Three essentials for creating page-turning tension in your novel #amwriting #writetip

Creating a page-turning read is the topic for this month’s Round Robin…

round robin, helena fairfax, romance editor

How do you develop the tension every story needs to keep the reader involved?

This is such an excellent question. There are so many elements to this that at first I felt overwhelmed. Then I decided to follow my own advice in a previous post and break down my answer into bite-size chunks.

The three essentials to creating a page-turning read

One: Conflict

Every page-turning story involves conflict of some kind or another – whether it’s a war between whole worlds or Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf.

helena fairfax, romance editor
Illustration by Walter Crane

Personally, I find direct conflict is the easiest to write. Take this confrontation in Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures:

She made for an envelope on her desk, but David caught hold of her arm in a tight grip.

‘And what if I’ve changed my mind? This shop’s been a nice little earner for me. Maybe I’m not ready to leave, after all.’

‘You wouldn’t,’ she gasped. ‘You can’t stay here now.’

‘Can’t I? We’re equal partners, remember? Maybe you’re the one who ought to be leaving, not me. You’ll never make a go of it on your own. You’re a pathetic dreamer, Penny.’

There was the sound of a quiet footfall behind them, and the atmosphere in the room changed perceptibly. David said nothing, but his grip on Penny’s arm loosened. He was breathing heavily. He stared into Penny’s shocked face before releasing her and turning around.

Kurt was leaning against the far wall, arms folded. ‘Guess you may want to think through what you just said.’

I enjoy writing these scenes. The conflict is obvious and doesn’t require too much subtlety and hours of thought. I added suspense by having David stare into Penny’s face before turning, but other than that the tension is right there in David’s aggression and Penny’s shock.

helena fairfax, freelance editoryThis type of aggressive conflict – an argument or a sword fight or an outright war – is a relatively straightforward way to provide tension. It’s when the conflict is more subtle that you need real skill as a writer. Jane Austen is a mistress of the art. What happens in Pride and Prejudice? Some balls, some visiting of country houses, some dinners – but the tension is there in spades.

At the Netherfield ball, Lizzie finds herself ‘suddenly addressed by Mr Darcy’, who asks her to dance. What? Suddenly asked to dance by the guy who’d said dancing with any of her circle would be ‘a punishment’? This stuns Lizzie as well as the reader. Why has he asked her, and no one else?

This dance, with its to-and-fro frosty conversation, is a masterclass of tension from start to finish. At first Darcy says nothing, until Lizzie begins teasing him on his manners. He tries to start a conversation, but when Lizzie deliberately mentions Wickham’s charm, knowing Darcy dislikes him – ‘the effect was immediate. A deeper shade of hauteur overspread his features, but he said not a word.’

More tension comes when Sir William jokes about Bingley and Jane’s forthcoming marriage. Darcy is struck ‘most forcibly, and his eyes were directed with a very serious expression’ towards the couple. Why is he behaving this way? Nothing for it but to keep turning the pages.

Their conversation continues to be tense and stilted, ending in ‘dissatisfaction on both sides’, but Austen leaves us with the tantalising revelation that ‘in Darcy’s breast there was a tolerable powerful feeling’ towards Lizzie. More amazing news! But she despises him. What will happen next??

So much more could be said about creating conflict, but this scene by Austen shows that creating tension in a novel doesn’t just mean adding car chases and having characters hanging by their fingernails from a cliff. The tension can be just as powerful in a conversation in a ball room.

Two: leave the reader some ‘tasty morsels’

A ‘tasty morsel’ is what I call a snippet of information or a tiny reveal that leaves the reader wanting more.

Last week I downloaded a sample of a book called Kea’s Flight, by Erika Hammerschmidt and

helena fairfax, editor
Image courtesy of Pixabay

John C. Ricker. I read a lot of sci fi, and I loved the premise: it’s the 25th century, and humans are getting rid of their ‘imperfect’ babies by sending them to other planets. Kea has Asperger’s and is on a space ship full of similar teenagers . They are not allowed paper; all their writing and drawing has to be done on their tablets and is monitored, just like their conversations.

When Kea befriends Draz, he shows her how he draws by making marks on his clothes. He adds the tiny words beneath one of his drawings: Now we can talk freely.

This is an excellent example of a ‘tasty morsel’. I loved this. What does he know? I downloaded the full book to find out.

This scene on a spaceship hints at physical danger, but again, the tasty morsel can just as easily apply to wanting to know more about a vital exam result or a long lost sister, or a relationship break up.

In the scene in P&P quoted above, Darcy’s eyes are directed towards Jane and Bingley ‘with a very serious expression’. This is all Austen says. The dance moves on, but this is a classic ‘tasty morsel’. We want to read on to find out why he’s so grave. When Darcy’s actions later come to light, we remember we were forewarned.

Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures is a romance. We all know how a romance ends – with a happily ever after. So why turn the pages when you already know the ending? The tension comes from the romantic conflict – from the reader wondering just how two people with such opposing ideals/views can ever come together.

This is the ‘tasty morsel’ I dropped into Penny’s Antiques to add some tension to the developing romance. (Tehmeena is Penny’s friend and assistant.)

Tehmeena refused to budge. ‘Let’s see how long it is before he asks you out.’

Penny stared. ‘Asks me out?’ she repeated. ‘Kurt Bold is looking for a marriage based on logic and rational decisions. Do you really think that’s me?’

Tehmeena’s grin was so broad it nearly met her ears. ‘You know what they say. Opposites attract.’

‘Yeah, right.’ Penny finally smiled back. Her assistant looked so ridiculously hopeful, she couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Opposites do attract. I’ll give you that. But I think you’d need a pretty big magnet for this one.’

A logical American financier and a daydreaming English rose. How will they get together? I’m hoping the reader will want to read on and find out…

Three: create characters readers care about

In Pride and Prejudice, we soon get to know Lizzie and we care about her. She’s affectionate, witty and loyal. We want to know that everything will turn out well for her, which is a big part of the reason we keep turning the pages.

But a heroine also shouldn’t be too perfect. We can’t relate to the woman who is beautiful, gifted, well dressed and behaves perfectly at all times. Lizzie has flaws. She’s impetuous and prejudiced against Darcy, and her conversation at the ball reveals she wasn’t above needling him. Haven’t we all behaved badly at some point? We can relate to this, and Lizzie’s flaws only endear her to us.

When I edit manuscripts, keeping an eye on how the characters are appearing is high on my checklist. It’s sometimes difficult for a writer to take a step back and judge how their own characters come across, which is why I need an editor for my own books. We have a mental picture of them, but sometimes that picture becomes distorted and we can’t see it. If readers believe a character’s behaviour comes across as irrational or selfish or generally thoughtless, they will very likely put the book down and go on to something else.

But having said that, a character doesn’t have to be a good person for us to care what happens. We can care what happens to a villain, because we want them to get their comeuppance. Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, Long John Silver in Treasure Island.

In fact there are some villains I remember more than the actual plot of the book, because I was so fascinated by them – characters like Hannibal Lecter, or Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter, or Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith books.


So those are my three essential components of a page-turning book!penny's antique shop of memories and treasures

By coincidence, today is the release of Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures. Bestselling author Marie Laval described the book as ‘A wonderful and heartwarming romance that you won’t be able to put down.’ I was absolutely thrilled to know that it had kept her turning the pages.

Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback.


Thanks to author Rhobin Courtright for setting us another great topic this month. If you’d like to find out what the other authors have written on this subject, please click on the links below!

Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire  http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1oh
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

12 thoughts on “Three essentials for creating page-turning tension in your novel #amwriting #writetip

  1. You make an excellent point in tip #3 – CREATE CHARACTERS TO CARE ABOUT. No matter how much tension there is in the rest of the story, if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, he or she isn’t going to read on no matter how much tension there is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Skye, I’ve noticed when I’m editing how hard it is for writers to see how their characters are coming across. When there is no motive for a character’s behaviour, or they appear to be acting selfishly, it jolts you out of the story and the tension is gone. It’s a difficult thing to get right.
      I’ve enjoyed this month’s topic. Thanks for dropping in!


      1. I used to read a book right to the end if I’d started it, Diane. Now I think life is too short for that! If I’m not getting on with a book, I put it down and go on to the next. I suppose this just goes to show how very difficult it is for writers – and how vital – to keep readers involved.
        This has been an interesting topic again. Thanks for dropping in!


  2. Helena, I agree with the subtle point that a too-perfect character is a spoiler that reduces tension. That’s one of the reasons I like Dick Francis’s writing. His formula is, an ordinary man I identify with is placed in an impossible situation, then inspires me by overcoming it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Dr Bob, Dick Francis really knows how to write a page-turning story. I enjoy his books a lot. There were rumours after his wife died that it was her who had ghost-written his stories. Whatever the case, they are gripping reads, and his heroes are always relatable.
      Thanks for your great comment!


    1. Hi Anne, what a great topic for an essay! I’d have really enjoyed doing the research for that. It would make a good blog post if you ever had time to write it. I’ve enjoyed this month’s Round Robin again. Thanks for dropping in!


  3. Looking back at it, one of the worst (and arguably most tense) scenes I ever wrote was the rape of Drusilla in DRUSILLA’S ROSES (the unpublished companion to DEAR MISS LANDAU) and I only used a few words… I then wrote a short chapter where she had a panic attack, which I guess was pretty shattering (blew Juliet Landau away, apparently) and all through it was woven the fact that I cared about Dru, making it very hard to write although it had to be done for reasons of character development.

    Conversely, I thought THE LEGEND OF JOHN MACNAB had failed because i didn’t care about the characters (I used to joke I’d have thrown them into a molten pool of magma if it’d further the plot…), but according to a reviewer they came across vividly, which is indeed vital.

    So, yes, care about your characters but don’t be too afraid to put them through hell for character development. If the reader cares for them, too, he will follow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting that you literally care for your characters, James. It takes me a while to get to know my characters enough to care about them. When I first start writing a new book, I don’t know who these people are. By the end of it, I’m very sorry to see them go. And I do find it difficult to give them a hard time – but conflict is one of the ‘essentials’ on my list, and the characters have to go through it.
      Thanks so much for your interesting comment, and for dropping in!


  4. I agree that the writer must create characters people care about. Jane Austen is an wonderful example of creating conflict and tension without violence or even screaming and shouting. The tension just drips off her pages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Judy, I first read P&P when I was about 15. There were no films of it then, and no TV shows, and I had no idea what was going to happen. Reading that book was bliss. I was gripped from start to finish!
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


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