“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham
Staying at my friend Laura’s lovely home while visiting Alex at Middlebury is always a treat. This time around we spent a wonderful afternoon catching each other up and brainstorming. After filling Laura in on my book project and she mentioned that she’d just read a great article in a recentThe New Yorker on writing. Then she was kind enough to find the issue for me.
Called “Lives of the Saints,” the story profiled a writer named Lynn Vincent, who’s ghostwritten some major bestsellers, including Heaven is for Real, about the near-death experience of a little boy. During a workshop described in the story, Lynn gave some helpful tips. First, she said that through her writing she had come to understand that what readers want most is a “powerful emotional experience” — they want to be moved and shaken up. Second, she talked about what she most values in a book, whatever the subject. She calls it “The Sacred ICPID,” which translates as “I couldn’t put it down.”
From Common Sense (“a serious page-turner: no wonder the colonies revolted!”) to The Shining by Stephen King, this is the “up-all-night” ingredient that keeps people racing from chapter to chapter to find out what happens next.
How do we create page turners? While part of it is art, Lynn believes there are basic techniques a writer can use to create emotional drive and energy in their stories. By studying James Patterson, she learned to “make every scene its own chapter.” Keeping chapters short is crucial for sustaining momentum, according to Lynn. She also likes to end every chapter with a “cliffhanger or danger alert” to propel the reader forward. After finishing a draft, she makes it a point to go back to the ending of each chapter to make sure it’s got enough drama and danger. She calls this “sticking the landing.”
Mmmm…something to think about. While not every writing project lends itself to these approaches, there’s no denying that narrative drive is a key ingredient in a great story that captures readers’ attention. Whether it’s a play, film script or novel, emotional energy is the name of the game. Write on!