Today's Guest Blog comes to us courtesy of Larry Kahaner. Larry, the author of many non-fiction books, including the excellent AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, is presently writing a thriller. He and Thriller Guy are writing pals and spend many long lunches delving into the intricacies of the thriller writing process. When TG runs flat up against a seemingly insoluble plot problem, Larry is his go-to guy for an original and clever solution.
This is a true story.
Scene: A creative writers' retreat.
Location: Picnic table among the trees where residents congregate.
One resident, who was writing historical fiction, had her research books in front of her when another resident spied the classic "Caribbean" by James Michener. This other resident had published one book of fiction, 20 years ago, about a young woman and her life in the world of New York publishing. It was autobiographical, sexy and trite. I would tell you her name but she comes from a line of famous authors and it wouldn’t be cool. Suffice it to say that this one-book, non-wonder has been trading on the family name for two decades and bounces around creative centers, hoping to find her muse. She is what's known in the biz as a 'residency slut,' and she would much rather put down the work of others than sit her ass in the chair and pound out a few pages.
Focusing on the Michener tome she says loud enough for everyone around to hear, and in her most condescending voice, "Oh, isn't that just a page turner?"
The historical fiction writer ignored the comment knowing full well that what was meant as a curse was a blessing.
Ask most would-be authors about their main goals and you'll get a ton of answers like this: "entertain…enlighten…write a clever plot… produce compelling characters…"
What they never say is the most important job of a writer, and I offer it here in big type so you can print it out and tack it to your bulletin board or cut and paste it as your screensaver:
Get the reader to turn the page.
If you can do that, you have reached your target. Writers write to be read. Period. (The logical extension of being read is that people bought your book. Yeah, that's really the goal: selling books, but that never happens if you're not being read, right?)
Almost half of all readers don't finish a book because it's too slow or boring. They didn't turn the page.
So how do you force readers to turn the page?
There are many ways, and for this I turn to television. There's a rule in TV that no scene is static for more than two seconds. After two seconds something has to change. Either the whole scene changes, or, if it’s a close-up, a face grimaces, a voice calls, the camera pans out… something has to change. TV folks know that movement equals interest.
So it is with thrillers. For readers to stay with you, you must provide constant action. Long gone are the days of lengthy descriptions of people and landscapes. No more narratives that don't move the story forward apace. And no longer do readers tolerate protracted internal dialogue (this goes for dreams, too) unless there's movement and action within it.
Use every trick, subterfuge and ploy to get your reader to turn the page and that includes cliff hangers, kicker-quote questions and bullets fired but have not yet reached their target – and may not.
Be brave. Be sneaky. Be clever. Do anything that works. Nothing is off limits except what I call the "Superman Tease." As a boy I read Superman comic books as fast as they were printed. The covers drew me in as they promised that Superman was going to die, or he would destroy the earth or Lois Lane and the Man of Steel would marry. Once paying my money and unable to wait, I read it on the street, only to discover that the story took place in an alternative universe, it was a dream or it was a bad guy in a Superman mask. Tease.
Although I was unsatisfied and angry at how I was cheated, I continued to buy the comics until I got older and was tired of being fooled.
Don't tease your readers without a satisfying payoff.
Otherwise feel free to wheedle, cajole, sweet talk and coax them into turning the page.
Do what you gotta do.
And that's all you gotta do.