Learning the secrets of writing a great novel is not as seductive as learning the secrets of a Geisha. But I digress.
Last week at the Hofstra University Writer's Salon, I had the extreme pleasure of hearing uber-selling suspense writers, Andrew Gross and Michael Palmer, spill their secrets on how they have managed to turn out one great thriller after the next. They were joined by debut novelist, Kira Peikoff, who also had much to say about keeping readers engaged.
What are their secrets to success? Developing memorable and compelling characters first... and then sending them off on mysterious journeys where anything can happen. And does.
It got me thinking. Regardless of genre, aren’t all novels mysteries? Shouldn't their chapters be brimming with suspense? Unresolved issues? Unpredictable characters? Shouldn't readers be kept so invested in the outcome of the hero that they not only wonder what happens next, but care what happens next?
I teach novel writing through Hofstra University's Continuing Ed program and encourage students to inject endless suspense in their novels, whether they are writing a police procedural, a romantic comedy or historical fiction.
It's not about using gimmickry, it's about making sure that the beam supporting their story structure is solid with intrigue, secrets and conflicts.
If you are an emerging novelist, here are a few ideas I recommend to keep readers turning pages:
Make something BIG happen IMMEDIATELY.
Forget back story. Readers have zero attachment to the hero in the early chapters, so whatever happened to them in past means less than what is about to happen to them when the #$%%^ hits the fan.
By creating an inciting incident within the first few pages, readers will be drawn in. Then back story can be weaved into the narrative so that readers understand the high stakes and become more and more invested.
As those iconic Clairol commercials asked, does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.
Stories that don’t pose questions and raise issues leave little to our curiosity and imaginations. From the start, have readers wondering: Will John ask Mary for a date? Will Mary say yes? Will John and Mary go cliff jumping on their date? Who will cry at their funerals? What would possibly possess them to do something so dangerous and out of character? Or was it out of character at all? Keep 'em guessing! That's the key.
You could plotz from all the plots
Novels need to explore multiple story lines in order to build suspense and conflict. But inherent in each story line must be more surprises, questions and drama. Even more important, each storyline must raise the stakes for the hero so that tension is always mounting.
One way to do this is to give a minor character(s) an unusual hobby or occupation so that they can complicate matters with their knowledge. But just when readers think they get where you’re going, throw them off-balance by having the character's involvement mean little to the outcome.
Reveal, Reveal, Reveal
Every chapter should offer the writer a chance to share something about the character that the reader did not already know. Or, something that the character did not know. Or something that the character has known all along but kept a secret (or so they thought). Or something that the character thought they knew all along but turned out to be mistaken.
The key is to let the secrets out slowly, like air in balloon.
Go West Young Man
Choose a setting that adds to the intrigue either because of its unique terrain, climate, environment or time period. If the location is well described and well defined, it can take on the same level of importance as a mysterious character.
Speaking of mysterious characters, we don't call our protagonists heroes for nothing. Challenge them from the start and keep increasing the odds of failure. Then we'll root for them and follow them to the very last page.
I so admire novelists that can grab readers within the first few pages and keep us guessing until the end. No easy feat, though there are techniques and strategies that when properly employed, do make a difference in the storytelling.
As for the secrets of a Geisha? How they put up with so many men remains a mystery to me.
Saralee Rosenberg is the author of four novels from Avon(HarperCollins) including DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD; FATE AND MS. FORTUNE; CLAIRE VOYANT; and A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE. She is finishing her first novel for girls, HOTLINE TO HEAVEN. visit her site.www.saraleerosenberg.com
Live on Long Island and interested in learning the craft of novel writing? Check out my courses at Hofstra University's Continuing Ed program. Each semester I lead hands-on workshops and classes that will get your creative journey off to the best possible start. https://www.hofstra.edu/Academics/CE/ce_jbar.cfm?offeringid=352858