Friday 20 August 2010


It's the new mantra. Of course, lots of readers have very understandably looked for page-turnability ever since pages existed. Now, it's virtually essential if you want your book published. There are two reasons for its new necessity. The first reason may be spurious. The second is not.
  1. Nowadays, we are told, readers don't have time to hang around.
  2. Publishers demand page-turnability because page-turnability sells more copies and more copies are what they MUST sell, because the income on each copy sold is so much less than it was. (As I said here and here.)
Reason 1 may be rubbish. Certainly, many readers are happy to sit with a deeper and slower book. But a) there is some worrying evidence that the attention-spans of many people are shorter; b) there are certainly more demands on most people's time, so books are in stiffer competition; c) crucially, whatever the truth, publishers believe that shorter and faster are what readers want, and since publishers are the ones selling our books, that's what goes.

Reason 2 is undoubtedly true. More readers will read your book if it has page-turnability than if it doesn't. You need more readers - wherever you stand on the art / commerce continuum, if you want to be published, you need to be able to attract more readers than you would have done five years ago, because of falling unit income. (No, I don't like thinking about "unit income" either, but I find that published writers tend to be far more realistic than unpublished ones.)

So, how do you achieve page-turnability? Here are the methods - apply them more rigorously or less rigorously, depending on your wishes, your genre, your book, and just how much page-turnability you're after.

STAGE ONE - apply the machete
  • Shorten chapters, unless they are already stupidly short. Alter the places where they begin and end so that they usually end mid-action. Give every chapter a knife-edge beginning and ending. Do not let your reader stop reading.
  • Remove much more description than you want to.
  • Ditto with back-story, philosophy, scene setting and world building. Just because you know it, doesn't mean the reader needs it. Think iceberg.
  • Remove at least two of the first five chapters. Just do it. See what happens.
  • Remove all your favourite sentences.
STAGE TWO - apply filler
Now that you've cut so much, see if there are any holes. Fill the holes with action. No murder for forty pages? KILL someone. No threats, sinister appearances, ghosts, car chases, unsheathing of knives, MC hanging off a precipice, revealing or touching erogenous zone (if age appropriate), thunder storm, escaping tiger in this chapter? WHY NOT?

STAGE THREE - stand back and admire
Read it. What do you think? The reason I ask is that I'm doing this at the moment and I am surprised at how much I like what's left. That's what I'm offering my readers: something I like and I really want them to like. If, however, thinking as a reader - and thinking as a reader who is less keen than you are as a reader - you really, really, really, want to put something back in, do.

But I bet you won't. Because what you'll be doing then is spoiling a clean piece of writing which has true page-turnability, and you will not be making it more likely to be published.

If being published is not what you want, ignore all my advice.


Jesse Owen said...

Page-Turnability is essential - without it how would we read the book!

(so tempted to add a Basil Brush *Boom Boom* after that - completely unoriginal too!)

Seriously though - great advice as always, I don't know why but if the pages are flying by I always feel like I've enjoyed the book more compared to when they crawl by.

Kittie Howard said...

Great advice! I tend to scan/skip pages when the writer gets too much into scene nitty-gritty. Avoid adjective-filled books. And too much dialogue drives me nuts, ie, more page fillers than realistic talk.

Having said that, as much as I cut I wish I'd cut more. Will tuck your words under my cap!

Thomas Taylor said...

This is great advice, but is it my imagination or are your teeth grinding as you give it?

sheilamcperry said...

I completely see the point about page-turnability. Having already been through the phase of adding in more exciting scenes to fill the gaps - it's good to see that was something I was 'meant' to do and not just the desperate act of a madwoman - I am in the middle of trying to increase the turnability in something I've written by editing out as many 'some's as I can. My only problem with all this turnability is the way it has come out in my synopsis, which now has a breathless manic style as it dashes from one action scene to another. I know we did synopses the other day, but how do you stop it sounding like that?

Nicola Morgan said...

Thomas - how very very very perceptive! Hmmm. OK, here's what I honestly think. F Scott Fitzgerald said something about the sign of a first rate intelligence being the ability to hold two opposing views simultanouesly and still retain the ability to function. So, exercising my intelligence and believing that you have one, too, I would say that I simultaneously feel disappointed that i cannot include what I feel is better, cleverer, richer writing, and feel proud at the clean, compelling, gripping narrative that I have produced instead. The over-arching sentiment is my true desire to write something that will do two things EQUALLY: attract paying readers and make me proud to have written it. So, that's the task i set, as achieving that will mean I don't have to grind my teeth!

Jesse - yes, as readers, one of the things we most often offer in praise of a book is "I couldn't put it down."

I also think, though, that not being able to put it down doesn't have to come from speed.

Kittie - keep them safe!

Sheila - oooh, very good question. could be a blog post. If I don't answer that in the next week or so, please remind me. No time just now...

Sally Zigmond said...

Nicola. You've actually just addressed the point I was about to raise. Page-turnability is indeed essential and what every agent or publisher is seeking but it doesn't have to be achieved by adding something exciting like another death or a thrilling chase. You can actually create a page-turning novel by the quality of the writing alone. I don't mean that readers will be gripped by writing for its floweriness or elaborate imagery. But a clear and sure grasp on style and language (and language that's right for the contents) and a distinct 'voice' will hold any reader's interest.

leila said...

I like this! It's what I'm aiming for with my WIP (children's fiction): every chapter a cliff-hanger. It's a fantastic challenge in terms of structure, and I really love the energy of trying to produce something that is sharp and clean and races along, but also has a good deal of character-driven elements.

M Harold Page said...

Well said indeed.
Funnily enough, I think it's why I still like reading the slim old pulp efforts from 1930s-1970s; tasty meat with no fat.

catdownunder said...

But I don't want to murder anyone! :-)
No, I know what you mean. The problem is to get the balance right between action and giving the reader time to catch their breath. The prose has to flow.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Which makes me keep scratching my head because all my friends who have read Steig Larssen (sp?) say it doesn't get going until page 150.
I'm sorry, but I'm a classic example of reason 1. I really, really don't have time to read 150 pages 'before it gets good'.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about your excellent article on page-turnability. (I loved it by the way, and was saying Yes, Yes, Yes all the way through)

May I liken it to my craft? I see it has similarities to we craft bakers. A cake I would like people to buy, made with the finest, most luxurious ingredients and lots of time and skill, won’t sell that well (apart to a few aficionados), because it’s too expensive and possibly too fussy for an every day confection. So in reality, we aim to make a cake that sells well, is reasonably priced, made with the excellent ingredients and most importantly, still retains the passion of our craft. A happy medium that is interesting and enticing to our customers, who hopefully, feel that it’s not a once in a while treat, but a regular addition to their tea table.

What saddens me, is the production of cakes (made by others), that sell in millions and bought by the masses, because it’s cheap and easy – made with little or no skill, and poor ingredients. Rather like celeb books perhaps?

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Interesting post as my editor gave me this counsel on my recent draft. "The chapter endings are lousy." Time to work on page turnability.

Karen Schwabach said...

Great advice. As usual.

Something I've recently started doing--after what feels like the final revision, I go through with the goal of cutting 10 words from each page. It's slow going. It takes a week. But by the time I'm done, every word has had to defend its reasons for being there. And the story reads much more smoothly.

Dan Holloway said...

I love "ability" words - bouncebackability is my absolute fave.

Interesting on point 1. I've seen a lot of argument about how attention spans are or aren't lowered but you are very right that we need as writers to stop debating it and accept that what matters is publishers believe it.

Your first set of advice is so wise - what I find most offputting in scripts that aren't pageturnable (?) is overdoing the world-building. People think readers won't get it, won't understand, but slowing the pace is SO much more of a danger. There IS a problem in that the likes of Dan Brown and Thomas Harris write the detail so page-turningly, but that's slightly different - that is the kind of stuff that is put back at the filler stage as you put it I guess - what people do badly is over-explain - worst of all is when a protagonist explains something they would actually understand - it's like an aside and lifts us out of suspension of disbelief - and that's the biggest pageturnability killer of all.

Particularly love the remove two of the first five chapters - marvellous.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Smiling at Thomas Taylor's comment.

Good to make your aquaintance Nicola. Found you via Simon Says.

warm wishes

J.C. Martin @ Fighter Writer said...

Sound advice, and I'm sure like most writers step 1 is the hardest, to start hacking away at your little baby, but definitely worth it in the end!

Nick Cross said...

This page-turning stuff was a tough learning curve for me, but essential for the kind of book I was writing. I had a particular problem with chapter endings - I always had to tie off the loose ends, which also deflated all the tension.

Anyway, here was my take on this issue when I was struggling with these concepts earlier in the year. For added value it also contains an "ability" word to keep Dan happy: Unputdownability

David John Griffin said...

You're wise words have just sunk in, Nicola. Page-turnability is so important; something I've tried to incorporate into my previous writing but in a sort of half-conscious manner. It'll be one of the most important things uppermost in my mind as I write now.

Shorter snappier sentences, making each word work, that's something I'm putting into practice right away. I've gone back to my second novel – one that I thought was finished for ever – and amended it again with that in mind.

Thank you! :-)

returning scot said...

Completely thrilled to have found this blog...wish it wasn't so late at night so that I could read it more...I'll be back tomorrow!!!

Elizabeth West said...

Working on it...


Loved the crabbity last line of your post, Nicola!