Life? Or Death? There is no more compelling scenario in magic then one in which a magician’s failure could lead to harm or certain death. The escape artist, handcuffed and chained before being lowered into a tank of water, must find her way out or risk drowning. The infamous bullet catch has proven deadly for more than one magician whose skill, or luck, failed him. Still, the prospect of impending doom makes audiences sit forward in their chairs, unable to look away.

The same is true in the world of storytelling. Readers are captivated by stories where the characters are in grave danger. This month, we’ll look at two books where the main characters must succeed or else pay the ultimate price. First up, the tale of an escaped slave who must escape a horrific natural disaster during the time of the Roman Empire.

“I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, AD 79” is the tenth book in Lauren Tarshis’ bestselling I Survived series. It is the story of a young boy name Marcus, who is a slave in ancient Rome. After the death of his master, Marcus’s father (Tata) is sold and Marcus is taken to Pompeii to serve a cruel new master. No one suspects that, soon, the entire city will be destroyed. When Marcus is reunited with his father, he believes that everything will, at last, be okay.
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Marcus and his father are able to escape and climb high up the mountain called Vesuvius. That is where they discover that something is terribly wrong. Tata insists they return to Pompeii to warn the townspeople, an act that could lead to their capture and even death. Still, they go. It is during this return trip that the mountain unleashes its full wrath, leaving Marcus (and the reader) to wonder if there is any hope of escape.

The danger, of course, is not enough to keep the reader turning the page. Marcus and Tata are compelling, sympathetic characters. Early in the book, Marcus helps an older beggar woman whom the other townspeople simply ignored. It’s what Blake Snyder would call a “Save the Cat” moment (great book, by the way) and builds an instant connection between Marcus and the reader. By the time Vesuvius erupts, we’re rooting for him, first to escape slavery, then to escape death. This drives us to turn page after page to find out what happens.

Another of example of a character facing a life or death situation can be found in Nikki Shannon Smith’s “Noelle at Sea: A Titanic Survival Story”. Part of the Girls Survive series, this book follows a young biracial girl who travels with her family on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. The reader is able to build an instant connection with Noelle when she befriends a girl named Pauline who is traveling in steerage. Noelle asks her mom to help Pauline get dressed for dinner and even gives Pauline one of her own dresses. For a while, the trip seems to be perfect. Then, things take a turn.
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Noelle sneaks into first class with her new friend which lands her in trouble with her parents. Then, she wakes up to discover that the unsinkable Titanic is, in fact, sinking. As her family attempts to escape the sinking ship, Noelle, realizes that she cannot leave Pauline behind. She flees into the bowels of the ship to rescue her friend. We can't help but turn page after page as Noelle attempts to save her friend, and herself from a horrible fate in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. The danger grows with each page turn and we begin to wonder whether Noelle, her family, and her friend, will escape to safety. It is a compelling page turner with an emotional hook that grabs the reader and won’t let go.

If you’re interested in writing a page turner that readers just can’t put down, consider raising the stakes on your characters. And remember, it doesn’t have to be literal death that your character is facing. Figurative death can be just as compelling as well.

Well, that’s all for now. Happy writing. Have a magical month.