Some rules of the road in writing are worth paying attention to and one of them related to plotting says that in order to keep a reader’s interest from flagging, a story should “turn” every four to six pages. A “turn” is basically a shift that changes the overall dramatic situation that’s unfolding in either a minor or major way.
A minor plot turn involves a dilemma or obstacle that can be resolved relatively quickly — the decisions made move the story along, but they are not high-stakes choices. A major story turn puts the plot under pressure and ups the ante exponentially. It forces a complete change in direction: a pivotal character who holds a crucial secret dies, for example.
In a suspense novel, story turns are designed to keep ratcheting up the tension constantly. While most plot turns involve challenges of some kind, they can also be moments of triumph or growing awareness in which a character realizes something large or small that can prove useful — a piece of the dramatic puzzle.
The plot-turn principle has been used with great success by the “best in the business.” According to the master storyteller, Ken Follett, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a prime example of the effective use of plot turns to keep a story moving. And not surprisingly, the creative wizard Charles Dickens was a consummate expert at employing this technique to keep his readers on the edge of their seats. If you dip into Great Expectations or David Copperfield, you’ll find that, like clockwork, there’s a clearly identifiable plot shift every four to six pages.
A word advice from our pal Ken — who’s sold about 130 million books, most of them thrillers — and who knows a thing or two about plotting: “Be careful though. If you’ve got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene. Above all, the most important rule when writing the first draft is to pace the action right. Do this, and the story will always develop at about the right speed.” Write on!