The most terrifying moment you can experience is a threat from someone—or something—you cannot see. It’s the door knob rattling in the darkness of night.
The sound of footsteps as you cower in the corner of the closet, waiting for the door to open—and praying that it never does.
It’s the fear of the unknown that causes your heart to race out of control, your breathing to come quick and shallow, the adrenaline to pump wildly through your veins.
And it’s the fear of the unknown and the overwhelming desire to see what is beyond that door, to confront the demon and move past it into the arms of safety that keeps the reader turning the pages of a book well into the night.
The first book I could not put down was What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, originally published in 1978 (Putnam). Though other books were certainly compelling and many have remained with me over the decades, this book was such a page-turner that after I finished it, I began all over again. But this time, I dissected Matheson’s writing in a yearning to know how he manipulated me into turning those pages well beyond the moment that I should have taken a break.
The answer lay in his use of cliff-hangers.
As my eyelids grew heavy, I would glance ahead to determine how many more pages existed before the end of the chapter. I would promise myself I’d stop when I reached that natural pause. Inevitably, though, a cliff-hanger arose in those final paragraphs—one so dramatic that I could not put down the book before I discovered what happened next. And it continued that way through every chapter to the very last page.
I have used that technique in every novel I’ve written. Readers know once they’ve read that first paragraph, they won’t sleep until they’ve finished the final scene. The most common comment I receive from readers is, “I couldn’t put the book down.” That’s what you want in a readership. Because the next time they see your name on a book, they’ll remember how you took them on a journey they’ll never forget. And they’ll want to go on another ride with you.
When I was learning how to write—because the technical aspect is every bit as important as the creative—I often heard of the “midway” slump. The author may have an interesting beginning and a suspenseful ending, but the middle sags. Quite by accident, I discovered my books never drag in the middle because I work toward a climactic scene in the middle.
I know, for example, that my book is going to be approximately 400 pages. Rather than write that first page with a goal of reaching the climactic scene on page 390, I decide on a pivotal scene in the middle. A scene so compelling that it causes the reader to sit straight up, widen their eyes, and realize everything they thought was happening might be leading to something else entirely. So assuming that pivotal scene is on page 200, I have only half the book to get the reader to that moment: to lay the groundwork, to set the stage, to place the players where each needs to be. It means that every scene must do double duty—it must be instrumental to the plot on its own, but it also must propel the plot forward by setting the stage for the next scene.
Once the reader reaches that pivotal scene, they are propelled forward at the speed of light until they reach that suspenseful climactic scene at the end.
Because, in the end, the goal of a writer is to take the reader on that journey: to make them feel the anxiety, the tension, the anger, the fear—and propel them forward until they’ve faced the demons and they’ve landed in safe arms.
p.m.terrell is the award-winning author of 12 books including the internationally acclaimed suspense/thrillers The Banker’s Greed, Exit 22, Ricochet and The China Conspiracy and the historical suspense, River Passage and Songbirds are Free. http://www.pmterrell.com/.