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How to Write a Page-Turner: What Essays Can Teach Novelists

The Da Vinci Code is fast paced, a “page-turner.” Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is not. We don’t need Writer’s Digest to define narrative pace as how quickly or slowly the writer takes a reader through the story. And yet crafting pages that quicken (or slow) the reader’s pace can be a challenge.

Pity the poor essayist: They fish for reader interest with an amalgam of fact, anecdote and insight, in service of an abstraction: justice, truth, beauty. Zzzzz. The essayist who propels you from first word to last is one talented writer.

Some of our best writers use juxtaposition to send readers racing to the end. And they use it at every level, from sentence to paragraph to structure.

What Do I Mean by Juxtaposition?

I’m so glad you asked. Pair dark with light. Is the dark darker for being paired with light? But so what? How does juxtaposition, the art of pairing opposites, make a reader turn pages any faster? For that we need actual examples.

Pacing at the Sentence Level

Annie Dillard is a master of the juxtaposed image that electrifies. Like Thoreau, Dillard had gone to live deliberately for a year. “Heaven and Earth in Jest”* begins in the middle of the night. She wakes to her tomcat jumping through her window and landing on her chest.

He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted in roses.

In pairing opposites, the cozily domestic (purr, roses) with violence (skull, blood), to reveal their connection the surprise energizes the reader. Surprise being the opposite of boredom.

Dillard also uses this juxtaposition to lead us to big game: Here on earth, what do we see? What are we to make of our witnessing? The beauty of roses? The mark of Cain? Or some terrible braiding of the two, love and death? The propulsive force, even combustion, comes from the art of laying down seeming opposites against another to make a third thing, meaning.

Pacing Expositions

Novelists and essayists use exposition to deliver background efficiently. The danger in this economy is of boring the reader.

The spine of Edward Hoagland’s essay “The Lapping, Itchy Edge of Love” is his (second) wife’s pregnancy and the impending baby, a first for both. It begins and ends with them on the couch. This pregnancy has taken them to new depths of intimacy and giddiness and perhaps regret. He elucidates every past relationship. There’s a book in there or twelve. But he gets the job done in 11 pages. And it’s a thrilling read.

Here he is in 66 words* on his role in relationships:

Even sexually it seems to me I am inexperienced, because there is a deadly sameness to my history: accepting love as soon as it’s offered, growing very exacting and bossy, but later in a curious turnabout becoming submissive and boylike, a sort of “mother’s helper,” as one girl put it, until the affair reached its indifferent end, whereupon I could exercise my talent for tender regret.

Well, now.

Each stage (five, by my count) is particular and by being juxtaposed against each other made more precise:

  • Accept love

  • Grow Bossy

  • Become Submissive

  • Indifferent End

  • Tender Regret

Hoagland puts readers on notice: Pay attention or you’ll miss something juicy. (Granted, Hoagland’s sexy topic gives him a leg up in the reader interest department. As does admitting the reader to private realms. But those are concerns for another blog.)

Pacing at the Structure Level

It has become fashionable to deride The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, but his work offers terrific lessons on structuring for pace.

I have heard Gladwell say he could not write except in 800-word bursts, which is why, he claimed, his pieces were structured as they were. I suspect this is false modesty. What he does—and brilliantly–is structure his pieces to deliver one clarifying insight after another. In the language of novelists, each 800-word chunk is a mini-arc. The door shuts, and the piece has to move forward. There’s no going back.

In The Art of Failure Gladwell juxtaposes choking and panicking to make a larger point: misdiagnosing the cause for failure perpetuates and even exacerbates stereotypes.

He begins the essay illustrating the differences between choking and panicking with anecdotes. A tennis player one point from winning Wimbledon, suddenly makes strategically stupid and clumsy shots. She plays like a beginner. She second-guesses herself. She relies not on the “implicit system”—when you are so skilled that you execute without thinking—but on the “explicit system,” what we use when we first learn a new skill. She is thinking too much. She chokes. And loses.

Arc #1 finished, Gladwell now begins Arc #2.

A scuba diver in a life and death situation nearly dies because she panics. She can think of only one very bad option: taking her colleague’s breathing apparatus. The other lifesaving options—that are literally in her hand–elude her. Panic constricts options. Thinking stops. Arc #2 done.

Hey, this is fun, think readers. We check Gladwell’s observations against our own life experience and we get two ahas!+ Perhaps we have witnessed both choking and panicking. Perhaps we ourselves have panicked or choked or both.

Now we are eager to see what we will learn from Arc #3.

But Gladwell pauses. He takes a moment to remind the reader of how far we have traveled, to remind us of what we have learned from Arc #1 and Arc #2. Choking and Panicking, he writes, are opposite causes of failure: the first from too much thinking, the latter from too little.

Gladwell is smart to remind us of what we now know because to understand Arc #3, we will need Arc #1 and Arc #2 solidly in our heads. And so he begins with the tricky work of Arc #3.

Arc #3

Typically we tell underperforming athletes or students to “work harder,” “practice more.” That should help the scuba diver who panicked. She will learn to think more, to expand possibilities during an emergency. But for the tennis player thinking more would backfire. She needs to play fluidly, to rely on “implicit learning.” She needs to think less!

Gladwell then goes for the meat. The stereotype is that women and blacks are less smart than white men. IQ scores often perpetuate that myth. The advice to women and blacks is to study harder. Seems logical and kindly—or patronizing, depending.

But if test-takers are overthinking, choking, during IQ tests, as the studies say, the Rx of study more worsens scores. Instead, what women and blacks need to do on IQ tests is to relax, to stay fluid, to operate on the “implicit system.”

And with that Gladwell closes the essay. Several ahas, One juxtaposition++ (choking vs panicking) and a slew of engaging anecdotes and the pages have flown by. He has marked his piece with insights, like lights on an airport landing strip. They guide you down the path at regular intervals to the inevitable launch into the universe, the earth spread below you. A whole new view suddenly apparent.+++


*From Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of essays, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

**Roughly equivalent to three years of psychoanalysis.

+ Ahas in reading are delightful surprises. And each surprise, being the opposite of dull predictability, whizzes the reader along.

++My boyfriend claims no Ph.D. candidate is granted their degree unless the author uses “juxtaposition” or “paradigm shift” (preferably both) at least once in their dissertation. I do not feel I have earned a Ph.D., but I would welcome a salve for my tongue, which is exhausted from bumping and twisting to say juxtaposition about 100 times.

+++Thanks, Carol Gray, for helping me figure out what on earth I was trying to say.

Originally appeared on Dead Darlings.

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