At a recent conference, William Bernhardt, a writing instructor and author of the popular Ben Kincaid legal thriller series outlined seven elements that he believes make for page-turning fiction. A Writer’s Digest online article by managing editor Adrienne Crezo captured his story sizzlers:
1. Readability: Bestselling authors strive to go beyond clarity to craft a narrative that’s absolutely riveting. Extreme readability is the result of writing, rewriting, editing and still more rewriting. As William puts it, “multiple drafts and revisions … create smooth, engaging novels.” The message: Don’t short-circuit the revision process: It can make all the difference between a book that merely sells and one that sizzles
2. Strangeness: “You don’t need fantastical elements” to create a “strange new world” for your protagonist to navigate. Introducing your main character to totally unfamiliar circumstances “adds tension and introduces intrigue” to your story. Secret societies, family secrets, unusual happenings – these all help build “strange worlds” that can keep characters off balance — and readers reading.
3. Controversy: Many writers tend to place it safe and avoid controversy, but according to William, courting controversy attracts readers. Prickly plot lines, ideas, and characters can all add fuel to the fire. He cites Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind as a prime example: “[She was] spoiled, manipulative and generally unlikable” until readers “connected with her hardships.” If you create a lead character who isn’t all that likable, your readers can find “a point of relatability [through] struggle.”
4. Big Actions with Big Consequences: Little problems create little stories and limited appeal. Put characters in situations that require them to make tough, high-stakes choices, face big fears, and undergo major changes. “If the consequences aren’t difficult or the choices aren’t hard, no [reader] is going to care. And if no one cares, then it doesn’t matter what happens in your story.”
5. Nuanced Uniqueness: The key to producing a book that’s a standout in its genre, says William, is creating a story that’s “the same, but different.” Each story must have “its own unique elements [or a] new spin” to appeal to readers. If your character seems to similar to other characters in your genre, then give him or her some “interesting backstory, personality traits, hardships” or even a disability. There’s infinite room for variation.
6. Extreme Situations: “Do not be afraid to go extreme,” says William. Pit your character “against every odd.” Get your characters in deep trouble, then figure out what they would do when “it’s make or break, do or die.”
7. Reasons to Care: “Your readers need reasons to care about your characters–that’s why they’ll care about your story.” Plunge characters into genuine emotions, emotional distress or uncertainty, and hardship that readers can relate to. “People talk about the things they care about; if they care about your book, they’ll tell other people about it.” Word of mouth is still the most effective selling tool.
What a great list of must-haves: I can see how each of these elements applies to my YA novel. So let’s put our characters in hot water — and write on!