Keep Those Pages Turning!
Victoria Grossack

“That book is a real page turner.”

“I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.”

For many authors, little praise is higher than such words, and certainly readers who want to turn pages are readers who come back for more. And, readers who want to find out what happens next are readers who are interested in the plot. But how do you make a plot good? What criteria must it fulfill?

A plot should be exciting for the reader, so that the reader wants to know what happens next. A plot should be full of surprises for the reader, so that the reader does not know what is going to happen next. And finally, by the end, everything needs to look logical, or at least internally consistent to the reader, so that at the end your reader is satisfied, instead of let-down and irritated.


Here are some ways to generate tension and unexpected events to keep your story moving through its paces and your readers glued to the pages:

Eliminate the obvious possibilities
Your story starts with an action or event. Your hero must then react to that event. What do you have him do that will spur the attention of the reader? You should reject the first two possibilities which occur to you, because these possibilities will occur to your readers as well. Instead, you should take the third or the fourth. Can’t think of more than two? Sure, you can – after all, you’re a writer, whose brain teems with fantasy, right? Imagine that Jane is driving home, her toddler belted securely in the back, and then she gets a flat tire. What should she do? Normally you would expect her to get out her cell phone and call for help. That is too easy a way out for her, so we have to make her either forget her cell phone or drain its battery through some prior set-up. So we have eliminated option number one. Option number two is to walk to the nearest house or gas station – much more difficult with her toddler, so we have eliminated that. Option number three is that some stranger stops to help her ... what sort of stranger? Is he dangerous? A love interest? Or simply the unexpected, such as a pair of Jehovah’s witnesses? How about if a woman stops by, a psychic who says she knew that Jane was going to have a flat tire and that she and her baby should come home with her because she has something very, very important to tell Jane…

Have something absurd happen
Presumably your character is not living in a vacuum, so something from the rest of the world could interrupt him. Imagine that John is finally settling down to do something he has been putting off for too long: his taxes. And then a stripper shows up at his apartment, determined to dance for him, even though John insists that this all must be a mistake.

Have something alarming happen
Emergencies are a good source of surprise, especially when something else is going on. Imagine that Joan is waiting for a phone call from her estranged husband, and trying to decide whether she should call him herself, and if so, what she should say. She decides to put off the decision with a visit to the refrigerator, a side-trip she has made all too often lately. As she opens the door to the fridge, she smells smoke. She looks up and out the window: the neighbor’s house is on fire!

Have the worst possible thing happen
What is the thing your character fears most? Perhaps Jean has stolen her aunt’s diamond bracelet. She regrets her deed, and decides to return it – but when she goes to her aunt’s house to do so, the police are already there. Jean can’t get to the jewelry box, so she decides to slip the diamond bracelet unnoticed in between the cushions of the couch. Unknown to her, the police have already searched the couch. So when she pulls the bracelet out from the cushions triumphantly, Jean’s aunt disowns her and the police arrest her.

Characters should have different agendas
Each of your characters should want something, and what they want should not be the same thing. For example: John, our fellow filling out tax forms, wants to get his taxes taken care of so that he can get a refund in time for a vacation, and the stripper plans to case his apartment so that her gang can rob it later. Because of the conflict in the agendas, conflict in the story arises too.

Change scenes and leave your readers dangling
Another way of heightening the suspense is to get your characters to a very difficult and dangerous moment and then, instead of following immediately with a continuation in the next scene or the next chapter, switch to another character that you’re following in your novel. This is a little artificial but can be very effective. Besides, it is justified when two important scenes are happening practically simultaneously, although in different places. I use this technique in my current project, Pelops and Amphion, when Pelops’ father Tantalus comes at him with a knife. The knife falls; the scene and the chapter end; but instead of letting the reader learn if our hero Pelops survives the attack, I transport the reader to a cottage near Thebes, where Pelops’ future rival and brother-in-law, Amphion struggles with a wayward young bull as he herds the cattle home for the winter.


There are also a few recommendations on what you should not do if you want to keep those pages turning.

Don’t be illogical
Don’t make your characters do something simply because it is convenient for the plot, particularly if the deed contradicts what the character would normally do. Or, if you have to do this for the sake of the plot, then justify it somehow. If Joe hates spinach on page twenty then Joe should not eat spinach on page one hundred and twenty, unless you give a reason for this spinach-eating in the interim. Perhaps Joe still believes that spinach is a very good source of iron. (Spinach for many years was considered a wonderful source of iron, but this legend was due to a mistyped decimal point. In truth spinach has about as much iron as other leafy-green vegetables.)

Don’t dwell on the dull moments
You don’t have to tell the reader everything. If nothing happens when driving from the house to the post office, then instead of telling us about the drive, give your readers enough information to make the transition and then skip the rest. You can do this with hours, days, weeks, months, even years if necessary.

Don’t let your characters be too happy for too long
Happiness is great in real life, but it is bad for your plot. Your characters can be happy at the end of the book, when there is no more plot coming.  Occasionally they should be happy during your book, so that things can come crashing down again in the next page. But in general, bad things are more fun to read about.


Hopefully these ideas will help you put more twists and turns in your plot. Your writing will flow much more easily if you know what is going to happen next. And if the words flow well for you, the chances are greater that the pages will turn quickly for your readers.


This article is the sole property of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission.  The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is illegal, and will be prosecuted at the discretion of the author.


Fiction Fix Home Page

Current Issue

Contact us.

Article Archive

Writers' Guidelines


Privacy Statement



About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria also teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.