Writing a Page Turner – Part 3

Most of the early readers of Post Traumatic Stress have called it a real page turner. Page turners are good. They’re fun to read. It’s a great complement from your readers.

But most of all, page turners sell.

People enjoy books that they don’t want to put down. And – here’s the real magic – page turners make them want to buy the sequel, too. This is how binge readers are born, and binge readers are where the money is.

One thing to keep in mind is that no one of these techniques is essential. You can write page turning novels by breaking any (and maybe even all) of these “rules.” This is just one approach, but it’s an approach that works pretty well.

Believe it or not, the “page turner” aspect of Post Traumatic Stress is mostly intentional. It’s technique that you can learn, and today I want to teach some of that to you.

I’ve already mentioned that chapters are a key element of page turners, and shown two different techniques that you can use to make your chapters more captivating. Today I’d like to take a step back from the trees and look at the forest as a whole.

Secret #3 – Plot Structure

Your plot structure will have a huge influence on how well your story reads. Good plot structure is intentional, not accidental. Throwing a mishmash of a plot together will usually yield very poor results.

Now, I’m not one to get hung up on rules. However, I do believe very strongly in a few things.

  1. Before you break the rules, you should understand what the rules are and why they work.
  2. The rules describe what your target audience is used to. If you break them, you need a good reason.

If you read this blog, I assume that you write for western audiences, as I do. At the very highest level, there are really only two story structures that western audiences will accept.

  1. A single act. You can really only get away with this in short fiction. For anything longer than about 10,000 words, your audience will expect more than this. Even above 6,000 words, you’re pushing it. And frankly, even most short fiction does better if you stick with one of the other structures.
  2. The classic three-act structure. This is by far the most common structure in western fiction. You have a beginning, or introductory period. You have the second act, where all the fun stuff happens. And then act three presents the climax, resolution, and wraps everything up. This is, generally, what your audience will expect.

This is basically it. You’ll see people out there describing two-act structures, but they’re not common. And you’ll see a few variations, such as four-act structures (which are usually just the three-act structure with act two split in half). Shakespeare, of course, is famous for his five-act plays. From a modern standpoint, however, these can largely be viewed as a three-act structure with act two broken into three.

Don’t get me wrong – there are big benefits to breaking act two apart. Most writers find act two to be the big stumbling block. In a traditional breakdown, it’s half or more of the story, all in one act. Breaking it down into smaller pieces is an excellent tool for getting you through it.

If you want to write a page turner, though, I highly recommend looking at two plot “formulas” that will help you keep things going.

First, I recommend a somewhat famous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat. It presents a finer grade plot structure with 15 plot “beats” for breaking down a story. Now, I will put a few caveats on this:

  • The book focuses on screenplays, not novels. You’ll have to adjust a bit to fit the formula to something of novel length.
  • The author is a bit anal, bordering on autistic, about putting the plot beats in exact places. He even puts exact page numbers on them. I think this is slightly too strict.

With that said, I find this to be a very useful framework to hang the skeleton of an outline on. I’ve also used it as a tool to drastically improve pacing issues, both on my own works and on those of authors I’ve published.

The last thing I would add on this book is that the “beat sheet” is useful, and the chapter on the ten basic story archetypes is useful, but the rest of the book is basically boilerplate.

Second, I also recommend looking at Lester Dent’s Master Formula. Dent is most famous for his Doc Savage stories, but he wrote extremely prolifically in the pulp era. His “master formula” is explicitly written for 6,000 word short stories. However, it’s easy to translate the concepts of the formula into longer works. The formula also dovetails nicely with the Save the Cat beat sheet. You don’t have to choose between them.

Bonus tip: The items above lay out “the rules.” But as I noted above, you should also know when to break them. To that end, I’m definitely looking forward to Drown the Cat by Dario Cirello, due out (amusingly enough) this Independence Day. I have not yet read it myself, but my friend Jon Del Arroz recommends it highly.

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