I Couldn’t Put it Down – A Guide To Writing a Page Turner

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L. J. Martin

L. J. Martin is the author of over 46 book length works from such major NY publishers as Bantam, Avon, and Pinnacle, and Wolfpack Publishing LLC

A Guide To Writing a Page Turner. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest compliment I can get is, “I couldn’t put it down.” Why can’t the reader put your book down? Is it because the content is so fascinating?  Is it because he wants so much to be educated?  Or is it because you, as the writer, have given him so little opportunity to put it down?  I hope it’s the latter, and I hope in this panel that I can help you become a writer who gets the ultimate compliment.

I have to confess to you that I put down ninety percent of all those books I buy before I reach page 50…some of them by page 5.  Why?  Because they bore me, that’s why.  Either I am not entertained, or I don’t think I can learn anything.  Learn anything, either about the subject, or about writing better.

I put down Lonesome Dove after 70 pages because it was boring me.  I know pigs eat rattlesnakes, and I don’t need 70 pages to tell me so.  After it won a Pulitzer Prize, I picked it back up, and forced myself to read on, and after 90 pages I was absolutely hooked.  After page 100, there was no way Mike Tyson could have taken it out of my hands…because I cared about the characters. However, in my mind it’s the writer’s job to hook you on page 1, or by page 3 at the latest.

“She wore a red nightgown so the blood wouldn’t show.”  Sidney Sheldon.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Charles Dickins.

“Johnny Tenkiller got his name in the usual way, from his father.  What was unusual was how seriously he took it.”  Larry Jay Martin’s first western.  Not Sidney Sheldon, not Charles Dickins, but good enough to keep an editor reading and finally to get him to write a check.

Those are hooks.  Task one, write a good hook.  The first person you have to hook is an acquiring editor.  If an editor, who reads hundreds of manuscripts, is hooked, then a reader normally will be by your published book.

A Guide To Writing a Page Turner

Having been a salesman most of my life—I made my living for years selling real estate—I’m interested in the buying/selling process.  Consequently, I’ve stood for hours and watched book browsers at book racks.  You should too, if you’re interested in what makes a book sell.  A buyer will be attracted to a book for two primary reasons, the cover and the author.  Unless of course he’s there looking for a manual to pass his contractor’s exam.  The potential buyer will pick up a book, read the front cover, roll it over and read the cover copy on the back, then if still interested, will many times open it and read the first page.  In about 3% of the time, they’ll then go to the back of the book and see how it ends.  So, after you’ve sold the editor with your hook, you still, in most instances, sell the reader.  For if you don’t sell more than your share of books, your second one won’t see the light of day.

So, you’ve got them hooked.  Now what?

Task two, make them care.  Keep them interested.  Make them care about the story, make them care about the characters.  I think those two elements have equal weight.  And how do you do that?

Director David Lean said, “The next thing that happens in the story is the next thing of interest that happens to the characters.”

I like action adventure as a genre, but I have been unable to put down novels like Tuesday With Morrie, The Bridges of Madison County, and other novels from almost any genre.  Why?  Because they were compelling.  The story kept me interested until I was engrossed with and worried about the characters.

You don’t have to love a character to care about him.  You can hate him so much you want to see him get his comeuppins.

So how does the writer make the reader care.  It’s not always by what a character says, but just like in life, it’s by what they do.

When Quigley jams his rifle butt into the big guys crotch and lets the little old lady get off the ship first, we love him.  Then when he protects Clara and takes on three toughs on the dock, we want to be him.  That’s characterization.

What makes for an interesting story? Elements such as a ticking clock.  If something doesn’t happen in a given time frame, something catastrophic will happen to characters we care about.

Deeper and deeper trouble.  Characters we care about are getting deeper and deeper in trouble, and that trouble may not mean closer and closer to the bomb exploding.  It can be their spiral down closer and closer to divorce, but it probably takes a better writer to keep the average reader interested in that spiral than the bomb scenario.

Guide to writing a page turner – A couple of the simpler rules

Write in scenes

What’s a scene, it’s a story element.  The meeting of your two protagonists, or your protagonist and antagonist.  And a scene is not a scene without conflict.  A very, very important rule:  Conflict in every scene.  If a story element doesn’t have conflict, then it’s a transition, and a transition should be no more than a paragraph, and probably a sentence.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, is a transition.

So, I repeat, conflict in every scene, and that conflict doesn’t have to be a gunfight.  Asking a girl to the prom can be a huge internal conflict.

Keeping that scene compelling means you enter late and leave early.  We all know the common niceties, and know that people say hello and goodbye and are introduced.  That’s not compelling, in most instances, unless it moves the story forward.  Enter the scene late, leave early.

Manage description well

Description is the bane of most writers.  You don’t have to launch into a long omniscient description of a person or place.  Harold reached up and twirled the end of his handlebar mustache is much better than Harold wore a thick, handlebar mustache.  Harold was tall is not nearly so good as Harold had to duck when passing through the doorway.  Harold had to push the table away to make room for a prodigious beer gut, is better than Harold’s beer gut hung over his belt.  Show, don’t tell.  You involve the reader much more by showing.

Elmore Leonard says, “I try to leave out the parts people don’t read.”  And most of what they don’t read is description.

Stephen King wrote a two word chapter in Misery.  Tom Wolfe wrote a four hundred word sentence in Bonfire of the Vanities.  Don’t try it until you’re Stephen King or Tom Wolfe.  Don’t show off your ability to push editors around until you can—and then it’s probably not a good idea.  Don’t show off your ability to write a four hundred word sentence, nobody gives a damn.  Write concisely.  Ben Franklin wrote a friend a four or five page letter and closed with “I would have been more succinct had I more time.”  One of life’s great writing lessons in ten words.

End a chapter properly

And finally, don’t give readers an easy spot to lay down your book.  If you want them up reading all night, then don’t end a chapter with “Gretchen was already asleep, so I fluffed the pillow and flicked off the light.  Tomorrow is another day.”  What a great place to set the book down.  When the next chapter begins with “Just as I closed my eyes, I heard the tinkling sound of glass, then the quiet rasping of one of my casement windows being shoved up.  Was it her husband?  Had he caught up with us?”  That first sentence of the next chapter belongs as the last sentence of the chapter before.  Louis L’Amour would end the chapter with the antagonist shoving the muzzle of his pistol into the ear of the protagonist, and saying, “Mister, I’m gonna blow your head off.” That’s the way to end a chapter

My favorite books, my couldn’t-put-it-down books in the last few years were Misery, Stephen King, Intensity, Dean Koontz, and The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.  In the first two, it was deeper and deeper in trouble, in the latter, it was that to some extent, but it was also the mystery.  In all of them it was the characterization.  And by the way, Misery and Intensity were probably the shortest books those two authors have written.  Length is generally the antipathy, the enemy, of compelling.


Which leads me to genre, but I’ll only touch on the subject, because all writing, to be good, to be entertaining, is the same in the final analysis—It has to be compelling.

In all genres, the most important single element to success is compelling writing.  But what makes them different?

In romance, the most compelling element is oftentimes sexual tension, not that sexual tension can’t be used successfully in any genre.  After all, it’s normally human elements that keep us interested.

In mystery, it’s just that, the mystery.  We want to know who done it, and oft times how.

In westerns it’s usually a quest.  High Noon, he’s got to make it through the day.  Lonesome Dove, they’ve got to get the cattle to Montana.  Will they make it?  Who will die on the way?

In Sci Fi, it’s the element of an unknown new world, A Brave New World, a world as unlimited as the imagination of the writer—the Star War’s bar.  Jabba the Hut.  A common element taken to the extreme.

But all of those genres depend upon compelling writing to make them commercially successful, to take them past the requirements of the avid reader of genre to those of us more plebian types who need to be entertained.  Who need a book we care so much about we can’t put it down.

Keep readers interested with major plot points

Kat and I both use the Syd Field paradigm.  The belief that a novel, like a screenplay, must have major plot points in order to hold the reader’s interest, to jerk him back to a compelling interest in the story.  A plot point is a sudden, hopefully unanticipated, change in the direction of the story.  And the story is broken by two intermediate plot points into three sections, or three acts if you will.  In the novel Intensity, it’s the beautiful, happy go lucky protagonist suddenly taken prisoner by a mad woman, plot point one, which brings us to the second segment, the horror of being imprisoned, then getting free, getting cojones, and fighting back, plot point two, which begins the third segment.  Syd Field has studied hundreds if not thousands of successful films, and has come to the plot point conclusion by the commonalities that made them successful, that made them compelling.  That kept you wired to your seat even though your bladder was about to burst.

An Officer and a Gentlemen.  Plot point one, he’s in officer training, plot point two, he’s thrown out.  Rent it, check it out, and do it with a stop watch.  You’ll see that about 23 minutes into the story, there’s a major plot point, and about 23 minutes from the end, another.

Syd Field teaches other story elements—the bridge, in the middle of the story, introducing all your primary characters in the first ten minutes, and concluding all the elements in the last ten.  Remember, he’s writing about film.  But any story is the same if it’s to be compelling.

Subject verb, subject verb, subject verb

One of the elements of writing that I see so often, an element that gets me to toss a book, is so simple it’s pathetic.  But it tires the reader, literally tires the eyes, and gets books tossed, and that’s sentence variety.

It was a cold day.  John entered the saloon and crossed to the bar.  He leaned against the rosewood.  He ordered a beer.  The bartender grabbed a mug and walked to the spigot.  The beer foamed as it filled and ran over.  The bartender didn’t bother to fill it.  He brought it directly to John and said, “Two dollars.”  Heat creeped up the back of John’s neck.  John reached over the bar and grabbed the man by the collar. That’s subject verb, subject verb, and you’re already bored.

John pulled his collar closer against the chill wind, then pushed the saloon door aside.  Coffee would be wiser, but he needed a beer.  Crossing to the bar, he snapped “beer” at the apron-clad man, who spun and filled a frosted mug, then sat it on the bar.  Eyeing the glass, three quarters filled with foam, John felt heat creep up the back of his neck.  Without considering that the bartender was the better part of two hundred fifty pounds, John’s hand snaked across the bar and he snatched the man by the collar, jerking him close.

Keep the eye entertained and the reader won’t be so quick to bore.

Guide to writing a page turner – In conclusion

Write in scenes.  Enter late, leave early.

Make your characters loved or hated by what they do, not what they say.

Use plot points to renew the reader’s interest.

Description through action.  Show don’t tell.

Sentence variety makes for happy eyes.

Be succinct.  Never use two words when one will do.

Write well, sell what you write, live well

L. J. Martin is the author of four dozen works of both fiction and non-fiction from Bantam, Avon, Pinnacle and Wolfpack Publishing, and formerly a publisher of over 400 titles from other authors. He lives in Montana with his wife, NYT bestselling romantic suspense author Kat Martin. He’s been a horse wrangler, cook as both avocation and vocation, volunteer firefighter, real estate broker, general contractor, appraiser, disaster evaluator for FEMA, author, publisher and has traveled a good part of the world, some in his own ketch.  A hunter, fisherman, photographer, cook, father and grandfather, he’s been car and plane wrecked, visited a number of jusgados and a road camp, and survived cancer twice.  He carries a bail-enforcement, bounty hunter, shield.  He knows about what he writes about, and tries to write about what he knows.  His work has topped the Amazon genre lists in Action Adventure and Western.  He has over 120 videos posted on YouTube, with over a million views, edited by him on Final Cut Pro: search ljmartinwolfpack.  You can join him at facebook.com/ljmartinauthor, on twitter at @westwrite, and on other social media sites.  His Wolfpack Publishing LLC, now sold to a former partner, had great success in eBooks, having a disproportionate share of top action adventure novels in that genre, consistently over 60% of all of Amazon’s classic western bestseller list.

(Talk given to the Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference)

Other Fine Action Adventure from L. J. Martin
(and many more, available on Amazon)

West of the War

Young Bradon McTavish watches the bluecoats brutally hang his father and destroy everything he’s known, and he escapes their wrath into the gunsmoke and blood of war. Captured and paroled, only if he’ll head west of the war, he rides the river into the wilds of the new territory of Montana where savages and grizzlies await. He discovers new friends and old enemies…and a woman formerly forbidden to him.

Overflow. Mike Reardon, the Repairman, hates to mess his own nest—to work anywhere near where he lives. If you can call a mini-storage and a camper living. But when terrorists bomb Vegas, and a casino owner’s granddaughter is killed…the money is too good and the prey is among his most hated. Then again nothing is ever quite like it seems. Now all he has to do is stay alive, tough when friends become enemies and enemies far worse, and when you’re on top the FBI and LVPD’s list.

Click here to visit L. J. Martin’s Amazon Page!

Click here to email L. J. Martin!

#A Guide To Writing a Page Turner #Writing a book that sells #Guide to writing a novel #How to write a novel #Guide to story telling


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L. J. Martin

L. J. Martin is the author of over 46 book length works from such major NY publishers as Bantam, Avon, and Pinnacle, and Wolfpack Publishing LLC

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I Couldn’t Put it D…

by L. J. Martin time to read: 11 min