Comments and reviews about my romance novels quite often contain phrases like:’ Couldn’t put it down’ (or ‘unputdownable’ as one person said!) or ‘I was glued to it’ or ‘Once I started, I had to carry on until I finished it.’ In fact, one of my readers once ‘complained’ that I had kept her up late because she had to read ‘just a bit more’ until she got to the end of the book!
Obviously, these are very satisfying remarks for an author, but they made me think about what aspects of a novel make it a page turner.
The first requisite, of course, is that readers want to know what happens next. This means that the plot must be intriguing enough for them not to be able to guess the rest of the story by the time they get to Chapter 2. Of course, with a romance novel, they know the hero and heroine will get their happy ending, but the author must introduce enough unexpected twists and turns to keep readers in suspense and wondering how that is ever going to happen.
Another important aspect is to keep the story moving forward. Long descriptions of people and places might be suitable for literary fiction, but romance readers don’t want to read a whole page describing the scenery, or the layout of a house or exactly what the characters are wearing down to the last detail. A short paragraph with well-chosen words is enough to allow readers to use their own imaginations. Anything more can slow down the action – which brings me to another big turn-off i.e. irrelevant scenes where nothing actually happens.
There’s no need to describe the heroine’s shopping trip, or her day at work, or her cooking or gardening efforts, unless something happens during these events that advances the story. This may seem obvious, but I’ve read some stories with scenes that add nothing to the story. It’s worth remembering that every scene, indeed every page, should contain some kind of action or development. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something dramatic, but there should be a significant ‘something’ that relates to the plot or to the characters. This could be anything from a major turning point in the story or the introduction of a new character to a subtle change of attitude or a character learning something about themselves or the other person or the situation they are in. This applies to conversations, too. Skip all the ‘Hello, how are you?’ pleasantries and any other dialogue that rambles on with no real relevance to the rest of the story.
Cliff-hangers are a well-known device to keep readers turning the pages, especially at the end of a chapter. It’s been said that you should never end a chapter with a character turning off the light and going to sleep – because if your readers are reading in bed (which, of course, many people do) they will probably do the same. You should aim to ‘End each chapter with a bang, not a whimper’! Ask a question, foreshadow something that is going to happen (without giving it away), end with a critical moment for one or more of the characters – anything that will make your readers want to carry on reading to find out what happens next – even though it might be midnight.
An author can also drop hints during a chapter which make readers start asking questions e.g. Character A seems to have a hidden agenda – what is it? I used this in my novel, Irish Inheritance, which brought this comment from one reader when she was part-way through the book, “I’m dying to know what …. (no spoilers!) is up to.” There are also times when readers can be one step ahead of your characters. In Irish Secrets, for example, the hero is not what he is pretending to be and in Irish Deceptions something is revealed by the hero which the heroine doesn’t suspect. Hopefully, this makes people want to continue reading to discover what will happen when the heroine discovers the truth.
My final point is the characters themselves. Romance readers want to empathise with the heroine and fall in love with the hero, and the author needs to ensure that readers get to know the characters well enough to care about them. This means that they’ll be interested enough to turn the pages to find out what happens to them, and how they will eventually reach their happy ending.