Did you know that, since 2001, James Patterson has sold more books than any other writer? Apparently 1 out of every 17 hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of Patterson's writing, there is no arguing with his popularity. So, how does he do it? Here are seven tips Patterson gave to those who want to write suspenseful prose.
(This blog post is based on the article, World's Best-Selling Author James Patterson On How To Write An Unputdownable Story, by Joe Berkowitz.)
1. Fast Paced: Cut out the parts people skip.
James Patterson says:
"I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip.[*] I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you'd feel like "Stop with the description--what's going on with Haig?" I tend to write stories the way you'd tell them. I think it'd be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that's my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I'm an okay writer, but a very good storyteller."
I think that's what many writers on the bestseller lists would say, that they identify themselves primarily as a storyteller. Their prose may not be as poetic as some, but they can tell an suspenseful, absorbing, story.
* Elmore Leonard also gave this advice.
2. Make it intimate.
James Patterson says:
"I try to put myself in every scene that I'm writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason."
I think this is the key to good storytelling. I know Stephen King doesn't think a whole lot of Patterson's books, but one thing both men are know for is a) selling a lot of books and b) being good storytellers.
Personally, I think that King's prose is every bit as good as his storytelling. But, putting that aside, look at the first sentence of Stephen King's book, The Shining: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick." (I discuss this further in Parts of Story.) That sentence is angry and shocking but, above all, intimate. And it raises the question: Why does Jack Torrance think that and whom does he think it of?" Storytelling at its best.
3. Short chapters.
James Patterson's books tend to have short chapters. I did some calculations and, from the four books I looked at, the average chapter length was about 640 words. That's only about three manuscript pages! Wow, that is short.
Patterson says that outlining saves time (a view which Chuck Wendig shares). Patterson creates a fairly extensive outline; each chapter is summed up in about a paragraph of text. He says:
"Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you're gonna get the scene, and you're gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work."
If, as I said above, Patterson's average chapter is about 640 words long and if we say that a paragraph of text is about 100 words, then it would appear that those 100 words make up about 1/6th of a chapter.
5. Outlines can and should change so be flexible.
When Patterson writes, his characters speak to him and ruin many of his plans. They can even change the ending!
Patterson says: "One of the drafts I do, I'll decide that okay, it went this way, but it doesn't feel very interesting--what if this happened instead of that? And rarely do I know the ending. Occasionally, but mostly not."
That's a little scary! When I sit down to write I like to have an ending in mind, I like to have a destination. But the ending can--and occasionally does--change.
6. Fake it till you make it.
When he was 26 years old, Patterson won an Edgar award for best first mystery. That book was The Thomas Berryman Number.
"I felt like there might have been a mistake. That’s the kind of lack of confidence you can have early on. You're writing this thing and you hope people like it. You're rewriting and rewriting and get lost in the sauce. Confidence is a big thing."
7. Know your readers.
Patterson says that writers should know who they're telling their stories to and then ask themselves: "What have you got for them?" He says:
"It’s useful that if you tell somebody in a paragraph what the story is and they go, “Ooh ooh, I can’t wait, tell me more,” as opposed to they were just kind of nodding politely. Well, then that just puts so much stress on the writing. That means that the style has to overcome the fact that you don’t have much of a story."
Patterson also mentions that readers want suspense and that the essence of suspense, of creating suspense, is to get the reader to want the answer to a question your story has raised. He says:
"I try to pretend that there's somebody across from me and I'm telling them a story and I don't want them to get up until I'm finished."
Thanks to +Elizabeth S. Craig for sharing a link to Joe Berkowitz's article through Google+.
Photo credit: "Sondershausen Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.