Page Turning Secrets

James Scott Bell, author of thrillers and many books on writing, did several presentations at HNSNA this year. Page Turning Secrets was one of them. With a book in the works that’s a thriller, I was there!

Let me share the highlights – aka my notes – with you.

  • James began with a Hitchcock quote: Take the dull bits out. Which sounds rather obvious, but not always easy to do.
  • He then went on to talk about foundations of a page-turning story notably:
    • A character we root for
    • ‘Death’ stakes – some part of the characters life will be over if the character doesn’t get through the challenges ahead. This could be the character’s actual life, their career, their psychological wellbeing, their marriage and so on.
    • Organic scenes – scenes that contain steps toward resolution of the death stakes struggle.
  • There must be conflict or tension in every scene.
    • James uses the acronym SUES – Something Unexpected in Every Scene; something unexpected or surprising makes the reading more compelling.
    • predictability makes a story boring (remember that Hitchcock quote)
    • something surprising or unexpected could even be in your dialogue; James encourages writers to deliberately review their dialogue for ways to do this.
  • Reaction beats are important – these occur when the character reacts to the unexpected and can come out through (1) thoughts, (2) perceptions, (3) emotions, (4) brief flashback as in “this reminded him of the time … , and (5) longer flashback, typically a scene within the chapter.

James Scott Bell used this example of a hook noting that beginning with an unexpected bit of dialogue before explaining where your character is hooks in your reader.

  • What else did James say about hooks?
    • engage your reader as quickly as possible in every scene
    • one way to do that is to act first and explain later … in media res … as in the example above
    • introduce a new character by name
    • begin with dialogue – intense dialogue
    • every scene should have a hot spot
  • Intensity scale – James plotted intensity of a scale of 1 to 10 (sorry about the hair)
  • The TELL zone is between 1 and 5, the SHOW zone is 6 to 10
  • Remaining in the show zone adds intensity to your scene.
  • Although, James admits that there are times when a simple tell – She was angry. – delivered quickly can also be effective.
  • Read on Prompts – these happen at the end of the scene/chapter and compel to reader to turn the page.
    • a mysterious line of dialogue
    • an image that is full of foreboding
    • a secret suddenly revealed or about to be revealed
    • a major decision or vow
    • a shattering event or the announcement of a shattering event
    • a sudden reversal or surprise
    • a question left hanging in the air
  • Twists and Turns
    • make sure you have lots of them
    • don’t do the expected – go far beyond the expectations of your readers
    • float some sort of mystery – don’t explain, leave it out there for a while
  • Scene Structure
    • character must always be moving forward to solve their problem, to reach their objective
    • every scene has an objective and the reader needs to know the objective either because it is implicit in the action of it’s mentioned out right
    • every scene has obstacles – don’t make it easy for your main character
    • outcome of the scene – either bad news for the main character, or good news with more bad news coming
  • Subtext – every scene has some sort of subtext – think of the scene as an iceberg. There’s what you see above the water and what lurks below the water.
    • For example, what relationships might a character have that are below the surface?
    • What is the character’s backstory?
    • What themes are driving the story?

You can find James Scott Bell’s books on writing on his website.

Here’s a list of them:

I hope my notes were useful. James is clearly passionate about story-telling craft!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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8 Responses

  1. Hi Mary, Thanks so much for posting your notes from this James Scott Bell seminar. I attended his terrific Story Grinder master class, but wasn’t able to get to Page Turning Secrets. I have several of his books and had the opportunity to chat with him a couple of times at the conference. Just purchased “Write Your Novel from the Middle” which I’m anxious to devour. Hope you’re enjoying your summer! Rae

    1. Hi Rae … summer is speeding along as usual. At the moment my writing is very slow as we’ve had lots to do at the new house plus we have our 6-year-old grandson with us for two weeks. Great fun – but not conducive to writing 🙂

      1. Yes, summer disappears too soon after it starts. Your grandson will certainly keep you busy! He’s only 6 for such a short time, wonderful that you have him staying with you.

        I can’t tell you how fantastic the conference was for me. I learned so much, made friends, and am energized. I’m now convinced that self-publishing is the way to go for me. At this point in my life, I’m not interested in waiting around to find an agent and waiting around some more for a possible publisher. Operating as a small business would be fun and motivating.

        I believe you self-published at least one of your books. (I can’t remember if I read that or you told me.) What did you think of your experience taking that route?

        At the moment, my manuscript is with the editor I hired and she’s away for much of the summer. So, I’m digging around and brainstorming to come up with what I might do for a second story — as part of a series, as Libbie Hawker highly recommends.

        1. Clearly you and I are both on our laptops! As for self-publishing, I did that with 4 of my 5 novels. Only Time and Regret had an official publisher and that was Lake Union which is part of Amazon. I have mixed views on self-publishing but that’s mostly because I don’t like the marketing activities required to be successful. Happy to chat at some point about it.

  2. Read James’s piece with great interest. I try and implement his advice but my beta readers are begging for a slower pace, more introspection, more clarity, less relentless action. I hate slow books myself, but how does one know when it is too much? Also, when Ken Follett allows his characters a moment of happiness, don’t we all know it means one of them is about to die?

    1. Hi Michele .. I’m with you on balancing page turning elements with slower paced scenes. Interesting point about Ken Follett – I hadn’t noticed that! PS – congratulations on the new novel!!

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