What makes a Page-Turner?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
Collins online English dictionary defines a page-turner as 'an exciting novel, such as a thriller, with a fast-moving story', adding that, it's 'so interesting, exciting, suspenseful, etc. that it draws the reader along, though it may be of little or no literary worth.'

I'd quibble the last assertion, for I've recently raced through several crime novels that stand comparison with literary novels. Not every page-turner is trashy pulp fiction. As I read, I pondered what it was that had me fixated on the story. The Thirst is the latest Jo Nesbo police investigation, featuring his flawed detective Harry Hole. Its 538 pages took me three days to read. I felt a loyalty towards Harry, having read the previous ten stories, and I wanted to find out what was happening in his life. I was enthralled by the clever plotting, admiring how Jo Nesbo handled multiple POV.

Recently, I read two Walter Mosley novels back-to-back, which featured a protagonist new to me. I'm familiar with Easy Rawlins in post-war LA, but Known to Evil and When The Thrill Is Gone are about an old school private investigator in modern New York, a tough nut called Leonid McGill. He's an ex-boxer, who once fixed things for organised crime gangs, and is now making amends by doing the right thing. For a street brawler, he's a clever man who loves literature, political debate and philosophy. I had to stop several times, to find references I was unfamiliar with. The Times of London called Mosley, 'One of America's most gifted writers of any genre'. I have to agree, yet many readers would pass on his detective novels as a worthless distraction...a waste of time page-turner.

This afternoon, I began reading a 168-page novella by Henning Mankell, called An Event In Autumn, which I'll finish tonight. It's a Kurt Wallander thriller, and I know this detective from having read a dozen novels featuring him, so, again, I've bonded with the character. Mankell does internal dialogue really well, and the reader starts to see life through Wallander's weary eyes. It's compelling reading, as the Sunday Express says, 'This beautifully crafted story will grab you and it will not let you go.'

Admittedly, with crime stories there's an advantage to staying with the story, as a way of working out who's committed the crimes. It's easy to miss clues, and to forget who is who.

I normally get through three novels a week, reading them in 40-50 page chunks. Last night, I began reading Attica Locke's Pleasantville. She's a tremendous writer, but this novel isn't as much a page-turner as Bluebird, Bluebirdwhich I swiftly devoured at the beginning of the year. It could be because Pleasantville introduces hordes of characters in the first 50 pages, setting the scene against a flurry of political campaigning running up to an election, as well as needing to do a fair amount of back story, as this is the second story featuring an environmental lawyer. The only bit of action, so far, was a bungled burglary of his office.

For me, much of what makes a page-turner is fast pacing, as well as hooking the reader into the humanity of the protagonist, showing what drives them, including their vulnerabilities. It's not all shallow, let's-get-on-with-it action, as there were many moments in Walter Mosley's narrative when I paused and reread a paragraph.

I love writing my own crime novels, and I'm learning lessons all the time from masters such as Mosley, Mankell and Nesbo. Their novels are not just about the crimes, they entice the reader into the dilemmas faced by the protagonist, the antagonist and the supporting characters. Just because something is easily consumable doesn't mean to say that it lacks nutritive value.

What makes a page-turner for you?

Do your favourite page-turners contain deeper messages than their marketing suggests?

Have you been glued to a book lately?

For me, it's a book that evokes emotion on each page. The pace is fast, but not so dizzying there's no time to explore the characters. It's one that keeps me guessing. A difficult quality to pin down, no? And one we all strive for. :)
For my personal tastes, its humour and/or well crafted, intense action that normally makes me plough through a book. I would also want to say that if something is incredibly well written, then I am drawn to keep reading obsessively, but such things are few and far between.
It is never a deeper meaning or - heaven forfend - any kind of allegory that makes me read more.
The other thing that keep me reading is something that tends to only exist in sci-fi. For want of a better explanation, I could refer to it as the "What's over that hill?" Syndrome. I like to be enticed by the reach of the book and the sheer chutzpah of the author. What happens when the heroes reach the Dyson sphere? What happens when they break into the alien vessel? What will they find when they get there and will it blow my socks off? It is the mystery of what might be, I suppose.

There are exceptions, wherein its the sum of parts making a better whole than I imagined. Last example being Hunger Games. I expected not to like it, as I didn't grok the films and dislike first person as a rule, but I was utterly drawn in, and finished the trilogy in a few days, which for me is light speed!

Lately? Sadly, no takers. Of the last 10 books I picked up, most were never finished. Of those that were, none really inspired me, and I had to push through to end just to make sure that it was a train, not a light, that I was seeing.
Thought I'd point out, she said it may have little literary worth. Which allows for the possibility of literary worth.

What makes a page-turner for you?

It depends on my mood. I'll read a historical romance if I'm in the mood for it -- usually around November. There's something about November - December which says faux Regency England. Then it's usually the dialogue I like. Also, the dresses. It's weird but I like a pretty dress and those books tend to have a pretty dress and a ball to go with it.

I like mysteries. Although, I rarely care about the mystery. Which is good because I can usually guess. Maybe everyone guesses and the fun is seeing if we're right. But if so, someone needs to clue my brother in. He's always angry at me for guessing how things end before the end.

But with mysteries its the characters and their secrets. Detectives are allowed to ask questions we'd never dare ask otherwise. They're allowed to stand in your living room and make characters account for the weird stuff they do, or have done, when often the characters closest to them cant. So, for mysteries I'd have to say -- Interesting characters and a detective I want to listen to. I have a weakness for mysteries that take place in England, in small little villages, with all sorts of eccentric people. ...and I can't remember the name of the author I used to read right now... He was an old bachelor, an antiques dealer... who somehow always had to solve a mystery...

With general fiction its the language. The language has to be beautiful or I get bored. I don't want to go to the grocery store and I don't care if Bob cheated on Alice. Make me care -- show me the dents in the character's soul. I also like to be surprised by the end. Jodi Piccoult has a unique way of looking at the world. Her characters get dark without being depressed, depressing, or maudlin. I don't even think dark is the word. They tell their truth and its not always nice. It makes them very human and it's just like they're telling us their deepest darkest secrets. Now that I think about it, she's the most surprising author I've read and her wrapping is sort of ordinary.

I'm pickier about fantasy. I like authors who have a good handle on myth, symbolism, and imagery. I've been listening to Neverwhere in my car. I like it but I haven't fallen in love yet. But I suppose that Neil Gaiman fellow has a good grip on mythology and how to weave a plausible otherworldly world -- even if it is on our world. I have to admit I've always wondered if there was a whole other world beneath us. I haven't read anything else he's written, but Neverwhere has the rhythm of a fairy tale, of a children's book, and darned if he doesn't get away with childlike prose. There's a sense of wonder.

I don't like sword quest types of fantasies like Salvatore and so many others write. It isn't only that they're not very meaningful or original -- they feel contrived -- or false -- which is the result of not being very meaningful. They hardly ever have anything interesting at stake. Life and death -- not actually high stakes.

I'm also pickier about science fiction. I don't care for toys for toys sake. Show me how it changes how we live, how we relate, and how we think. The last science fiction I read had an amazing beginning and a sucky ending. But I was excited at first.

Do your favourite page-turners contain deeper messages than their marketing suggests?

Well. I suppose so. But I think X-Men has a pretty good message. I prefer not being hit over the head with a message because if you're willing, beauty and meaning are everywhere and in everything. Which I imagine must seem corny but there you have it.

For instance, those sword quest fantasies, I'm pretty certain they have a meaning I can't discern just like I'm pretty sure a lot of happily ever romances have a meaning I have no ear for either.

Have you been glued to a book lately?

Likeability, or the feeling I'm going to find either learning or nourishment in it, for the mind or spirit, or I'll read because it frightens me. Then I'll read it to see if it turns out OK, and if it doesn't, why doesn't it, and how do people cope, or fail to cope. And how would I handle it?
Child, animal or lovely person in jeopardy...noooooo
Scumbag in jeopardy, oh, well, ok then. Live by the sword....
One seeks the story for the workings of justice or mercy or grace.
Or just for another view of the world. So long as it's a view I'm currently interested in, and by view I don't mean agenda.
I read to travel.
What makes a page turner for me isn't the genre, it's the hook and the intensity of the narrative voice. I don't expect to be hooked on the first page (I'm not an agent), but the first chapter. If I fail to become interested in the main protagonist and his/her quest fairly early on in the book, the writing can be as literary as it likes, there seems no point in continuing to seek for something that isn't there.

On the other hand, I just read Death in Oslo by Anne Holt, and kept wondering what was going to happen, despite her atrocious lack of narrative skill. Her dialogue was messy, the narrative viewpoint all over the show, and all those chewing and tea-making exercises off-putting. And I did wonder whether the dead guy who grinned and raised his eyebrows was a result of translation from Norwegian... she had something I can't pinpoint, but I the blurb suggesting that she is in the same sphere as Stieg Larsson must have meant geographically.

Page turners to those of us who write, unfortunately don't fall in the same category as those of readers who don't write. Before I started to write I devoured any book I could get my hands on, now I am pleased if the novel is at least grammatically correct. This does, somewhat, limit the options these days.
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