Friday, April 18

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose

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.

4. Outline.

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."

Good tips.

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.


  1. My favorite rule: pretend as though there are no rules. *smile*

    1. Good rule!

      It isn't exactly a rule, more like an inevitability, but there is one thing one must do to be a writer: write!

      Also, one thing I've heard from a number of prolific writers is that using outlines saves them time. That said, Stephen King is a prolific writer but he doesn't outline!

      So, you're right. I think the best thing for a writer to do is read what has worked for others, try out what they think might work for them, and then continue to use what does.

  2. To be honest, I don't think much of Patterson as a writer, but I can't argue with his success. These are good tips.

    1. Thanks Nigel! As my gran used to say to me, to each their own.

  3. This was informative and thought provoking detail. I love that you actually did the calculations, I was thinking of doing the same, so thanks for the short cut. I feel his formula is worthy. And, so is your synopsis of his formula. Thanks! Great straightforward answers.

    1. Thanks Rheda! Since I wrote this post I've been more aware of how chapter length—and even the length of a book—varies between genre.

      Good writing! 😀

  4. I'm in the middle of trying to write my first fiction novel and noticed that my chapters are really short. So I did a google search to find out how long chapters are supposed to be and found this article. It's very helpful and not just about the short chapters. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for this excellent article.

    DP Conway

  6. Patterson sat at a newsdesk for decades--not too hard to extrapolate a 'Black Widow' story from there. But these days a short attention span is almost a life-requirement.
    I purchased a Patterson "novel" once and I couldn't get through more than three chapters (no offense James). It was pedestrian, predictable and common.
    Yes, King and Patterson are insanely popular, but so is the National Enquirer.
    I was able to get completely through one of King's novels called 'The Tommy Knockers', but ultimately disappointed with the whole, rather simple/predictable premise and conclusion. However, a great many people love them and their writing.
    Yes, there's a lot to be said about keeping people on hook, and I think that is very important, but it's also about how you set up the story. There aren't many 'forwards' or 'prologues' in either authors' works. When striving to be 'formulaic', imagination takes a back seat every time. I guess if you are writing simply to try and make an income, then you'll find yourself wanting to use that 'winning' formula. That said, good luck trying to emulate what millions of retirees (or wannabe retirees) are also trying to do. You'd have to drive a stake through my heart before I would ever write like that. I'll take 1/10th of a John Fowles over a hundred Patterson Kings anyday. I might not break any sales records, but I'll remain proud of myself.

    1. "Yes, King and Patterson are insanely popular, but so is the National Enquirer."

      I laughed! You do have a point, though I do admire King's work.

      " I was able to get completely through one of King's novels called 'The Tommy Knockers', but ultimately disappointed with the whole, rather simple/predictable premise and conclusion."

      Yes, King would agree with you. That was one of the last novels he wrote before he stopped using alcohol/drugs.

      To each their own. :-)

  7. He's a storyteller. I like his books because they're entertaining. And he got rich doing it. Good for him.

  8. When I want to read a book in one sitting, I read a Patterson book. I enjoy King, Koontz, and Patterson. I'm not looking for a literary rush everytime I pick up a book. Sometimes a good ol' mindless fire-breathing dragon is good enough for me.
    One of the earlier commenters suggested that imagination takes a back seat to formulaic writing. I cannot provide an example right now, but I strongly disagree. And just how much imagination does anyone need to write a story? Not much if they know how to write. The story will take on a life of its own if the writer is paying attention. Not real sure how this commenter valued prologue or forward, but hey, let's get after it. When I pick up a book that has a prologue, or a forward, I groan. And then after I read whatever back story is contained therein, I ask, couldn't this have been included somewhere the story? I did agree with his comment about the phenomenen of short attention span which I simply attribute to technology. Great article! Thanks for the share.

    1. Thanks dmeachy! I loved your comment, "Sometimes a good ol' mindless fire-breathing dragon is good enough for me." I'm right there with you! Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts. 😀


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