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How to Write a Page-Turner: 10 Tips for Writing a Suspense Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 17, 2020 • 3 min read

The term “page-turner” denotes an informal category of books including thriller novels, action-adventure stories, mystery books, suspense writing and any other type of story that is driven in large part by suspense. Some popular writers in the genre include Stephen King, Dan Brown, Kristin Hannah, Donna Tartt, and Margaret Atwood. Page-turners are often popular book club selections. Popular bestselling page-turners include Gone Girl and The Da Vinci Code.



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What Is a Page Turner?

Page-turners are suspenseful stories that fall into a variety of genres and categories. The one common thread is that page-turners are suspenseful and capture their readers’ attention from the beginning to the end of the story, keeping the reader hooked. Page-turners often have elements of murder mystery, science fiction, psychological thriller, historical fiction, literary fiction, and other genres. Many page-turner books are turned into TV shows and films because of their engaging narratives.

10 Tips for Writing a Page-Turner

Writing suspense is a difficult skill to master. The ability to craft suspense novels that are unputdownable and that will hook your readers is something that takes years to develop. The good news is there are many techniques that help with building suspense that you can incorporate into your writing process.

  1. Plan plot twists: Page-turners are full of plot twists and reversals that build suspense. Consider ending a pivotal chapter on a cliffhanger or plot turn that makes people keep reading to see what happens next.
  2. Introduce a ticking clock: A ticking clock is an important element that ramps up pressure on your characters and piques your readers’ curiosity as to how your protagonist can possibly succeed. Many of the best books in the page-turner genre set up big promises and obstacles early in a narrative and layer in a time crunch to make a character’s predicament seem even more dire.
  3. Build up stakes: This may seem obvious, but it’s your job as a writer to craft a story with high stakes, especially if you’re working on a debut novel. You can always take steps to increase the stakes for your characters and amp up the suspense. Readers make the choice to start reading your novel and can stop reading it at any point. Having high stakes from beginning to end will keep them engaged.
  4. Keep increasing the obstacles: A good suspense story introduces new and bigger obstacles up until the story’s climax. For example, if your protagonist is trying to escape from a burning building, all of the escape routes should be blocked. Keep increasing your narrative obstacles to the point that your reader sees no possible way out.
  5. Weave subplots into your narrative: Use subplots effectively to add variety and texture to your narrative and explore characters and backstory. When used well, subplots can artfully pose and answer key questions and flesh out characters.
  6. Add dramatic irony: Dramatic irony is one of the many literary devices that can keep your reader engaged and increase the suspense. If a reader is aware of impending plot points that your characters are not, you can foreshadow plot twists and raise questions in your reader’s mind as to how your characters will deal with the trouble that lies ahead.
  7. Create a dynamic villain: Most page-turners have a main character and a compelling bad guy. Obviously, your cast of characters can be bigger and more complicated, but it can be very helpful to have a dynamic and powerful antagonist in your page-turner.
  8. Invest in the details: Good writing generally contains sensory details and specific observations that remind readers of real life. A suspenseful moment can be much more powerful with detailed descriptions of the environment in which it takes place. If you’re writing thrillers instead of just describing a high school in New York, you might want to write about a decrepit old abandoned public school on the outskirts of the city.
  9. Plant red herrings: Using red herrings is a great way to subvert reader expectations and amp up the suspense. Combining foreshadowing with misdirection will keep your readers on their toes and engaged until the end of the story.
  10. Develop character backstory: Character development through backstory is a great way of writing three-dimensional characters. If you’re writing about a grizzled and cynical detective in the 1950s, including flashbacks to show the events in WWII that made him jaded and hardened to the outside world can help your readers understand his motivations.
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