Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Creating a page-turning novel - by David Thorpe

I've almost finished editing the first draft of my most recent novel, which is the longest I have ever written at almost 100,000 words.

I began the novel in February and, while I had a fairly detailed synopsis, many things had to be filled in along the way.

For me, the first draft is a way of getting the substantial majority of the narrative and plot nailed down. Major issues of character consistency, providing credibility and substantiating plot developments have been inserted.

As a result the current draft is substantially different in emphasis from the original synopsis.

There are plenty of really good blog posts around on the process of editing, so I won't repeat any of that advice.

Instead, in a moment, I will get to the point hinted at in the title of this post.

The overall effect given by the novel is uncertain until you as the writer get down to reading your first draft from beginning to end.

This, fortunately for me, was in this case a satisfying pleasure.

Although in places I was horrified to discover the naivete of some of the writing, before hastily correcting it, it's exciting to see for the first time the sweep of the narrative from a bird's eye view, instead of the snail's eye view that you have when crawling along word by word.

One could spend money paying a therapist to find out why one unconsciously repeats certain words and phrases over and over again during the narrative. In 99% of cases these words are entirely superfluous.

A particular point I'm paying attention to in the editing is chapter lengths and transitions.

During the writing process, my chapter lengths tended to be long and inconsistent. I am now slicing them up quite drastically.

The average length is between two and four pages.

The point at which the transition occurs is typically either in a change of scene or at a climatic moment.

My overriding criteria is to create a page turner. To this end I enjoy playing with readers' expectations.

Having decided where the break is to occur, I pay particular attention to the last sentence of the preceding chapter and the first sentence of the next one.

Each of these typically, but not always,  are set on their own line.

The last sentence of a chapter will perform the role of being a cliffhanger in a major or minor way.

The first sentence of the next chapter will to some degree be a scene setter. Here is a simple example:

Then she was shepherded through a door and disappeared from view. 

123. Vanishing 
An assistant escorted us to a small room where a monitor let us view the interior of the spherical transformer chamber.

That's fairly straightforward. This one is a little more playful:

Minutes seemed to pass. Nothing happened. Nobody came.

124. Cold shock 
By now I was desperate for the restroom. I opened the door and stepped into the corridor.

The last sentence of the preceding chapter defies expectation in the sense that the reader, along with the characters, is expecting some incredibly dramatic event to occur at this point in the narrative. The fact that nothing does will hopefully itself arouse curiosity.

At the beginning of the next chapter, the fact that the protagonist needs the restroom (the only time he does in the entire narrative) introduces a bathetic effect, continuing the inverted suspense, because we are at a high point in the narrative two-thirds in, to which the whole story has been building so far.

The quest to find the restroom will lead to an important discovery.

Note that in each case the section title gives a clue as to what will happen in the next section and, hopefully, an incentive to continue reading, without giving anything substantial away.

At every point I am asking myself four questions:

  1. What does the reader know now? 
  2. What do they want to know? 
  3. What should I tell them?
  4. How shall I continue to maximise the suspense?

You have to drip feed the readers something to satisfy their curiosity, otherwise they will just give up in frustration.

But if you give them too much there is no incentive to keep reading.

Generally, there are several levels of suspense going on at any one moment. Some of them constitute small arcs in the narrative, others continue for longer.

And there is the overarching suspense arc of: will the protagonists succeed in the challenge given to them at the beginning of the story?

Part of the pleasure of writing and editing is setting 'plants' - and 'red herrings' - throughout the narrative to be paid off later, often in surprising ways.

Since you yourself know the significance of these snippets of information, one of the most difficult parts of editing is being able to judge whether they are either sufficiently obvious, or not too obvious, to the reader.

Ultimately it's best to have someone else read the manuscript when you are satisfied with it and to prepare a series of questions for them to see if you can tease these aspects out.

I hope this satisfies the suspense generated by the title of this post.

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