How to plot a pageturner: C.S. Pacat

Plotting to create ‘narrative traction’, the page turning quality that drives readers through a book (and keeps them up until 3am)


  1. To learn new way of thinking about both writing and reading that raises your awareness of how page turning quality is created
  2. To learn techniques and strategies for  writing narrative traction

What is plot?

  • Plot is just one thing after another – plot is what happens
  • Plot is the book’s middle, beginning, and end
  • Traditional Three Act structure – plot has a shape

Act 1

Inciting incident – eg client commissions for a job

Act 2

Dark moment

Act 3

Build up to climax

Narrative traction 

  • Is the page-turning quality that drives readers through a book
  • It is not generated by accident
  • Use of specific techniques to create the desired result

Tension is NOT narrative traction

  • It is the promise that what is about the happen is something that the reader wants
  • It occurs when we believe that what is about to happen is even more interesting that what is happening now [my emphasis]
  • Not the same thing as escalation
  • Interest shifts to what happens next

3 steps to creating narrative traction 

  1. Promise the reader something they want – create a reader desire
  2. Withhold what they want to keep them turning the page – withhold reader desire
  3. Resolve in a way that makes them want something new to happen

The two types of traction

1.  Informational traction 

  • this occurs when there is something the reader wants to know

Eg solution to a mystery

  • Missing vital information
  • Eg what is the reaping in Hunger Games
  • World building
  • What does the inside of Pemberly look like

Creating informational traction

Tell the reader that there is something that they don’t know

Heighten informational traction

  • Heighten the reader desire to know through story stakes

2.  Event based traction 

  • This occurs then there is something that the reader wants to see happen
  • Achievement of a goal
  • Overcoming opposition
  • completion of an action
  • Righting of an injustice
  • Fulfilment of a (reader) fantasy

Creating event-based traction

Create a reader desire to see something happen

Eg Casablanca – Rick and Elsa

Opening – Rick won’t like the set up, Rick never drinks with patrons

Also Pride and Prejudice opening

“it is a truth universally acknowledged…’

Second paragraph talks about Netherfield park has been let

Creating event-based traction

Heighten the reader desire to see the event happen through the addition of story stakes

  • One of the Bennett daughters must marry or the family will be condemned to poverty
  • If Katniss doesn’t win the Hunger Games she will die



Refers to the large-scale or overall plot of your book

  1. Premise
  2. Obstacles and stakes
  3. Conclusion

Macro plotting to create narrative traction

  1. Create a premise with traction

A premise with traction the reader that something they want to see will happen

  • A central goal / problem
  • Stakes
  • Obstacle
  • Resolution


Premise – log line 

An [adjective] [protagonist] must [action] to overcome [obstacle/antagonist] in order to [goal] because of [stakes]

  1. Create a satisfying ending / fulfil your promise
  • Achieve a central goal
  • Solution to a central problem
  • Natural termination / completion of an action
  • Manifestation of a moral

(from Gerlach’s six endings)

Pride and Prejudice fulfils all 4 of these endings, which is why it is so satisfying when it happens

  1. Create characters with built-in traction

The book’s characters can also promise the reader something

  • The character has a goal we want to see them achieve (Katniss)
  • The character has a personality or set of beliefs that we want o see change (Mr Darcy)
  • The character is in a circumstance that we want to see changed (Harry Potter)


Refers to the plotting of scenes and mini-arcs in the book

  1. Promise the reader something they want – create reader desire
  2. Withhold what they want to keep them turning the page – withhold reader desire
  3. Resolve in a way that makes them want somehting new


What slows or stops narrative traction

  • Repetition of action arcs or emotional arcs

Every clause of every sentence should contain new information

  • Failure to create the reader desire

The reader should want the resolution before they are given it

  • Lack of goal or stakes

The reader needs to care about what is happening how

  • Lack of clarity

The reader’s desire as well as the scene’s gaol or stakes should be clear; sometimes competing goals or arcs can muddy the waters causing a drop in traction



  1. Mark the places where narrative traction drops out in your manuscript
  2. make sure you know what was creating the traction before the ‘dropout’
  3. Ask yourself why the traction has dropped out.  Possible reasons:
    • Repetition
    • Lack of goals or stakes
    • Lack of clarity
    • Haven’t yet created the reader’s desire for the scene
    • Gratifying the reader’s desire too early
  4. Cut, rewrite or restructure as necessary

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