Mastering Conflict and Suspense: How to Keep Readers Turning Pages in any Genre
Mickey Spillane once said, “The first line sells your book. The last line sells your next book.” But how do you bridge the gap between those two lines? How do you get readers from Point A to Point Z without them giving up around Point F? (F as in Failed your job as a writer to engage the reader!) Here are a few ideas to help you keep your readers flipping from one page to the next.
- End Your Chapters on a Cliffhanger
I strongly advise against using this tool too much (if only someone said that to Dan Brown) because a cliffhanger in almost every chapter will become the norm, and the norm is not what a reader wants from a compelling, thrilling book, regardless of the genre. But a well placed cliffhanger at the end of a chapter here and there, maybe every few chapters, adds a sense of urgency to the book. Maybe you have a major romantic plot turn in the middle of Chapter 4, or a bank heist begins to go wrong in Chapter 7. Try ending the chapter early, just as the worm begins to turn, and make the reader flip to the next chapter to see how your troop of Girl Scout safecrackers escapes the bank that is quickly filling up with S.W.A.T. tear gas!
- Reverse Course
This is another one that is easy to abuse because you see it a lot in books and films. A friend suddenly becomes an enemy, or an enemy suddenly becomes your only ally. Or maybe the goal a character wants to accomplish is reached, but it turns out to be nothing the character expected, and now they want to reverse course and go back. But the genie is hard to get back in the bottle, isn’t it? The trick with reversing a course is not to make it obvious beforehand. If everyone knows that the Brownie Troop Mother is a little sketchy and overeager to know every detail of the heist, we may not be shocked when we see her outside the bank with the S.W.A.T. team looking all smug. Make a turn of events a surprise, but make it real too. Don’t have the change run counter to everything you’ve set up just for the sake of shock. There must be reasons, hints, a motive. Make a reader look back and think, “Oh, I should have seen that coming!” It’s a hard balance to find, but when you do, it’s pure suspense gold.
- Add a MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is an item or goal that drives the plot forward but doesn’t end up being important to the end result. The Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade is a good example. Everyone is knocking themselves out for the grail, Indiana above all, but when he finds it, he realizes that the relationship he’s built with his father is more important than possibly dying for the grail. We sort of saw that building all along, but until Indiana realized it, we also thought the grail was the end-all, be-all, and we wanted him to find it, too. In the end, the MacGuffin doesn’t matter, but it’s the thing that got us to the end in the first place. So consider adding a MacGuffin to your tale while your character begins a journey of self-discovery.
- Avoid Perfection
This is one I wish more writers would pay attention to. So many stories have perfect heroes who battle perfect villains: supercops with names like Stone, Steele or Dirk who have an endless supply of ammunition and can take out hundreds of henchmen with the sweep of his pistol. Isn’t that boring? Who cares? Where’s the buy-in for the reader, the thing that makes them think, “Hey, I can relate to that!” An example I like of a “cool” character who is far from perfect is Han Solo (yes, I’m a nerd, deal with it). He talks a big game about being the fastest and the bravest, but the truth is this: he’s actually running away from a bounty on his head, he gets caught by the Imperials and is forced to hide in his own ship, ends up in a garbage chute, and needs an old man to create a distraction so he can get the heck out of Dodge. His ego often gets him into trouble and he ends up taking orders (whether he likes it or not) from a princess. What a nerf herder, right? But he’s still cool because he’s flawed. He’s a pessimist. He doesn’t have all the answers. He needs help from time to time. He’s stubborn and slow to change, even though he does eventually. He’s actually kind of normal, for a space pirate. Give your characters some flaws, put them in conflicts that expose those flaws, and then watch them grow. The reader will be right there with you if you do.
“The first line sells your book. The last line sells your next book.” Mickey Spillane Tweet This
Try ending the chapter early, just as the worm begins to turn, and make the reader flip to the next chapter… Tweet This
Make a reader look back and think, “Oh, I should have seen that coming!” Tweet This
A MacGuffin is an item or goal that drives the plot forward but doesn’t end up being important to the end result. Tweet This
Give your characters some flaws, put them in conflicts that expose those flaws, and then watch them grow. Tweet This
We’d love to hear from you! What keeps you reading? What tactics do you employ in your own writing?