have room to explore the roads not taken.
Sometimes the questions left behind take the form of clues or foreshadowing. For me, the payoff in a novel comes when the reveal of a big secret drops, and I can see how the author laid the groundwork for it throughout the narrative without me either fully understanding the implications of these clues or realizing what was going to happen. Those reveals can be tricky. Writers want their readers to be surprised, but if the reveal is too shocking and not enough groundwork has been laid, a reader can feel cheated or as if the writer is cheating. One of my favorite reveals came in a movie called The Sixth Sense. It’s an old movie, but towards the end, all of the hints and clues you probably missed while watching slip into place for the resolution. There’s a reason why M. Night Shyamalan became famous as a result of that film. It’s a master class in layering a narrative.
While all of this works really well for romantic suspense or mystery novels, many of these principles apply to other genres (there are, of course, exceptions). In a contemporary romance, the questions might be whether the hero or heroine can overcome their flaws to be together, or the story might revolve around forgiveness. Can these characters forgive each other and live happily ever after? In a fantasy, the questions might be about the origin of your hero/heroine or they may relate to how a society has either been formed or dismantled. In a young adult novel, the big question might be about resolving a friendship issue, solving a crime, or finding love (romantic or family).
So, if you’re hoping to write a novel that readers can’t put down, ask yourself what questions need to be answered, and then keep them guessing right to the end.
Wendy Million’s debut novel Retribution was released with Champagne Books on August 26th, 2019 and is available on all major digital retailers. Book 2 of the series, Resurrection will be released July of 2020. To sign up for her newsletter or to read more about Wendy, please visit her website at www.wendymillion.com or you can purchase her first book at https://amazon.com/dp/B07WCLC3L7