Linwood Barclay on What Makes a Page Turner

To celebrate the launch of Linwood Barclay’s new thriller, A Tap on the Window, in paperback, Linwood himself has written tips for all aspiring authors on what makes a good page turner.


I write thrillers. I want you to turn those pages as quickly as you can. Most of the time, I hope it works. There are probably as many approaches as there are writers working in this field, but here are a few things that I keep in mind when writing a novel:

There has to be something at stake. You may have heard of the MacGuffin. That was the name director Alfred Hitchcock gave to the thing everyone wants that moves the story forward. It’s that Maltese falcon. In the movie Pulp Fiction, it’s whatever’s in that briefcase. In Citizen Kane, it’s Rosebud. In the first Indiana Jones movie, it’s the Ark of the Covenant. (It was a crystal skull, or something, in the fourth Indy movie, but the less said about that, the better.) It is, in essence, a plot device.

I love MacGuffins, but in my stories I want there to be something more. It’s not just that there might be something everyone is after. There has to be something at stake. The hero is going to do what he has to do because if he doesn’t do it, he stands to lose something very important, and it needs to be more important than the statue of some bird.

In most cases, it’s going to be a loved one. Can there be anything more important than that? Our protagonist has to save/rescue/avenge someone dear to him.

And the person he’s out to save might just be himself, too.

The story has to move. That would seem to be a pretty obvious ingredient for a thriller, but how do you make it happen? To me, great thrillers are about momentum. They are a big rock rolling down a hill, getting faster and faster. The book is an engine, and you’re the one holding the accelerator to the floor. A few random tips: make sure everything you write is there for a reason. Avoid long-winded descriptions. Don’t tell us about something that’s occurred off-screen, show us as much as you can. Put your hero where the story is. Have your hero drive the action, instead of reacting to it. End every chapter on a mini-cliffhanger. Think of each chapter as a potato chip. Make your reader want to have just one more. And then another, and another.    

Torque it up. Just when you think nothing else bad can happen to your hero, throw another obstacle in his way. (He may hate you, but what the hell, he’s not real.) The more you turn the screw on your protagonist, the more tension you’re creating for the reader. 

If you’re bored, the reader is bored. Maybe it helps to have attention deficit disorder when you write thrillers. It may be a good thing if you bore easily, because that means you’re always going to be looking for ways to keep the story interesting. Keep looking for twists. Keep looking for the unexpected. If you’re not surprising yourself, you’re probably not surprising the reader. When you reach the end of a chapter, ask yourself, what’s the most logical way to wrap this up? And then, if possible, do something totally different. I’m not able to plot out an entire book before I begin, although I have a general idea where it’s headed, and where I want to end up. But if an unexpected opportunity presents itself during the writing, don’t feel you have to stick to the plan. 

Hey, if it doesn’t work, you can always go back and fix it later.


A Tap on the Window PB


A Tap on the Window is published by Orion and is available now.