5 Secrets to Writing a Page Turning Chapter
“I stayed up way too late reading this book. I couldn’t put it down!”
Who wouldn’t love to have that sort of review? Hearing that you hooked a reader and kept them going until the wee hours of the morning is not just praise. It is an accomplishment.
And like everything with writing, practice helps. But there are techniques and principles too. So whether you are a newbie or typed your way around the block a few times, you can develop the skill to grab a reader’s interest and keep it even when she really meant to call it a night ten chapters ago. And to get you started, check out these 5 secrets to writing a page turning chapter!
Tip 1 — Start Each Chapter with Action
Don’t introduce what is happening or where the character is. This isn’t the beginning of the novel and, really, it should have been set up in the previous chapter. So unless you are on chapter one, a setup shouldn’t be necessary. Unless, of course, you follow different characters with each chapter. We’ll get back to that thought.
For now, let’s assume one chapter flows into the next. So don’t repeat how the last chapter ended. Get right into the action. Just like you would start a novel, whatever the chapter is about should be occurring with the first sentence. If two characters are talking, have the reader enter in the middle of the conversation. If it is a sword fight, make it a thrust or parry. No taunting, no “we might start fighting any moment.” They are fighting. She is hiding. The poison tea is being served.
Don’t dilly dally with openings and yes, make that sentence as captivating as possible. Just like if it were the first line of the book. What you thought you only had to write one awesome opener? Hah. Try thirty!
Tip 2 — End Each Chapter with a Hook
A chapter plot is like a book in miniature. It has a beginning that is best with action, a rise in tension to a climax, and the finale. Except the finale in a chapter is akin to a cliffhanger story arc rather than a traditional resolution. You don’t want to tie up loose ends. Actually, you want to end with a question or a revelation, especially one that is going to cause problems.
This ending is the set up for the next chapter’s beginning. The chapter climax might have been the first paragraph which led into an emotional reaction that has the reader feeling the character’s pain as she slogs through a lowland swamp. Only to realize the sacred talisman is missing. The cute thief from the tavern last night probably snitched it. And he doesn’t realize that an army of the undead wants it. Crap.
Or the climax might be just at the end as the chapter roars to full tilt and the elfin hero draws his bow, sighting in on his best friend who betrayed him. And the chapter stops.
Who wouldn’t want to know what happens next? I want to know what happens next. If the darn chapter was written, I’d flip the page to see what is going on. Only I haven’t written it yet. sigh.
End the chapter with so much enthusiasm that you want to write what happens next.
It is not only a good goal, it will keep you from wasting time at the beginning of the next chapter explaining everything that you wrote about in the previous one. You’ll want to get into the meat of it instead.
Tip 3 — Skip the Journey
Anything boring that needs to happen should occur between chapters. If the character needs to change cities and nothing happens on the journey, let them leave in one chapter and arrive in the next. Time for bed? Skip the night and have the next chapter start at dawn.
If the scene is not integral to the story skip it. If it is a string of boring days riding in icy rain with no wood for a campfire, write only the last one and start off with, “One more blasted night of this and I’ll burn you to keep warm!”
Skipping the bits that don’t add to the plot or show the character’s development is good advice for any novel. Focusing on that at a chapter level keeps the story svelte. And it will help keep a reader engaged. If every meal the character needs to consume is described in the novel, I can bet you’ll lose your reader to a midnight snack. So gather the important elements into scenes, write them as chapters, and jump the parts no one will care about. You don’t need to describe everything. Have the character say they are leaving for Fentworth and let them walk out the door. Next chapter is something engaging about arriving in Fentworth unannounced and unanticipated. Go forth!
Tip 4 — Keep Related Story Lines Together
If you switch POV between chapters (a.k.a. George RR Martin), don’t jump randomly around plot lines. If one thread affects the other, or they are different sides of the same conflict, pair those chapters. Why?
It minimizes confusion and creates flow when the story is skipping between scenes and character POV.
I am totally guilty of having so many important characters with POVs and divergent, but important, plot lines that my head sometimes spins writing the story. If the reader loses track of what is going on. She will put the book down. And possibly not know what was occurring when she picks it back up. Not good.
But by placing chapters with related plots that feed into each other together, the similarities help tie the narrative and builds tension. If in one chapter the POV character fails to capture the talisman needed to defeat the dragon and the next chapter is about the friend riding into the town to face the dragon, expecting her friend to arrive with solution in hand … well the reader knows more than the character and is anxious to discover what happens.
Tying related chapters together also keeps explanations of what is going on to a minimum. This goes back to starting with action. I promised you we’d come back to that thought. You only need a quick targeting sentence of who this chapter is about and maybe a sentence reminding readers of what happened previously if this POV character hasn’t been heard from in a few chapters. It doesn’t have to be long. Something as simple as “Alice wondered why Keith would send her to look for the journal at the abandoned school.” From that I know the chapter is in Alice’s POV and why she is opening the squeaking door to a derelict building. I wouldn’t use that as the opener though. Start with the door squeaking like a screaming girl … 😉
Otherwise if you break the story thread by constantly jumping plots, it is a perfect place for a reader to hop off. Sure, you’ll still have to switch from one major plot rope to another and could lose the reader there, but work on that transition. Have the ending of the previous chapter tense so the reader will check to see if the resolution comes in the next chapter, even if they are pretty sure you wouldn’t do that. And then have the next chapter’s opening killer so then they have to see what is going on … and the next thing you know it is a triple espresso morning in order to be functional for work.
Tip 5 – Experience the Story Through the Character
In other words, no information dumps. As soon as you bore a tired reader with a paragraph of description or explanation, even if it comes through dialogue, they will check out, possibly nodding off with book in hand.
But if the reader is riding along with the character, smelling the cook fires and experiencing the turbulent emotions before battle, they will fight off sleep to learn what happens during the morning offensive. This is why keeping to one character POV for a chapter, or at least long sections of a chapter, is important. The reader should settle into a character’s head and feel the rain soaking her cloak, her horse dancing through puddles with unease at the thrashing trees, so similar to ogres breaking branches … and not suddenly be pulled to the man waiting at the tavern, wondering what is keeping his lover. Argh. Stay with the rider! Draw the reader into the world, into the character and her conflict, her worries and hope. Don’t jump around.