Fiction Writing – How To Keep Readers Turning Pages

By Karleene Morrow

You’ve arranged your writing area, you go there every day and churn out x number of words on the story you have set out to tell. Kudos. But along with writing your dream, there are techniques that make a story sizzle and lack of those techniques that make it fall flat. Among these are developing characters, components of the story, i.e., beginnings, middles and endings, building plot, dialogue, diction, style, scene and sequel, point of view, tight writing.. and more.

Along with writing every day, one should learn something about the craft every day. Each strategy a writer learns will benefit him as a writer. It is important, one could say imperative, to work at learning the craft of writing on a continual basis and not think that the book should be written first, then the skills learned and the book ‘fixed’ afterward. Wrong approach. The more one learns the more improved the writing process and certainly the better the manuscript that is coming into being. Lack of writing basics is undoubtedly the prime reason that many first novels end up in the bottom drawer and subsequent novels see print. The more we learn and the more we write, using that combination together, the finer writers we are going to be.

That is not to say we should sweat over each word or phrase in our first draft. On the contrary, wiser writers than I, such as James Michener and Stephen King,believes that it is to our benefit to write ‘straight through.’ Write the first draft without looking back. By the end of it you will have an understanding of the story that was not available to you when you began. The rewrites, however many it takes, will bring the novel out in all of its potential. But the more we know about the art and craft of story telling, the better both the first draft and subsequent rewrites are going to be.

It is difficult, or maybe impossible, to say that one technique is more important than another. Interesting characters, for example, will not save a novel that is loosely written and perhaps abounds with exposition, page after page of description. Yawn.

There are, however, two parts of the writing process that rise to the top in value. The first is keeping your novel “active” right out of the chute. That means Show – not Tell. You will hear that over and over if you work at learning the craft of writing. As you read and study you will continually be told to write in the active voice or to not write in the passive voice. Listen up. Pay attention. The passive voice will kill your story, it will make it drag, be boring and will lose all but the most masochistic of readers. Seriously, it is self-torture to try to stay with a dragging, boring story unless there is nothing else in the house to read except the toothpaste carton.

Showing is letting the reader see the scene or event. Telling is having the reader hear the event, it is explaining. Sometimes, rarely, telling works but basically it is lazy writing. Work at doing better and you will be a better writer. “The morning was bright and warm.” What’s wrong with that sentence? Not much, the grammar is correct, it has a subject and a verb. But it is passive. The sentence is telling us something. It is explaining. What about: The day dawned bright and warm. Ahh, now we see it, we feel it rather than hear it. If a character is mean and abusive, don’t tell us that. Show us something in his actions, allow us to experience him. “My front window was broken by your son.” Passive. “Your son broke my front window.” Active. Better.

What would you think of this: “It was the last morning of Virginia’s bloodiest year since the Civil War. There was a fire burning and through the window sunrise would show the sea.” Sound all right?

Or maybe this instead: “On the last morning of Virginia’s bloodiest year since the Civil War, I built a fire and sat facing a window of darkness where at sunrise I knew I would find the sea.” Does that sound, feel, read better? Yes, I’d say so. That’s the opening to Patricia Cornwell’s Cause of Death. Excellent writing.

While you’re focusing on the active voice, there’s something related that you should be aware of. Please, please don’t have a character tell another character something she already knows. Don’t have Jane say “I ran into your friend Betty, the hair dresser, today.” She knows her friend is a hairdresser. That’s sloppy writing, used when the author butts in to tell the reader something he should have shown. Learn all you can about showing and not telling. Use the active voice. It will be one of the two biggest favors you do yourself as an emerging writer.

One way you can help yourself stay on track is to use the Search feature on your word processing program when you finish a chapter. Look for “was.” Almost every time you find it you will see a passive sentence. Rewrite it. Make the ‘was’ search a routine until you are absolutely, completely certain that you have overcome the habit of writing in the passive voice. Also turn on your grammar and spelling feature and watch for those green underlines. The program, not being human, is often wrong so skip those notices but it’s not generally wrong about a passive sentence. Rewrite to make the sentence active and you will see instant improvement.

The second technique a writer should know if he wants to keep his readers turning pages is to end each chapter with something unresolved, something that makes the readers want to go on. It does not have to be a major event like the house burning down or a burglar crawling through a window. But if the chapter ending leaves something the reader is unsure or curious or concerned about, he’ll keep reading. This is the kind of writing that readers mean when they say “I couldn’t put it down,” or “It kept me up half the night.” The reader is anxious to know what comes next.

Read the ending of one of your chapters as if you were a new reader. Does it make you want to turn the page? Do you want to know what happens now? If not, analyze that chapter and consider how to make the ending intriguing. Good story line along with good writing engages the reader but dull chapter ending are dangerous. The reader is apt to close the book and maybe never get back to it again.

At a writers’ conference in Austin, Texas several years ago, speaker James Magnasom said a friend told him he had finally figured out why Louie Lamour’s books were so popular. When asked why, the friend said, “At the end of each chapter there’s a knock at the door.”

Put a post-it note on the left corner of your monitor that says ‘Show, Don’t Tell.” On the right corner stick one up that says “Is there a knock at the door?” Keep those in front of you as you write your novel. Whatever else you learn about this craft, these two techniques will be among the most valuable tools in your bag of writing tricks.

Karleene Morrow is the author of the historical fiction novel, Destinies, set in 18th century Russia. Available from Amazon.com and other online stores. Karleene lives at the beach in the Pacific Northwest with her Pomeranian show dogs. Visit her at http://www.karleenemorrow.com

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