Top 10 rules for fiction:
In 1994, John Grisham revealed to Newsweek that the 10 tips I’m about to share with you were the tools he used to create his ground-breaking thriller “The Firm.”
They’re taken from a fabulous thriller author named Brian Garfield, an award-winning novelist who wrote Hopscotch, which was turned into an award-winning movie with Walther Matthau. He also wrote another book turned into a movie- Deathwish with Charles Bronson.
Here’s what he said:
The game’s object:
To perch the reader on edge – to keep him/her flipping pages to find out what’s going to happen next.
The game’s rules are harder to define; they are few, and these are elastic. The seasoned professional learns the rules mainly in order to know how to break them to good effect.
Start with action; explain it later:
This is an extension of Raymond Chandler’s famous dictum: When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun.
To encourage the reader to turn to page 2, give him something on page 1: conflict, trouble, fear, violence.
Save the background for Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, get the show on the road.
Make it tough for your protagonist:
Give him a worthy antagonist and make things look hopeless. Don’t drop convenient solutions in his lap.
The tougher the opposition, the more everything is stacked against the protagonist, the better.
Plant it early; pay it off later:
Don’t bring in new characters or facts at the end to help solve the protagonist’s dilemma – no deus
No cavalry to the rescue, and no sudden unearthing of a revealing letter written before he died, by the character who was already dispatched way back in Chapter 3. (Unless, of course, you established in Chapter 4 that such a letter exists, and followed that revelation with a race between the protagonist and his enemies to see who’ll get the letter first.)
Give the protagonist the initiative:
All good dramatic writing centers on conflict — interior (alcoholism, Oedipal complex) or exterior (a dangerous enemy, an alien secret police force).
The best story is usually that in which the protagonist takes active steps to achieve a goal against impossible odds, or to prevent opposing forces from overcoming him or his loved ones.
Give the protagonist a personal stake:
No longer is it acceptable for the hero to solve a mystery just because it presents an interesting puzzle. The more intimate his involvement in the main conflict of the story, the better.
He, himself, or his aims, should be in jeopardy. His own life or those of his loved ones should be in danger, or his best friend has been murdered, or he is the kind of character whose values and principles won’t let him sit by and allow injustice to destroy people around him.
Whatever the conflict is, if he loses, it’s going to cost him horribly; that’s the essence.
Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it:
This doesn’t always work because the logic of many stories prohibits it; don’t use it unless you can work it in believably. But when time is a factor and the short amount of it in which the hero must resolve the conflict is shortened, you have gone a long way toward heightening the suspense.
Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his/hers: Don’t use as your protagonist an accomplished professional spy unless you are prepared to do the research and groundwork necessary to create such a character convincingly.
*NOTE: Along with finding your own voice (your own way to tell your stories); doing your homework is absolutely imperative!
Remember, the only difference between fiction and reality is that readers expect fiction to make sense. If you don’t do your homework, not only will you get a million emails telling you where you screwed up, you’ll also lose all credibility as an author.
Know your destination before you set out:
The prevailing weakness of many suspense stories that are otherwise successful, is the letdown the reader experiences at the end – the illogical and disappointing anticlimax.
It isn’t enough to set up intriguing conflicts and obey all the other rules if you haven’t got an ending that fulfills the promise of the preceding chapters.
It isn’t necessary to tie up all loose ends, but the climax should resolve the principal conflict one way or another.
Garfield says: “The best key to a good ending is to know what the ending will be before you start writing the book. Whether you write a preliminary outline or not, you should know where the journey will end, and how.”
Mickey Spillane was famous for saying the first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book!
Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread:
Essentially, observe not only what the pros do, but also what they avoid doing. The best writers do not jump on bandwagons; they build new ones.
The pro doesn’t write a caper novel about the world’s biggest heist unless he’s convinced he can write an unusual story with a unique and important twist.
Yet this should not be taken to mean every writer must obey faddish advice, such as “Spy fiction is dead,” or “Historical novels are out this season.”
There is no such thing as a dead genre because the human imagination is limitless, and there is never a dearth of new ideas, new twists, new talents.
The question is, “Is this idea strong enough and important enough to make the story sufficiently different from its predecessors to merit publication?”
If a novel is good enough, it will find a publisher whether it is a hard-boiled detective story, a western, a spy novel, a historical adventure, or a novel about bug-eyed monsters from Mars.
Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read:
If you like to read westerns, then write a western. But don’t write into a genre for which you have contempt. If you don’t like gothics but insist on writing one, your contempt will show; you can’t hide it.
If you thoroughly enjoy sea stories – even if you don’t know a thing about nautical life – you’re better off attempting to write a sea story because you’ll go into it with enthusiasm.
Here are a few more tips from: Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (Writers House Agency & Ken Follett’s agent)
It sounds obvious, but what is at stake is high – high for a character, a family, even a whole nation. The life of at least one major character is usually in peril. But more than that (in this type of book) the individual at risk often represents not just himself, but a community, a city, or an entire country.
Larger than life characters:
Characters in fiction, as in life, are defined by what they do and in big novels characters do extraordinary things. Look at Don Corleone in The Godfather. The Don’s godson wants to get into the movies, but the studio head isn’t cooperating. So the studio head wakes up with his racehorse’s head in his bed. Puzo has created this amazingly powerful figure who operates outside the law and who creates his own independent world where he rules with absolute power.
I could go on here – Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone with the wind” etc. etc.
A clear-cut dramatic question:
The figurative spine upon which the book is built is the ongoing central conflict around which the main characters revolve. In Gone with the Wind there are three. Will Scarlet ever get Ashley to return her love? Once she realizes later in the novel that Ashley is not the man for her, will she realize its Rhett she loves and then will Rhett ever manage to win her love?
In thrillers, the dramatic question is usually a little easier to discern. In the Ken Follett novel, Eye of the Needle, will the Needle escape to Germany with the Allies’ D-Day invasion plans or will British Intelligence stop him first? Freddy Forsythe’s Day of the Jackal is another masterful novel with an easy dramatic question – will the Jackal succeed in assassinating the French president or will the police inspector, hot on the Jackal’s heels, manage to stop him?
Combine high concept with a strong dramatic question, and you have an even better chance of producing a mega-bestseller. High concept is in essence a radical or even outlandish premise. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code fits the bill here perfectly. If you haven’t read it and you are seriously contemplating becoming a writer, you ought to be taken out back and shot.
The dramatic question in The Da Vinci Code is what? Will Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveau be able to unravel the secret before the shadowy forces and the police chasing them close in. And the high concept? Jesus left heirs… There you go. The success of the novel speaks for itself.
The point here is that big books need to be built on highly dramatic situations – plots that include bizarre and surprising actions and that lead to one powerful confrontation after another.
Multiple points of view:
This one is pretty simple, but bears mentioning. You need to draw people in and get them emotionally involved with multiple characters. There are very few authors, Nelson DeMille being one of the best in my opinion, who can craft a story in first person and have it be both enjoyable and a huge bestseller. The feelings, thoughts, and emotions of a small group of main characters (good and evil) are the surest way to hook your readers.
Finally we have setting. Readers of popular books enjoy escaping into the minds, hearts and vicissitudes of fictional characters, but they also like to be drawn into new, unfamiliar, and even exotic locations.
International locations or mysterious domestic settings at home are fabulous. Zuckerman recommends staying away from historical settings as they have a very small breakthrough rate. With novels today costing just under thirty dollars, you as writers are dealing with a primarily affluent readership who favor stories set in the worlds of characters who are powerful, rich and famous as opposed to environments inhabited by convicts, small farmers, blue-collar workers, welfare recipients or even “average” middle class families.
It doesn’t mean it cannot be done, but remember not to rush in where angels fear to tread. Examine the marketplace and see what’s selling.
What about a love story element?
Sexual tension is good to hint at, some sex scenes can even be good, but Raymond Chandler said it best when he said: “Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery because it introduces a type of suspense that is antagonistic to the detective’s struggle to solve a problem.
So, when writing your novel, you need to ask yourself these questions:
• Is what’s at stake in my novel monumental?
• Am I creating a character (or maybe two) who are extraordinary in some way and larger-than-life?
• Can the thrust of my novel be summarized in a simple but strong dramatic question?
• Is my plot built around a high-concept conflict such as one finds in almost any book by Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, or even Sidney Sheldon?
• Am I developing at least one character (and preferably more than one) with whom the reader will become emotionally involved?
• Finally, am I placing my characters in an environment that is in some way unusual or exciting, one that will cause the reader to feel that he or she is entering a largely new world?
Agents & query letters:
One of the best resources for finding an agent and learning how to write a query letter is the Guide to Literary Agents
Agents will tell you to submit to only one agent at a time, i.e. no multiple submissions. I have never agreed with this arbitrary rule set by agents. Let’s say it takes an agent an average of 4 weeks to respond to you and you have to go through 24 submissions before you find your agent. That’s 2 years out of your life. I’m a big believer in the shotgun approach. Send your manuscript out to as many agents as possible and may the best (and fastest responding) agent win.
I know there are agents that’ll want to put a bullet in me for telling you what I just did, but that’s the way I see it.
Writing workshops & Masters degrees.
I’ll make this short and sweet. Writing fiction isn’t something you can just learn. It is a talent. Either you can tell compelling stories or you can’t. It’s like singing. You can take all the voice lessons in the world, but if you don’t have a good voice to begin with, none of the lessons will make any difference.
If you do have an aptitude for writing fiction, workshops can help you hone your craft. I’m not a big believer in masters programs for creative writing, though. To quote Billy Crystal in Throw Momma from the Train, “A writer, writes. Always.” There’s nothing a masters degree is going to magically do for your writing career. That time would be better spent writing commercial fiction.
In fact, the best piece of writing advice I ever heard of came from the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. His wife, Maria Shriver had been talking endlessly about wanting to write a book. Finally, he got sick of listening to her and said, “Maria, don’t talk about it. Do it!” She did and has written a string of successful children’s books. She credits Arnold for giving her the push she needed.
All of us at some point in life need someone to give us that little added push. For me it was my wife, who cracked me up when she put on her best Austrian accent and said, “Brad, don’t talk about it. Do it!”
That’s my advice to you. Don’t talk about it. Do it! Start writing now. It’s the only proven method of becoming a successful author.