Everyone that wants to turn writing into their job knows how important it is to engage the reader. This will make them devour your work and come back for more over and over again. But how do you write that page-turner and turn your reader into your follower?
Readers become engaged when they are stimulated to think about a story and become emotionally invested. A story with plot twists, relatable characters, and a clear structure will stimulate the reader to actively search for clues, solutions, and threats. This makes them feel like they are part of the story.
Writing a real page-turner takes a lot of talent and skills, but you can apply certain elements to make it easier. Read on to find out what can help you create your next masterpiece.
1. Grab your reader’s attention
If you want people to turn one page after the other when they read your book, you will have to grab their attention from the beginning. It takes a so-called hook to draw them in. How you do that depends on your story.
Some writers like to hook their readers with a shocking opening scene others start theirs with a powerful monologue. You can also present some facts that correlate with your story or create an emotional situation. Even though the options are endless, their aim is the same. The goal is to make the reader feel something as soon as possible.
Even the emotion you evoke does not matter. You can go for shock, fascination, curiosity, or even anger. As long as it is intense enough to drive the reader forward. The scene is the hook, and the emotion is the pull. You are the fisherman doing all the hard work.
My favorite piece of advice about opening scenes is to start right at the juicy part. As a reader, I do not need to know just yet that Ava is the daughter of Laureen and a descendent of the great queen of Scots. If the story is told well, I will find that out along the way. No, I need to know what her deal is, what the theme of the story will be, and where the adventures will lead me to.
Just look at this opening scene from Kass Morgan’s book The 100:
The door slid open, and Clarke knew it was time to die.
Her eyes locked on the guard’s boots, and she braced for the rush of fear, the flood of desperate panic. But as she rose up onto her elbow, peeling her shirt from the sweat-soaked cot, all she felt was relief.
She’d been transferred to a single after attacking a guard, but for Clarke, there was no such thing as solitary. She heard voices everywhere. They called to her from the corners of her dark cell. They filled the silence between her heartbeats. They screamed from the deepest recesses of her mind. It wasn’t death she craved, but if that was the only way to silence the voices, then she was prepared to die.
Kass does two things. She starts her story with a promise. Putting your character’s head on the chopping block equals promising the reader they will find out how she got there. It also promises the reader a yes or no answer. Will she lose her head, or will she break free and join the revolution?
The second thing she does is evoke curiosity. Why is Clarke hearing these voices? Why is she not scared of death? What did she do to get arrested in the first place, and why is she so violent? If you want to find out, I suggest you buy the book. You can do that here:
2. Be clear about the setting
When you write your opening scene, you are not only making a promise to the reader about where the story will go, but you also paint a picture of what the story is like. You must be clear about the theme and setting from the get-go.
If you decide to write a steampunk adventure, it does not make sense to write about a knight who goes off to save the princess from an evil monster. Unless the knight rides a modified bike and the monster is made of scrap metal, of course.
The point is that a reader wants to know what kind of adventure they are getting themselves into before they commit themselves to your book. If that is unclear or, even worse, changes throughout the story, you lose most of the readers. It just makes for a very unpleasant experience.
When building the setting, think about what you want the reader to feel. What time fits with that, and what world? Is it ours, was it ours, or is it something different? What message do you want to get across? Does the setting match that?
Again, you must answer these questions in that very first chapter. The sooner, the better. Together with the promises you already make, it will push the reader to continue. And if they do not, they are not your target audience. Only fair to know that from the start, no?
3. Give your protagonist a time limit
A strong opening is an amazing way to pull the reader into your story. But if nothing else happens, you will still lose them. To create a real page-turner, you need to keep fueling the emotions that you have already evoked within your reader. It also does not hurt to raise the stakes a little bit. One way of doing that is by putting a clock on the problem.
Imagine that your hero needs to figure out who is behind a recent murder spree. There is a little pressure on that already. Anybody can sense that the longer it will take her, the bigger the chance of another victim becoming. Now imagine that the killer left her a note, saying that she has 72 hours before the next body. This immediately raises the stakes.
You even play with this time pressure, adding more and more suspense to it. When the detective finds the note, she has three full days to figure it out. But the killer is not dumb, and she finds it hard to figure out the clues he left behind for her. The hours are ticking away, and the detective is nowhere near the solution.
The closer they get to the end of the 72 hours, the higher the suspense. The story becomes so much more intense if there are only two hours left on the clock and the location of the victim turns out to roughly be a two-hour drive. It becomes a race against the clock. Will our beloved hero make it in time, or will she be traumatized by the life lost at her hands?
4. Use foreshadowing (red herrings)
One of the coolest ways to engage the reader is by leaving little clues behind for them. People love to puzzle out the plot, and readers pick up way more than they realize.
You can play with the reader by giving them more information than they realize, foreshadowing upcoming events. You can also use it for, what we like to call, red herrings. Misleading and distracting information.
One of the most famous red herrings comes from the movie The Sixth Sense. We follow a child psychologist who helps a boy that can see ghosts. The movie is filled with suspense and creepiness, but the real shock comes at the end. The psychologist is not only helping the boy. The boy is helping him as well. How? Bypassing over into the next life. The protagonist, dr. Malcolm is a ghost himself.
Red herrings are an amazing tool to have the reader flip page after page to end up gasping when the truth is revealed. Just as foreshadowing helps to draw the attention towards that which you want them to see. The two go hand in hand, and if it is done well, the reader will facepalm themselves for not noticing. Just look at the ending of The Sixth Sense.
5. Escalate the story
As a good writer, I already foreshadowed a bit on the escalation in tip 3 (see what I did there?). The danger has to keep growing and increasing to keep the reader entertained, engaged, and flipping to the next page. The stakes have to get higher and higher.
Now, do not get me wrong here. I am not saying that your protagonist has to get in more and more dangerous situations, things need to be blown up, or the fate of the world suddenly depends on the hero. No, it is far more subtle than that. Unless you are writing the next James Bond, of course.
To engage your reader by escalation, they need to be able to bond with your characters. If you want to know how you can do it, you will be pleased to hear that I wrote an article on how you can make your characters feel like real people. You can find it over here.
Escalating a story is not done by more extreme external factors but by internal struggle and growth. Making the choices more and more difficult for your character and seeing how painful they respond. Or just making them a little braver than they were a few chapters earlier. A little smarter.
A strong story gradually escalates. The main character ends up doing things they would not dare to dream of on page one. They overcome fears and struggles or even slowly get corrupted. Take Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, for example. She lays low and hides at the beginning of the story, while at the end, she stands up and faces the confrontation.
6. Make use of plot twists
I am a big fan of plotting and see it as the backbone of your story. You can use it as a road map to navigate from start to finish successfully when it is planned out well. If you have the thought it through, it does not matter what obstacle your protagonist will have to deal with. You know how to steer the story back to the right course.
Plotting on the forehand helps you find the right key moments in your story. This is where you want to add a plot twist, a solution, or escalate the story even further. These are the moments where the reader is being rewarded for reading. No matter your choice.
Writing a good plot is not the easiest thing to do. It takes a lot of thinking and combining all the elements of writing. You might have a solution to your problem, but if it requires an action from your protagonist they are not likely to take, you have a problem. Or a challenge. If you think of this upfront, you can navigate your story so that it becomes an action they will take.
It is important to remember that you want to know where the plot is going, but you want to keep this from the reader. Add moments where they can question what is going on, add unreliable narrators, but most of all… insert a few very sharp plot twists.
Need a little bit of help plotting your story? Try reading this article, or send me an email.
7. End chapters with a cliffhanger
Do you know that moment where you tell yourself you are just going to watch one episode of that amazing show on Netflix, and you already know right away that it is a lie? What is the power of these shows that can easily keep you up until the middle of the night? Well, cliffhangers, of course.
Do not underestimate the power of a good cliffhanger. People like closure and answers, so leaving them with questions pushes them to keep on watching. Just look at The Walking Dead. The show started with some very strong and solid seasons, but after a while, it became mediocre at best. But even though the viewers were complaining, most of them kept watching. All thanks to the strong cliffhangers.
You can use this technique in your writing to engage your reader and push them forward into the next chapter. End a scene right at the start of a major event, and they cannot put the book down. Ask teasing or ominous questions, and they must know the answer. About to reveal something important? Lead up to it, but do not answer the next chapter.
You see, working with cliffhangers is a bit of a mental game. It makes the reader want to continue in the next chapter. And when they do, they want to finish that chapter. Putting away in the middle of one is just a disruption of the flow. Most readers are unable to do that.
If you keep your chapters short enough for people to want to finish a whole new one and place solid and enticing cliffhangers at the end of each, you will end up with a page-turner. What is not to love about that?
8. Show, do not tell
It might be the most given advice in writing, but it is also the truest. Show the story, don’t tell it. If you want to engage the reader, you have to make them feel like they are part of the story. They have to see what the protagonist sees, feel what the protagonist feels, and smell what the protagonist smells.
In other words, you have to put them in that world. Do not tell your reader about the rules of the world but show them. Do the characters greet with grasping each other’s elbow? Let them grasp each other’s elbow. Turn all the information into action.
You will see that when you approach your writing this way, it does not only become more exciting to write (and read), but it also requires some action from the readers themselves. They have to work to figure out the plot, actively find what information is important, and think ahead to see what is coming.
Showing engages the reader because the space between them and the characters of the story becomes smaller. It is almost as if they are in their shoes, or at least looking over their shoulders. This makes them feel as if they experience the story, and therefore they flip from page to page.
So yes, show, don’t tell might be one of the most common pieces of advice within the writer’s world, but hopefully you now also see why.
09. Keep it simple
When you read this article, you love writing as much as I do. And chances are pretty big that you are trying to improve your skills. That is the beauty of our craft. You never stop learning. There is always something to work on or to try out. Always a higher level to strive for.
And that is our downfall as writers. Yikes. We are secret perfectionists.
Let me start by saying that it is not wrong with trying to write to the best of your capabilities. After all, you want to present the best possible story to your readers, right? But still, trying to make your work perfect is one of the biggest reasons that author’s encounter writing block.
Why? Because we get caught up with constructing our sentences until they are perfect. We know what we want to say, but we want to say it in the most beautiful way possible. Well… stop that.
As Abbie perfectly explains in her video, there is no use in your writing to be technically pretty. If your reader cannot relate to the story and the characters, they will not become engaged. And on top of that, you just get tangled in a web of prose words, making you feel miserable.
Tell your story as you would tell it to a friend. Do not even bother with sentence structure, redundant words, and other technical aspects, when you start your first draft. Just tell your story. Get it out. Write now, polish later.
Readers do not care if a sentence is pretty, they want to experience the emotion behind it. Convey that emotion. And if you are struggling with your writing, sign up for my newsletter now and get this free PDF to help you.
Creating a page-turner to engage the reader is not an easy task but as you can see, it is manageable. It takes creativity, planning, and a dash of all the right elements. When used right, you will be able to motivate your reader to become emotionally invested. That does not only help you with your current story but also with the next ones to come.
Go and plan your next masterpiece. I am excited to read it. I know you have got this!
Other sources: Terrible Minds, The Write Practice, Pressbooks, Write to Done, Masterclass, Abbie Emmons