A page-turner is a book/story that is so full of dramatic tension, we keep turning the pages in hopes of discovering the ending/result. The ideal page-turner keeps us up past our bedtimes or compels us to pick the book up at every possible opportunity to read it. All suspense stories, of course, must have that compelling, page-turning quality to be successful, but did you realize that all writing must have a certain amount of it to work?
Even nonfiction books (I mean the ones aimed at popular audiences, not academic tomes, though good writing doesn't hurt such books) must have a compelling, page-turning aspect. In essence, a popular nonfiction book usually must present its material in a story-like way to draw us in. For example, Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" is presented as a story that allows the reader to discover, along with Groopman, what makes for good diagnosis, how we know that it's good, and how and why doctors fail to diagnose correctly. Stories of patients are interwoven with Groopman's own personal experiences as a doctor-in-training, as a teacher of doctors-in-training, and as the parent of a sick child.
All fiction must have the page-turning quality also, not just suspense or action or other dramatic books. Even romantic comedy must be a page-turner to keep us reading. (In fact, I submit that creating and sustaining dramatic tension in a "light" book is more difficult than when one is writing suspense. A romance always has to end with a "happily ever after" ending, to be a romance by definition, and this eliminates some tension because the reader knows part of the outcome.) A fine example of compelling writing in a romantic comedy is Susan Elizabeth Phillips's "It Had to be You."
I recently finished the book, and while reading the climactic scene, found myself literally vibrating with tension while I read the outcome of a football game. Yes, a football game. I admit to loving pro football, and can't think of many finer things to watch than my favorite team (the New England Patriots) pulling out a win in the final seconds of a game, so perhaps I'm a little biased in finding a football game description compelling. But that's only a small part of my raptness while reading the scene.
I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who might decide to read the book, which is one of the best romances--and all-around best darned stories--I've ever read. It had me nearly sobbing with tension, something perhaps only six books in my entire life have done. But I have to explain what makes this book a real page-turner, so SPOILER ALERT!
I am simplifying the scene to an extreme degree, so rich are the layers in this story. Trust me, it's a whole lot better than I'll make it sound. I'm leaving out a lot of the emotional complications so that I don't end up writing this post all day long.
Phoebe the heroine, the person who will own the team permanently only if they win the AFC Championship because of her estranged father's condition in his will, has been taken hostage by a crazed man who blames the team's head coach, Dan, for his son's death. Dan and Phoebe love each other, but also believe that the other doesn't love them back. (Phillips is a master at creating what's called "the black moment" in romance stories. I don't have the space to list all the factors that have gone into this particular black moment.)
Dan has been told by the madman that, if the team doesn't lose, he'll kill Phoebe. Dan is the kind of man who would never, ever throw a game--but does so, for Phoebe, even though he thinks he'll never have her. The choice breaks his heart either way. Phoebe, though it causes her great physical pain, escapes from the man, who's been holding her in a sub-basement of the stadium. When she manages to make it to the team's sidelines, after she and Dan briefly connect, both confessing that they love each other--a difficult thing for these particular characters to do--the team is down by ten points. She explains to the team why Dan had been coaching them to lose, and tells them they have to win. At this point, we're at the two-minute warning in the final quarter of the game. Still with me?
Phillips, obviously a huge fan of football, narrates a believable final two minutes in which the team takes big risks, scoring two touchdowns, the second one as the clock runs out, to win the AFC championship.
What makes this work, besides the "ticking clock" dramatic tool Phillips uses to create suspense in the scene's climax, is that almost every character in the book has something riding on the outcome of the game, and I do mean nearly every single character! While for Phoebe and Dan, it's literally life and death, other characters have a huge stake as well. Not only that, as readers we find the hero and heroine so believable, so pure in their love for each other, and yet so human, that we can't help being caught up in their story.
So, the elements of a page-turner? Some dramatic device like the ticking clock, a richly-layered plot without easy resolution, and characters with such depth and heart that we love them, truly love them, and want them to succeed.
If only it were that easy to implement in our writing!