Every time we experience a publishing phenomenon like the Twilight series, we writers have an opportunity to learn about what our readers want. In honor of last week’s release of the film Eclipse, based on the third book in the Twilight saga, I’d like to point out a few things Stephenie Meyer did right—techniques we can borrow to make our writing more marketable.
In Meyer’s series, success boils down to one essential skill: ramping up tension. Let’s break down its components to see what writers in any genre can use.
1. Cash in on unresolved sexual tension. If you can learn to sustain sexual tension over the course of a thousand pages, you too can be very well published. Bella wants-but-can’t-have Edward; Edward wants-but-fears-harming Bella. The plot keeps these lovers apart while Meyer fans the flame of desire.
2. Master the slow build. Revisit the tension Meyer builds when Bella first sees the Cullens—Meyer knows how to create an important event. Only in the twelfth paragraph of observing them does Bella even learn their names. Then she asks about them for a couple of pages. This raises questions in the readers’ minds: How will these characters be important? Add the fact that Edward acts brusquely towards her at first and the tension people craved in these books starts to crackle. Questions raised + tension born of slowly building conflict = page-turner. The formula is nothing new. Meyer uses it over and over—and so can you.
3. Forbidden love. From the opening description of the house and the bathroom Bella must share with her father, Meyer sets up the conflict: not only is Charlie a cop, and a protective father, they’ll be sharing close quarters while Edward, who is not Charlie’s number one choice to be his daughter’s suitor, secrets himself away in her bedroom. The setting itself points toward a story of forbidden love.
4. Serious complications. To keep her lovers apart, Meyer doesn’t resort to constant interruptions or miscommunications that frustrate the reader. She lets their identities, core values, cross purposes, and some real kick-ass danger do it for her. Just when you think things are as bad as they can get, they get worse. Readers love this.
5. Conflict on every page. I’ve been playing this game for a while now: Hold Twilight in your hand and open to any page. Chances are, you’ll see conflict. Today I find:
p. 441: My voice sounded strangled.Which takes us back to the opening. Tension-filled prologue aside, Meyer even writes tension onto the first page of Chapter One, as Bella leaves cloudless Phoenix to go live with her father:
p. 336: “When he knew what he had become,” Edward said quietly, “he rebelled against it. He tried to destroy himself. But that’s not easily done.”
p. 237: Jacob scowled and ducked his head while I fought back a surge of remorse. Maybe I’d been too convincing on the beach.
p. 141: When Charlie smiled, it was easier to see why he and my mother had jumped too quickly into an early marriage.
p. 39: [After native Arizonan Bella is hit by her first snowball, she says] “I’ll see you at lunch, okay? Once people start throwing wet stuff, I go inside.”
p. 3: “In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old.”6. To all this, we can add tension between books. To create the kind of indelible change that is the sign of a satisfying story, you need to go pole-to-pole. In Twilight, Bella moves to Forks. She hates Forks. Later, you can’t get her to leave with a crow bar. That is pole-to-pole change. In like fashion, Edward wants-but-doesn’t-want-to-hurt-Bella (pole # 1), but at the end of Twilight he relents—and puts Bella in mortal danger (pole #2). In Meyer’s early readers, who had to wait a year for the next book to launch, this created a hunger to continue with the series.
Your turn. Flip open to random pages in your manuscript. Can you find tension on every page? If not, take a clue from Stephenie Meyer's success and create some! If you care to sell books, that is…
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."