Keeping Your Reader Turning the Page

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In fiction, particularly commercial fiction, the most important thing is to keep your reader turning the pages.

As the English novelist, E.M. Forster said in his book Aspects of the Novel, a story “…has only one merit: that of making an audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”

This doesn’t happen by accident. This blog explores one key ingredient in getting your readers, including agents, producers, publishers and the general public, to keep reading.

New York agent Donald Maas says, “So many of the manuscripts that arrive at my office go right back to their authors in their self addressed stamped envelopes."


“The number one reason is insufficient tension. Believe it, tension on every page works. Low tension does not. Make it your mantra.”

If a story doesn’t create dramatic tension from page one, then most agents, publishers and general readers will quickly lose interest. Dramatic tension on every page is the key to great storytelling.

“Everyone knows that,” Maas says. “Practically no one does it.”

Making it happen on the page is the big challenge. It's where the art and craft of fiction comes into play.

This takes time to master as writing is a four part process – planning, writing, re-writing and editing.

The importance of conflict

One key ingredient in creating dramatic tension comes from conflict.

Author James Frye said, “The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict and conflict.”

Conflict rooted character values

Conflict between characters makes a huge difference to a story.

However, you can’t just have two people fighting over something arbitrary and expect to engage and satisfy your reader.

The conflict needs to be rooted deeply into the characters and their value system.

The physical or outward conflict should grow out of an inner conflict of values.

As the novelist John Gardner said, "In the final analysis, real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another."

The values need to come out of the character and the structure of the story.

Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. and author of The Moral Premise - Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success says, “Psychologically, a set of values is the fertilizer for ideas, ideologies, and thoughts that course through our mind and soul and gives us motivation to take action.

“If writers, therefore, do not understand the basic need of stories to grow from the conflict of values, then the filmmaker’s attempts at filmmaking will be nothing more than the unmotivated juxtapositions of images and sound.

“It is the lack of a story based in the conflict of values structured around a Moral Premise that leaves audiences with a sense that the movie they just gave two hours of their life to was a wasteland of meaning. Conflict is essential but it must be rooted in values and structured around a Moral Premise.”

The importance of structure and a process

One of the benefits of developing a practical understanding of classic story structure is that it will help you create and build tension based on your characters and their conflicting values.

It will also give your readers a richer emotional experience and give your story a deeper meaning.

Robert McKee puts it very well when he says, "The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressure that forces characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to their unconscious self."

The best use of structure is to use it to help flesh out your characters, their values and conflict and create a story that that has readers wanting to know what happens next.

You can’t do this merely by using the logical side of your brain and mapping out the conflicts and values as if you are writing by numbers.

This requires a step-by-step process that takes you on a guided journey, harnessing both sides of your brain.

You have to use structure to draw your story and your characters out of your unconscious and shape your story on the page.

Structure forces you to ask the right questions about character and structure so you develop conflict and tension that is organic to the story.

And that’s what keeps your reader tuning the page and rewards them with a meaningful experience at the end of your story.

For more information about our creative writing courses and classes please go to our home page.

After working as a journalist and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend and The Financial Review, Roland Fishman committed himself to the process of writing fiction, which he believes nourishes and expands the spirit of both the writer and the reader. He started The Writers' Studio in 1992 and since then, he has personally guided thousands of people through his unique step-by-step process. He has also published three books.


    FIRST DRAFT - PART THREE STUDENT Saturday, 21 April 2012

    It occurs to me that story structure forces us to ask the right questions. The analytical left brain serving in the question department.

    And the writing challenges us to have faith in our imaginations to bring forth the answers. The intuitive right brain serving in the answer department.

    A ying and yang effect.

    Reply Cancel
  • Roland
    Roland Saturday, 21 April 2012

    That is beautifully put. I might put your comment on Facebook as I think you make the point so well and succinctly. Do you want me to add your name?

  • Guest
    Terry L Probert Sunday, 24 February 2013

    As an emerging fiction writer coming from a marketing background it was great to read about the tension between structure and creativity. While wriiting my first novel KUNDELA I was mindful that I needed to keep the reader wanting to turn the page and I guess this is where my marketing career has helped. The creative side wandered and rambled a bit but the need to keep a focus on the characters brought this into line. Now after attending a novel writing workshop I understand the need to plan and this has helped with the next book in the Kundela series. Les Gillespie's Gold will be much easier to write as I have a plan, character profiles and a path to follow.
    Your blog has helped energise me to plan the third book.
    Terry L Probert

  • Guest
    Roland Fishman Monday, 25 February 2013

    Thanks for that Terry. What you said makes perfect sense and is very in line with our philosophy. All the best with the next novel.

  • Guest
    Scott Herford Wednesday, 27 February 2013

    The space between the question and the answer. Perhaps the only principle of structure a writer need know.;)

  • Roland
    Roland Friday, 01 March 2013

    It really is a key ingredient Scott. It is often a matter of resisting the urge to explain. How is your movie going?

  • Guest
    Scott Herford Friday, 01 March 2013

    Hi Roland,
    Thanks for asking, one version of the movie, that had the script and direction heavily compromised when I didn't ensure solid checks and balances is being distributed by Warner Bros - but make no mistake, it abuses all the points you guys are talking about here (one of the reviews on amazon was for 1 star) and it really is a fairly insulting piece of work not least to me but also to women in general both of which disappointed me greatly.
    I am better off being on the other side of that plank in the face learning experience although a big part of me would rather that it happened in my early 20s instead of mid late 30s. Roland I am writing solidly these days , got a little deal with Anchor Bay for another movie (it's a horror/comedy piece) shoot is coming up to be done here. Incidentally we came back to the structure you present in The 10 Month First Draft Novel/Script course and you should know that A-List Hollywood is connecting with it where the rubber hits the road, with their involvement. cheers :)

  • Guest
    Terry Probert Friday, 01 March 2013

    As a writer who is rather new and coming from a sales and marketing background I am driven by the need to explain. Sometimes I end up using 200 words when 20 would have done. Is it a good idea to treat each chapter as a short story keeping it punchy while holding the theme of the plot?

  • Roland
    Roland Friday, 01 March 2013

    Unfortunately there is no short answer to this question. When writing a novel or screenplay you want to have stories within stories and we have a particular way of doing this. For details see

  • Guest
    Scott h Friday, 01 March 2013

    Human heart in conflict with itself too.

  • Guest
    scott h Saturday, 02 March 2013

    All of the above (tension, conflict) within a character. :D

  • Guest
    scott h Saturday, 02 March 2013

    a sense of doubt from the reader/audience around a character or situation will also add tension.

  • Roland
    Roland Friday, 01 March 2013

    Another critical factor in any story.

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