Monday, 29 March 2010

Three ingredients that trump every other technique in writing.

Hemingway said that writers are all apprentices in a craft where no-one is a master.

I've been reading a lot about how to make your writing really shine, unputdownable, compelling – and I've been coming across a lot of persuasive arguments along the lines of: increase the stakes for your protagonist (I got this from Writing the Breakout Novel), and putting conflict on every page.

But @BubbleCow, that clever bovine, got me thinking with his post about 7 books every writer should read, and, combined with a quick look at the decade's best-selling fiction books in the UK, I realised that these 'how to write' books and tips are missing something.

I know I'm going to break some hearts here, but the Da Vinci Code, Twilight and the Harry Potter books are not particularly well-written РI've read them all - Dan Brown's writing is clich̩-ridden and clunky; I frequently laughed out loud at some of Meyer's phrasing and story-elements, and Ms Rowling is a keen lover of the adverbial speech-tag, and adverbs in general, with an awful lot of 'telling' going on Рcardinal sins in most 'how-to' books.

But these people are doing something right – lots of people love their work – and you could split the income of anyone of these writers between me and my blog-readership and we'd still have more money than we would know what to do with it for the rest of our lives.

So what's the secret?

It comes down to three essential things, and if you do these things supremely well, then you can get away with a whole multitude of other sins. These magic ingredients are story, romance and milieu.


We've all read those books where we've become so gripped by the story, that we've been gobbling up the pages just to find out what happens. I've been there, and when you're in that moment you don't care how it's written, you just want to know the outcome.

The idea that 'story trumps all' hit home whilst reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (another massive bestseller now made into a film) – it starts off with an unclear prologue, then a whole chapter of backstory told in flashback, then chapter 2 begins with another massive info dump – three sections in and the main story hasn't started - and I'm thinking as I'm reading, how did this get past an editor?

If the story is strong enough, readers don't care if it's front-story, back-story, exposition, flash-back, prologue, past tense, present tense, or told rather than shown – if the story is gripping, no one gives a monkeys how it's delivered.


Stories that capture the essence of romance sell by the bucket-load – this explains why books like the Twilight series have done so well. I've tried hard to understand why these books have swept the board in sales when there are clearly so many better written vampire stories out there – and it's down to romance - and what could be more compelling than forbidden love? Romance sells, pure and simple – so I'm off to buy some 'how to write romance' books.


This is the final element that I think if you do very well you can get away with anything. If your writing has the power to transport the reader completely to your story-world, making them forget their troubles and stresses in the real-world, then you're on to a winner. One writer is supreme at this – Tolkien – and his books will continue to make money for ever more. It's not just fantasy, historical and sci-fi books that can do this, stories set in the contemporary world can equally transport the reader into their story-world. I found this with Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Faulks's Birdsong had a similar effect on me.

So, I'm going to work harder to make sure I've got a little more of these things in my writing.


  1. I like this post and am in agreement, although I would raise one issue. In romance, if written thoughtfully and perhaps from experience rather than from one's imagination, non-forbidden love can, and should be portrayed as being just as exciting as the forbidden variety.

  2. Agreed, David - I was thinking in the context of the Twilight series here. Interestingly, I read an interview with Anne Rice (queen of vampire stories and writer of Interview with a Vampire etc.), and she said she believed the appeal of the Twilight series was the desire in young women for older men - hence the fascination of falling in love with guys who are hundreds of years old but still look 18. I'm not sure it's as simple as that but it's an interesting idea.

    1. Hmmmm, ok...scary thought but it could very well be.

  3. Wow, this post really struck home with me. I've spent a lot of time pondering the success of these books too, and I think you've hit the nail on the head with this one. Reviewing my success/failure with story, romance, and milieu are all things that I'm adding to my editing checklist. Because somehow, Meyer, Brown, and Rowling did make a little magic, even with their (sometimes) less-than-ideal writing styles.

  4. Great post. I'm sitting her doubting my story as I edit today. Enough description, too much, too many adverbs etc, but you're post gave me hope that the structural imperfections might not be as important as the kick butt story line. Thanks!

  5. I like your point about how readers respond to a good story in general as opposed to the way it's a story develops (front-story, back-story, etc). Particularly when working on a first draft, so much of the game is getting words down on paper, it's easy to get distracted by how we're unrolling the story. It's best to let it all out and revise the structure later.

    I'm revising my novel now and what I'm noticing is that bits I intended as a sentence or two of backstory feel much more important now and have grown into full-on scenes and scenes I'd written in full are shifting around in other ways.

    The story's not changing, but how it's unfolding is becoming more refined in ways I didn't expect.

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  6. This is a great post! I completely agree. If we can get readers to gobble up our work, no one will care about a few clunky sentences and weak adverbs.

  7. Really good food for thought.

    Recently heard someone say something similar about the importance of milieu. They expressed it as the creation of a world in which you wanted to stay as long as possible because you didn't want to be parted from the protagonist.

  8. Thanks, M Louise. This is one of my favourite posts as it was a real break-through in my understanding in terms of why some books do so well. As writers we can't just dismiss these things - we have to understand them and try and incorporate some of the elements into our own work.

  9. Thnks, i´ve been wondering the same thing about how certain books ( i.e. twilight) -get published and eventually sell by the millions. Good insight. I would at one little word TENSION.

    1. Yep, you're right - tension does work. Would you say tension is evident in the books I address in my post though? I tend to think of tension as something that necessitates good writing to maintain it, while the 'big three' ingredients I reference here can make a book worth reading in spite of bad writing.