What is it that makes a “page-turner”? What indefinable, shivery quality does a book possess that makes you unable to put it down?
On a personal, subjective level, that “it” quality differs from reader to reader. But I would argue that on an objective, craft-oriented level, all page-turners have one quality in common: narrative tension.
What is narrative tension? I personally define it as the unbearable need to know what happens next. Some of the best works of commercial fiction are rife with narrative tension, which I believe contributes to their commercial status. For works in the thriller or suspense category, pinpointing the source of narrative tension is relatively easy: Whodunnit? Will the protagonist survive? Will s/he save the day? But what about books that fall outside that genre?
Any book, regardless of genre, can have narrative tension. How? When the stakes are clearly defined, but their outcome is left uncertain. For example, let us discuss Harry Potter. Earlier books in the series were finely crafted middle-grade mysteries within a fantasy framework (The Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the finest examples of a mystery, full stop), but as the books progressed, they still retained narrative tension. How? Because we know the stakes (Harry must defeat Voldemort) and are unsure of the outcome (how he will do it). But each book itself also contained micro-environments of narrative tension: how will the Trio get out of their scrapes this time? or when will Ron and Hermione finally get together? In my opinion, all of these elements combined contributed to the series’ popularity; so many of my fondest memories from high school are me sitting with a circle of friends on the terrace during lunch, passionately discussing and speculating what would happen in the next book. Tension breeds anticipation, and commercial works like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, The Lovely Bones et al are examples of how that can drive success.
So how to craft narrative tension in our own work? By posing story questions. I’ve mentioned story questions before, and I think they are fundamental to crafting a book you don’t want to put down. Most often, the story question can be boiled down to What does the protagonist stand to lose?–on both an intimate and a broader scale. What does the protagonist stand to lose if s/he _____ in this scene and how does that contribute to what s/he stands to lose overall?
Any time the reader is left wondering or asking questions, narrative tension is created, which leads to anticipation and unease, for which the only solution is to read on. There are many ways to leave the reader wondering: by ending all the chapters on cliffhangers (The Da Vinci Code), by slowly layering secrets and deceptions that are begging to be answered by the book’s end, (Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn), by calling into question whether or not a killer will be brought to justice (The Lovely Bones), etc.
Is there a trick to writing commercial fiction? Personally, I don’t think so. But I think you’ll find that most bestselling books are masters of walking the high wire of tension, whether the book is literary or YA or romance.
What do you guys think? Do you think narrative tension is a thing? Let us know in the comments below!
S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is a writer, artist, and adrenaline junkie. Before moving down to grits country, she was an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York City, where she read and acquired YA. When not obsessing over books, she can be found rock climbing, skydiving, or taking her dog on ridiculously long hikes. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina with her doctor Bear, a stuffed baby harp seal named White-Harp, and a husky-dog called Bentley. Other places to find JJ include Twitter, Tumblr, and her blog.