In which the author offers up his humble insights into writing stories people will love

The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense

There are a thousand things to “remember” when writing story. New writers who make lists of these things soon begin to drown in them. But I’ve come to realize that many of these “rules” don’t matter.

They don’t matter because many ignore the function of story. This makes it impossible to know how and when to apply them, or if they’re even something you should apply in the first place. Furthermore, a good number that do tie back to function often have little impact.

In fact, the more I write, the more I believe the Pareto Principle applies to writing–a few vital factors make up most of the effect. The key is to focus on a liminted number of fundamentals. To focus on these things that matter most.

So what really matters when you’re writing a story?

That all depends on what you’re tring to do. Form follows function.

So what is the function, the objective?

First of all, it’s something that happens in the reader. Readers buy stories because they provide a service, they do something to the reader, guide them into an experience. In this series, I take a look at what I think is the one of the core elements of the story experience and identify the Pareto factors for delivering it to the reader.

That story core is suspense.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) published in 2011 a revised (and much better) version of the posts I originally shared here on that topic.  Here’s the link:

The Key Conditions for Suspense (27-part series)


If you still want the OLDER first drafts of that series, you can find them here: The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 1: Problem , The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 2: Character , The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 3: Plot , The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 4: Structure .

You can also download PDFs, but note that these don’t contain the videos (of course); futhermore, the service used to create them annoyingly strips out any links. When I finish the whole series, I’ll create one big PDF book of the whole thing and upload it–with links! Until then, we’re stuck with these: Part 1: Problem PDF, Part 2: Character PDF, Part 3: Plot PDF, Part 4: Structure PDF . Thanks goes to Dreadman Bryce Dayton for the files.


How to Get and Develop Story Ideas

There are three things we have to learn to write killer stories.

  1. What a story is supposed to do.
  2. How the 5 parts of story—character, setting, problem, plot, and text–do that
  3. How to come up with and develop a story idea in the first place

We authors talk a lot about the second thing. You have books and blogs galore on dialogue, plot, characters, structure, grammar, world-building, setting—you name it. Heck, the big series I wrote last year about the key conditions for reader suspense was all about how story works.

Some of us talk about the first thing. And really there’s no point in blathering on about the how-to’s if we don’t know the what-for’s, which is why I tried to highlight one of the core what-for’s in my series on suspense.

But as important as those two things are, none of it matters if we don’t know how to put it to use. We’re not reviewers or editors. We’re creators. We’re writers—the ones that invent the story in the first place. And let me tell you, knowing how a story works and how to invent one are two very different things.  In this series I talk about how to get ideas.

Slides for “Story Turns” and “Vivid & Clear”

I gave these presentations at the 2013 LDStorymakers conference. You can find the slides here:

Recordings of Brandon Sanderson’s Novel Writing Class

All the lectures from Brandon’s 2012 winter semester science fiction and fantasy novel writing class at BYU. They’re excellent. If you want to write novels, you need to watch all of these recordings.  Enjoy!

The 3 Things You Must Learn to Write Killer Stories

I’ve found there are really on 3 things you need to learn to write stories. Of course, there’s a lot to each of these things. But when you’re just starting out, it’s nice to have a map. To know the lay of the land. You’ll be more productive in your study that way. If I’d know this when I started, it would have shaved years off my journey.

The posts here follow a 2-3 hour workshop I deliver on the topic. While it’s not live, I can actually elaborate more on each topic here than I can in a seminar. Of course, that means I need to take time to write up each essay, which isn’t always easy with my deadlines. So I will be adding more to these as time permits. In the meantime, I hope you find what I do have useful.


How to avoid wandering around in the bushes for 10 years

Thing 1: What Stories Do

Thing 2: How Stories Do What They Do

Or you could say the parts of story and the principles of how they work to affect readers.

Thing 3: The Creative Process

It’s one thing to know how stories work. It’s quite a different thing to create one.

Killer Workshop Materials

  1. The 3 Things You Must Learn to Write Killer Stories Handout
  2. The Story Cycle Handout
  3. Please remember the 10-to-20’s. You can find the full list here. I would love to hear your experience with them

The Writing Business

How do you break in, what’s a reasonable time frame to expect, do you need an agent?

When you start writing, you’re actually starting a small business. You have product. It needs to be marketed, sold, and distributed. Of course, a publisher will help you with that. As will an agent. But there’s a lot a writer needs to know even with their help. I’ll add posts here about the business side of things.


How to Write a Story that Rocks

Here’s the two-hour 12-part video recording of the seminar Larry Correia and I gave on Feb, 11, 2010 at BYU’s “Life, the Universe, & Everything: The Marion K. ‘Doc’ Smith Symposium on Science Fiction & Fantasy.” We share a number of important concepts and principles, but I think the biggest thing you can learn from this is seeing how to go about coming up with and developing ideas. It’s an excellent example of “thing 3: the creative process.” And here’s theh How to Write a Story That Rocks – Handout

Lessons on Story from the Hunger Games

Here’s the recording of my presentation Lessons on Story From the Hunger Games given at the 2011 LTUE conference (spoilers galore!).  And here’s the presentation in PDF: Story Lessons from the Hunger Games RWA 2011 (delivered a year later in Park City to the Utah chapter of RWA).  Thanks again to Stephen Nelson for the recording!

How to Get and Develop Killer Story Ideas

Here’s the recording of “How to Get and Develop Killer Story Ideas” at the 2011 LTUE with Larry Correia. We might not look pretty, but we had a great time with a full house.


Click on the “On Writing” category in the left sidebar to find dozens of other posts about the business and craft.

Do I Read & Critique Manuscripts?

I would never fault anyone for asking a published author if they would read and critique a manuscript.  I mean, duh, if I wanted to learn cabinet making, shooting, accounting, writing, whatever–I’d want a professional to give me tips and feedback. So I don’t think anyone should feel bad for asking. Alas, I am simply too busy with my day job, my writing job, and my family to even think about being able to do this. So I do not read and critique manuscripts. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get expert feedback.

1. There are pros who DO read and critique. You have a number of options. For example, Marco Palmieri, an editor who has many many years of experience with Simon Schuster and Tor Books, provides developement edits (story), line edits, copy edits, and proofreading. I’ve never used his services, but have heard good things. You can contact him at his site Otherworld EditorialMette Harrison, a pro author, provides such services as well.  Mette reads a massive number of books each year and so can respond to many genres. She has a regular writing advice column on Orson Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. If that’s not enough, know that Orson Card loves her work (his review of Mira Mirror and Princess and the Hound). There are other pros. Just Google and look at their backgrounds.

2. Go to pro author workshops. I don’t have time to critique, but I do make time to share what I know. If you come to a workshop, I can certainly respond to your pitch or concept. I still won’t have time to read and report my experience with the whole manuscript, but it’s better than nothing. On the other hand, while I am limited, there are workshops by pro authors that DO take time to look at your whole novel. David Farland and Dean Wesley Smith, both excellent pro authors, hold novel workshops that do this. I’ve attended workshops they’ve held and can recommend them to you.  And if you just want an all-around killer workshop, then Orson Card holds a week-long literary boot camp (announced each Jan-Feb) where you’re required to write a short story, but it’s so much more than short stories. I can’t recommend Card’s workshop highly enough. But don’t limit yourself to the three pros above–there are others.

3. Finally, sometimes the best insight comes not from feedback on your own work, but by you reading other people’s work (as a reader, not a critiquer) and simply asking yourself where it was unclear, unbelievable, or boring AS WELL AS where it was clear, believable, and interesting. For each case try to identify what was going on that made it that way for you.