How to create a page turner in your opening chapters.

Scroll down for the link to part 2.

I love seeing what books rise to the top of my to-be-read pile. This past weekend I read DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth. I turned pages so fast I could feel a breeze on my face. And I learned some practical applications for my own wip.  #nospoilers  #Ipromise

The way the external and internal conflict played off each other was incredible. And I grasped how powerful the Debate section can be in hooking your reader.

In Save The Cat, Blake Snyder talks about the Debate section. During the opening, the hero is faced with a question or choice. She/he knows the answer but really shouldn’t make that final decision to go on the quest until the end of Act I. So a big part of Act I is this debate – the main character figuring out what they should do.

In DIVERGENT, Beatrice belongs to the Abnegation faction in a dystopian world. When teens turn sixteen they take an aptitude test and attend a choosing ceremony. If they choose a different faction, they leave their family. Forever. #immediateconflict

From chapter one, Beatrice is not sure what to do. She has always felt she doesn’t fully belong in her faction. And then, during her aptitude test, something goes wrong, and she is left with no clear path. She must decide.

All the way through Act I, in every single chapter, every event that happens, every choice she has to make – the internal conflict is ramped. As it should be. She debates her decision before and after she makes it.

So, how can you increase conflict in Act I?

This is what I wrote in the top of a notebook while reading DIVERGENT.

Every outer event should cause the main character to question her very beliefs and who she is in order to expose her flaws, increase conflict, and develop reader empathy.

Seriously. Go read the book. And feel the tension on every page.

Read part 2 – How to keep tension through the middle.

How do you create tension in the opening chapters?

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35 Responses to How to create a page turner in your opening chapters.

  1. Misha May 23, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Great advice! I should pay more attention to this when I’m revising my story. I’ve got to add lots more tension.


  2. Kip May 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Great example! You’ve made me itching to read DIVERGENT! (and also to make sure I’m taking advantage of the Debate section in my own WIP)

    • Laura May 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

      I’m working on my debate section too. When I see it done well it makes a huge difference. 🙂

  3. Susan Sipal May 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Laura, I love your summary (notebook) sentence so much, that I’m printing it out and posting it above my desk. Great post! (as always! 🙂

  4. Creepy Query Girl May 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    FOr tension in the first chapter I guess my tactic changes from book to book. With this one, I drop a few mysteries (just things making the reader wonder what’s happened) in right from he get go that are quickly explained within the same chapter.

  5. Lydia K May 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    I love reading your analyses. It makes your book recommendations that much more strong!

  6. Traci Kenworth May 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Great advice!! Those flaws are what keeps a character ticking.

  7. Laurel May 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    What great observations. The opposite dynamic can also work can’t it? In that I mean, the character’s stubbonly-held beliefs make him/her question the story actions until a preponderence of actions–and a climactic one–finally force the character to look more deeply at his/her flawed beliefs. This latter flipside take is common for unreliable narrators, like in Invisible by Pete Hautman.

  8. Susan Kaye Quinn May 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    Well, that’s it. Now I have to read this book to analyze it as well – it was on the pile, but you moved it to the top! Thanks! 🙂

  9. Laura Josephsen May 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Every outer event should cause the main character to question her very beliefs and who she is in order to expose her flaws, increase conflict, and develop reader empathy.

    THIS. I love exposing my characters flaws and increasing conflict, because they kind of feed on each other until it all comes to a head.

  10. Lisa Green May 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    You put it so amazingly clear and concise!! Awesome as always. And I HAVE to read that book. Like now! *stomps feet*

    • Laura May 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

      Thanks everyone! I’m sure there are other ways to create tension in the opening pages. But I loved how this tension was so connected with the character’s internal conflict. And really, it’s the character, along with the plot, that draws me into a story. I don’t love dystopian but I felt like I was reading a story about a girl – the dystopian setting was just the backdrop. I love those kinds of books. Def. worth the read.

  11. Karen Strong May 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    I actually thought about you when I was reading DIVERGENT. 🙂 I was like “Laura is going to LOVE this book!”

    This is a great book that shows internal and external conflict throughout the story. It ratchets up the suspense and keeps you turning the pages until done!

    Great analysis. 🙂

  12. Jenny Lundquist May 23, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    I love, love, LOVE your summary sentence. Am going to write it in my journal–maybe I’ll even post it on my corkboard above my computer.

    I gotta be honest, sometimes I feel like you’re the smart kid in class and that I “cheat” off you. I’m terrible at analyzing structure, so after I read one of your posts I think: Awesome! Now I know this, and I didn’t even have to analyze it myself! :0)

  13. Tana Adams May 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    I’m seriously going to buy it right now and I’m going to start reading today. Veronica should thank you.

  14. Linda Gray May 23, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Love your pithy summary of the importance of connecting outer events and inner conflict to expose character flaws and create empathy. This is an excellent way to look at conflict building. Reminds me of Donald Maass’ microtension.

    • Laura May 23, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

      Thanks! I’ve been studying books so I can learn how to apply the craft that I know in my head to the actual writing on the page. Craft books tell me what to do but finding those truths in action in books, on my own, helps make it real. I’m just blogging about what I’m learning. So, if you learn something too then that’s great. 🙂 You all should do it on your own too.

  15. Juliana Brandt May 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    This is the best thing I’ve read that’s made me want to read this book! It sounds amazing!

  16. write-brained May 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    Gret post– and now you’vegot me thinking! It’s such a precarious balancing act b/w starting story too soon and getting right into the action!

    I’m reading Divergent right now too!

  17. Anna Staniszewski May 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    The more I hear about DIVERGENT, the more impatient I am to read it! I might have to go out and buy it instead of waiting for my library to finally get a copy!

  18. Sara McClung May 23, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    I’ve got a review of DIVERGENT scheduled on my blog tomorrow, but it doesn’t top this. SO SO SO TRUE. The book blew me away, and yes, yes, YES, you totally nailed it:

    “Every outer event should cause the main character to question her very beliefs and who she is in order to expose her flaws, increase conflict, and develop reader empathy.”

  19. terri tiffany May 23, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    Wonderful advice! I am working on ramping up my openings–they used to start so slow and blah so I am gaining.

  20. Kris May 23, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    Laura is totally the smart kid in class that we can all cheat off! I just ordered SAVE THE CAT, so I should get that this week.

    Thanks, L! I have to read this book, I’ve been hearing so much about it lately!

  21. Kris May 23, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    Not that I advocate cheating. 🙂 It’s just that Laura is sooo good at analysis. And I’m not. And I’m jealous that she’s so good at it.

  22. Jemi Fraser May 24, 2011 at 1:10 am #

    I can’t wait to read this book!

    That’s a great analysis – I know people talk about the 3 acts a lot, but I haven’t put my own wip in that perspective yet. Think I need to have a look! Thanks 🙂

  23. Julie Musil May 24, 2011 at 1:58 am #

    This is something I need to work on with book #2. I love the way you broke it down! I seriously need to read this book

  24. Paul Greci May 24, 2011 at 2:04 am #

    I’m planning on reading Divergent soon. Thanks for talking about it and not giving anything away!! 🙂

    A page-turner from the get go…hmmm.. I think having conflict that matters, that has consequences both internally and externally.

  25. Shannon O'Donnell May 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Laura, I am so awful! OMG, I hope you don’t hate me. I found Savannah Gray (again) yesterday, after promising to do a better job of mailing it than my husband did. I SWEAR I am never this bad at mailing prizes. In fact, I’m usually very punctual. Really. I can’t find your address again (I had it in the front flap of the book), so if you’ll send it to me one more time I SWEAR, SWEAR, SWEAR to mail it right away. I am so sorry!

  26. Margo May 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    I just copied that note you wrote onto a new computer sticky note. Excellent advice, thank you! I read the first chapter of Divergent and was really hooked. The voice reminded me so much of Katniss in the Hunger Games, but unique also. Definitely on my list to read.

  27. Patti Nielson May 24, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    I love books that are page turners from the start. Sounds like a great book. My TBR pile is definitely getting bigger.

  28. Leigh Moore May 25, 2011 at 2:18 am #

    Hey, that’s a supercool trick! I LOVE IT!!! And I suppose I do something like that. I’ve never really thought about it, but I sure will now! xoxo

  29. Samantha Verant May 25, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    I am really psyched to read Divergent! It’s on my list! I never really looked at my MSs that way, but as it turns out, I do have debates and decisions, etc. Must be the way I think? Maybe I like tension???

  30. Sherrie Petersen May 26, 2011 at 1:25 am #

    Brilliantly said. This is what I’m trying to do in a story I’ve been feverishly writing right now. Crossing my fingers that it’s working!

  31. Marisa May 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    “I turned pages so fast I could feel a breeze on my face.” Haha, I loved this! 🙂

    I’m planning on buying Divergent today – woo hoo! And my library has Save the Cat – I think this will be a busy weekend for me 🙂

  32. Miss GOP May 30, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    I really enjoyed this post. There is so much discussion out there about how to grab the reader’s attention right away, but you really pointed out one of the keys: conflict. Without that conflict early on in a book, a reader has no reason to keep turning the page. Thanks for this post!
    -Miss GOP

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