Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Secrets of a Page Turner by Saralee Rosenberg

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.

Raise questions.

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

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.


  1. Great advice! And I'm with you when it comes to geishas :)

  2. Great post, Saralee! SUCH great advice for novelists! Off to tweet!

  3. Great post - I especially like "Reveal, Reveal, Reveal!" Off to check out your books!

  4. Terrific post, Saralee! You've now inspired me to go back and re-examine my latest manuscript!

  5. Thought provoking post, Saralee! I love a blog that has me quizzing myself! Did I or didn't I? (And yes, my hairdresser holds that other secret) A post like yours often leads to rethinking things, sparking an "Ah-ha!" moment in my own writing!

  6. Wow, Saralee, great informative post. It reminds me why writing is a craft, and more than just a love or passion. There are techniques that must be learned and applied if a writer wants to keep the reader turning pages. It separates the girls from the big girls. :-) Nice job. XXOO

  7. Love this post, Saralee! You have me also examining my own work...I wish I could take your class! :) There is always more to learn, room to improve. Excellent reminders!

  8. Terrific post and it sort of drives home my thoughts as I've been reading Joshlyn Jackson's fantastic Gods in Alabama, in which she employees all of these techniques so successfully. Just when you think you've got it all figured it, bam, she throws another wrench in things.

  9. Great review of what makes a story interesting, regardless of the genre. Like you say, it's not gimmicks, it's well thought out logic and makes it fun.


  10. Lots of useful info here. I'm a firm believer in the concept that a novel must post a question (or several questions.) Finding out the answers to that central question (or questions) is what gives a story its narrative drive. If a reader doesn't care what the answer to the question is, she's going to stop reading.

  11. Great post. I do tend to think of plot as a gimmick sometimes, but you laid it out to be what it is - what drives the story.
    I should start following this advice a little more

  12. What a terrific and thoughtful post!! Your students are lucky to have you, my friend!!!!

  13. Great tips Saralee! I'm at the beginning of a novel so the timing is perfect.

  14. Echoing the other commenters...great information, and I hope your students appreciate you!

  15. Thank you Ellen.