Notes from Plotter A Page Turner - Talk by Hallie Ephron at WWCON11

Plotting a Page Turner
Hallie Ephron
Willamette Writers Conference 2011
#WWCON11
  • Write novels and non-fiction
  • Several published books: Come and Find Me, Never Tell a Lie (made into a movie)
  • The DiVinci Code is an example of a book that’s hard to stop reading.
  • What is it that makes a page turner?
    • something important at stake
    • a main character the reader cares about
    • a plot with secrets and surprises
  • The others could be there (car chases, explosions, murders, threats to humanity, time pressure, action, premise) or not, but if the ones above are there, it won’t happen.
  • Page Turners: Like porn, you recognize it when you see it, but it’s not so easy to create it.
  • If you don’t stop screaming, no one will hear you. If you just have action, explosions, and chases from page 1 to page 450, the reader will get numb. There has to be an up and down in the book.
  • The three act structure
    • it’s just the way it is.
    • it goes back to aristotle.
    • you might as well ask why humans are bilaterally symmetrical? it’s just the way it is. 
  • 3 act structure... It’s not the only way to write a story. If you do it really well, you can break the rules, including the three act rule.
  • dramatic structure are these three acts
    • it’s about a conflict between the main characters and the world.
    • who wants what: characters have competing goals:
      • dorothy: starts out wanting to leave home. by the end, wants to go home.
    • who or what obstructs them
    • moving back and forth from disequilibrium to equilibrium to escalating disequilibrium. it’s not merely episodic, but escalating.
  • 75,000 to 80,000 words: typical novel or mystery, about 300 pages.
  • First 50-75 pages are Act I.
    • Introduce your protagonist and secondary characters
    • Establish your characters goals
    • Establish your setting
    • (You don’t want to explain your setting when your character is driving off a cliff)
    • You want to introduce your villain. 
    • You don’t want to weight it down with backstory. This is a common mistake, especially for first time writers.
    • You want to establish, establish, establish without being boring, boring, boring.
    • Read like a writer. Pick apart what you are reading. It’s rare and special when a book transports you away. Read that book a second time, picking apart:
      • how did the writer introduce these characters and explain setting while still transporting you away?
  • A page turner starts with a scene that grabs the readers attention.
    • But... you can’t just throw a character off the cliff.
    • You have to develop a character that readers care about, and then throw them off the cliff. All in the first scene.
    • There’s not a lot of telling or setting, but it does get laid in with the action.
  • Great books start with an out-of-whack event. Something happens that throw a main character out of whack. 
    • Example: main character, wealthy man, drives home in his red porsche, it smells kind of funny, kind of like detergent, all of his furniture is missing, and there’s a single red stilleto in the middle of the room.
      • this character is throw out of whack. the reader wants to know what is going to happen.
  • Some writers do it by creating a wonderfully quirky character in a ridiculous settings that grabs the reader.
  • Novels are written in scenes. With viewpoint.
  • Kill the author. Kill the narrator. Write Scenes.
    • when you are telling a story in a novel, you are telling it from the perspective of a character, not the author.
    • you always know which character is telling you the story, and you are getting it from their gut.
    • stories are told in scenes. a scene happens in a particular time and place. when the time or place changes, you are in a new scene.
  • Writing scenes is about “show, don’t tell”
    • You don’t say Maria stole the shows. You show the reader the drama of going into the store and wanting something and stealing it.
  • Act I ends with a reversal
    • the character doesn’t get whatever they are after.
    • In the wizard of oz: they arrive at the emerald city, and the wizard says “you have to kill the witch”.
  • Act II: the middle 150 pages of a 300 pages novel.
    • The mushy middle is long...
    • It’s easy to see what will happen in the early act and the end, but the middle is tough.
    • Usually the middle will have yet another turning point.
      • these are the secrets and surprises.
    • Act II is all about complications: more danger, more at stake, more drama, past comes to haunt them, protagonist tries to solve bigger problems, people are literally moving, not just sitting around. the antoganist obstructs.
    • Act III:
      • the protagonist rebounds.
      • the character finds what they want, even if it is a reversal of what they wanted earlier.
      • confrontation and triumph.
  • Workshop exercise
    • State protagonist
    • Their goal:
    • The obstacles:
    • Stake out your plot
      • Opening:
      • End of Act I:
      • Middle of Act II:
      • End of Act II:
      • Climax of Act III:
      • Resolution of Act III:
  • Ask an editor what they want most, and they say: an original voice.
    • an original voice comes from viewpoint. it’s hard to have strong original voice if you are sliding around viewpoints.
  • thrillers have multiple viewpoints.
    • tension can be built by telling the reader more than the main character can know.
    • the reader can feel tension even though the main character doesn’t. e.g. the reader knows the murderer is lurking around the corner, but the character doesn’t.
    • but you can create a very scary, intense novel by telling it from one viewpoint.
  • Secrets
    • in the wizard of oz, the witches can be melted with water. the slippers she needs have been on her feet all along. the monkeys who are the witches soldiers have been enslaved.
    • shouldn’t all be revealed in the same place.
    • should have lots of secrets: 10, 12, 15 or even more.
  • Scenes
    • Are the building blocks of plot
    • Scenes have shape. It’s not just a flat series of events.
    • Each scene has it’s own story arc and turning point/change.
    • Changes can be emotional:
      • A scene starts with a character feeling safe, and ends feeling endangered.
      • A scene from feeling trust to feeling betrayed.
      • From contentment (happy with life) to yearning.
      • From lust to disgust
    • Change can be in situation:
      • woman comes home, and drops her wedding ring in the garbage disposal.
      • dog runs out the door and jumps into a moving car.
    • If the only thing you did was establish a character, or describe backstory, you have not written a scene.
    • In page turners, in particular, every scene has to earn its way.
    • Something has to change, and when it is a surprising change, even better.
  • Placing chapter breaks
    • Scenes are organic. They behind where they behind and end where it ends.
    • But you can manipulate the chapter break to be where you want.
    • In the reading, the author breaks the scene both because it’s a logical breaking point, but also because it is suspenseful. So the reader goes on to read the next chapter.
    • Put it at a cliffhanger moment, and the reader will keep reading.
    • But don’t do it all the time, or the reader will feel manipulated.
    • You can pump the forward momentum by switching:
      • she is trapped in a cave, and the water is rising.
      • switch
      • he is outside, sees the cave, but doesn’t think she would be in there.
      • switch
      • she is inside, the water is still rising, and now rocks are falling from the ceiling.
      • switch
      • he is outside, he hears rocks falling, decides to investigate
      • switch
      • she is...
    • to speed things up:
      • short punchy sentences, fragments
      • limit extraneous detail
      • don’t explain
      • bring “camera” in close: what does the character smell, see, feel: immediacy of senses. 
      • end scenes with cliffhangers
      • stay in the present
      • minimize internal dialogue
      • staccato phrases
    • to slow things down:
      • longer, complex sentences
      • describe; load in sensory detail
      • establish
      • pull camera away
      • establishing narrative
      • end scenes with resolutions
      • flashbacks, backstory
      • reflection, internal dialogue
  • Questions
    • How do you deal with the effects of technology?
      • you can avoid it - set your book in 1968.
      • but don’t be predictable: suddenly there is no cell reception. people do predictable things with phones.
      • work with it: dna evidence can be manipulated, emails forged.
      • readers love to be surprised.
    • talk about secrets and who knows. should the reader know?
      • sometimes. we have a character who claims he doesn’t know anything about guns. but the police search his apartment, and find NRA magazines.
      • in one book, there was a horrible rape. the victim knows it, the boys know it, but the wife of one of the boys doesn’t know it.
      • people lie because they are embarrassed, to protect themselves or other people.
      • there is evidence of a husband having an affair. but it could be evidence of something else, possibly better or worse.
    • when writing in 1st person or 3rd person with one viewpoint, limits what you can convey. sometimes people will fill in some scenes from another point of view.
      • in first person, you don’t use the pronoun he or she. this is great for a thriller, because the villain can be in first person, and we don’t know if they are a woman or a man.
      • you can switch perspective, but you can’t just do a one-off: e.g. you can’t write a single scene from a different perspective. same for viewpoint: you can’t have one scene from one characters viewpoint. 
    • if you are writing in two different timelines, one way to do it is to write each timeline consecutively, then shuffle the cards, and see what you come up with.
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