My definition of a successful novel is one where someone begins reading it, and doesn’t stop until they finish. In other words, a page-turner.
So how do we create such a novel?
To me, there are three steps–
- Coming up with a great idea,
- Capturing your reader’s attention at the beginning of your story, and
- Keeping that attention until the end.
It seems simple. However implementing each of those steps can be challenging. Let’s look at the steps in detail.
1) The Idea
This is what gets the reader excited about your book, what makes her want to buy it.
Of course, you do need interesting characters, picturesque descriptions, and real-sounding dialogue. However, in my opinion, these are secondary to your idea.
When you see a book sitting on the shelf or described on Amazon, you don’t say to yourself, “Well I’d love to read that one because it’s about a brutal ex-military officer with a thirst for justice.” No, you say, “I can’t wait to read how Jack Reacher risks his life to protect a courageous witness.” (61 Hours.)
Ideas are king no matter whether you’re dealing with novels, short stories, screenplays etc. When film producers buy the rights to a book, they are essentially just buying the idea. Numerous changes are made before it reaches the big screen.
So what is a great idea? Here’s my list of some of the qualities it needs to have.
You should be able to describe the idea in one or two sentences.
- The idea should explain what the story is basically about in a clear way.
- You must have a main character.
- There should be conflict of some kind.
- The idea should have an extra something that’s surprising, ironic or different than other books.
Let me give you an example from the novel, ‘Dark Matter’ by Blake Crouch. Here’s the idea.
“A mild-mannered college physics professor is abducted by a masked man, and wakes up in a world that is not his own.”
Let’s see how that fulfils the criteria.
- It’s described in one sentence.
- We have a good sense of what the story is about and it’s very clear.
- We know the main character is a mild-mannered physics professor
- There is definitely conflict here as he’s not only being abducted, but into a strange new world.
- This idea seems like something different than we have seen before.
So, to me, it fits all the criteria of a great idea.
It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but based on the idea, I’ve just shared, I could come up with how the story might go.
Here’s the idea behind a book, entitled, ‘Audrey, Wait!’ by Robin Benway,
“While trying to score a date with her cute co-worker at the Scooper Dooper, sixteen-year-old Audrey gains unwanted fame and celebrity status when her ex-boyfriend, a rock musician, records a breakup song about her that soars to the top Billboard charts.”
Notice how all the same elements apply to this story. It’s one sentence and, again, we have a good idea what the story is about. We know that Audrey is the main character and we sense that there’s going to be conflict. It also is a different story than we’ve seen before.
Once you have your great idea the next step is to–
2) Capture the Reader’s Attention at the Beginning.
You must open your book in a way that says, “Watch me, I will surprise you. Don’t look away.”
To give you an idea of how this works, let me tell you a bit about me. Every month, I take out extraordinary amounts of books from the library. Most of them have great ideas behind them. However, I end up reading very few because they don’t capture my attention at the beginning. I usually give these books three chapters, but if they don’t ‘get me’ within those pages, I will put the book aside.
So how do we grab the reader’s attention?
Think about the things that capture your attention in life. You wake up in the morning, get in your car and drive to work. You look out the window and see the same things you see every day. Cars, dogs, people.
It’s almost like the movie, “Groundhog Day,” where everything is repeated in the same way.
But say, one day, you hear a strange sound coming from the sky. You look up and see a tube-shaped object hurtling toward earth. You follow it with your eyes as it crash lands in a field. The field is some distance away, but you see the door of the object open and…
Gotcha! Your attention was captured. If this was a book you probably would have turned the page.
Now, although I used a big surprise, the opening doesn’t have to be so blatant. It can be much more subtle. It just has to be something that commands the reader’s attention in some way.
One thing to keep in mind is that different people may examine a book differently.
Some may be ‘first liners.’ They read the first line, and then decide to buy it. Others may be ‘middlers.’ They read to the middle of the page and then purchase the book. Still others are ‘finishers.’ They read the entire first page and may even continue past that.
So we have to make sure our beginning pages satisfy those various reader types.
Once we have them hooked, we moved on to–
3) Keeping your Reader Reading
This is a much more intensive part of writing a page-turner so I will briefly list some of the things we need to keep in mind.
You must ensure your novel rises and falls as it should to keep your reader engrossed in the plot. This involves the successes and failures of your hero.
It’s important to keep your novel moving along at the right speed. If it’s too fast, your reader won’t be able to understand what’s happening, too slow and she will be bored.
No matter what kind of book you write, your reader wants it to be an emotional journey. To keep the reader’s interest up, your main character must struggle to reach her goal. Conflict and tension must be included to make your story work.
A character with flaws makes her seem more human and easier to identify with. This helps keep your reader stay glued to the story.
Keep the Greatness of your Idea throughout your Book
Your book must always be about the idea that you established at the beginning of your tale. To paraphrase, Blake Snyder, the idea is the DNA of your story. Anytime you go off on a tangent from the core of your story, the reader loses interest.
In this blog, I’ve discussed just a few of the many elements that are needed to create a successful novel. In my course, How to Write a Page Turner, I delve more deeply into all these topics and many more. So, if you want to learn how to write a novel that readers will devour, please join me.
Steve Shrott is an award-winning comedy writer who has been affectionately nick-named, “Comedy writer to the stars.” He has written for a vertible “Who’s Who” of comedy performers, speakers and entertainers including Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Rodney Dangerfield.
Some of his jokes are in The Smithsonian Institute, and he is a winner of the prestigious Robert Benchley award for humor. For many years, he instructed students in the art and craft of humor writing at various schools including The Learning Annex, Ryerson University, George Brown College, Centennial College, The L.A. Comedy School and The Comedy Store. Steve has also taught online for the Romance Writers of America and Savvy Writers.