Coyne's Take on Best-Selling Author James Patterson On "How To Write An Unputdownable Story"

You have heard of the writer James Patterson. You have, I’m guessing, read at least one of his books. He’s the most popular and prolific writer to come along in the last decade. An estimated one out of every 17 hardcover novels purchased in the United States is his, dwarfing the sales of both Harry Potter and the Twilight vampires. To put it another way, James Patterson’s books account for one out of every 17 hardcover novels purchased in the United States. He is certainly the ‘king’ of summertime beach reading.

Recently journalist Joe Berkowitz interviewed Patterson on the website Fast imagesCompany Create. In his interview, Berkowitz made the point that what makes Patterson so successful is “his colloquial storytelling style that grabs a hold of readers early on, instilling an insatiable need to know what happens next.”

In his interview on the website, Patterson gave 8 points that dictates how he writes, what he writes, and why.

I thought it might be interesting to hear what he has to saying about writing novels and then respond to Patterson’s point-of-view with my own approach to writing. My views are based on my experience of having published 13 novels, 25 books all together, counting non-fiction and collections. I’ll start by stating the obvious, I’m not in Patterson’s league when it comes to production, scope or sales.

Paterson writes thrillers, nonfiction, and children’s books and he employs co-authors to finish off books he has outlined. I have explained how I approach fiction in my book How To Write A Novel in 100 Days, and Berkowitz’s Q & A with James Patterson gives me a chance to add to the discussion. Here is what James Patterson had to say about writing his novels, plus my ‘take’ on his responds.

Write Stories The Way People Tell Them


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.


Everyone isn’t an English major. (Thank God!) In fact, most readers of novels have never taken a college English class where the genre is studied and language is valued. Everyone doesn’t understand (or even care) that language, even one sentence, has grace and style and the prose can sing. This simple sentence: The chicken crossed the road can be crafted with grace and style or it can be spread out like dough on the page. Some people are happy with potato chip and a beer. Other readers want more. When many readers sit down with a book, they take pleasure in how an idea is expressed. There is nothing wrong with either of these approaches. They are, however, working on two sides of the street.

Patterson knows his talents, but more importantly, he knows his limits. He is a storyteller, he says this over and over. Telling a story is enough for him. Certainly, it is enough for his legend of readers. Good for him.

But there is more to a novel than how many copies it will sell.

There is literature.  And you don’t have to be an English major to love literature.

Part of the world of literature is the author’s ability to tell a story. That goes back to Greek myths and Beowulf. The ability to tell a story is a real gift. A writer can’t be taught that skill. Patterson has this talent, but he isn’t offering his readers much more in the way of prose than a McDonald’s Big Mac. And once readers realize this, they’ll also understand that there is better cuisine at that other restaurant down the street.

For example. Patterson writes:  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?”

But not all readers want to skip the description, even in a thriller. They have picked up the book to be ‘taken away’ with the descriptions provided them, the setting of the scene. That is part of their joy of reading, while they are also immersed in the action.

Here’s an example of what I mean.pulitzer-1501

Jackie had to know the two of them were there at the wall, watching her, but she turned back to the beach without looking up at them, perhaps not caring what they saw. What is she? Tom wondered as he looked at the sleek corded muscles in her neck and arms, the smooth sculpted pack of muscles in her calves and thighs, and remembered the rock-hard clench of her body in his lap. A marathoner? A gymnast? She stepped back into her clothes but left her feet are, bending to collect her socks and boots and when she straightened up she raised her head and looked at them, her eyes steady on Tom for an instant but her face unreadable, and he smiled back involuntarily even though at the moment he wanted to scorn her and thought, not coherently, Don’t be silly; trouble, whatever, she’s just a girl, he could handle it.

That’s a paragraph from Bob Shacochis recent novel. Schacochis is the winner of the National Book Award and his new novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, was a finalist in the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Unlike Patterson, Shacochis knows that ‘description’ can enhance a plot, give depth to the narrative, and added intrigue that lingers with the reader as they turn the page. Description need not just be wallpaper on the wall of a novel.

Make It An Experience


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 agree with Patterson. As a writer you need to be in the scene, an invisible recorder taking notes of what your characters are doing and saying. Recently an editor said about one chapter of my new book, that she felt as if she was ‘in the house’ when two characters were haven’t a marriage squabble. Yes, I thought. I got it right. No fault dialogue.

Short Chapters Keep People Reading


I’m a big fan of these two novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell Jr. They’re both very eloquent, but they have short chapters. And then Jerzy Kosiński wrote a few books like The Painted Bird and Steps that have very short chapters and I just love that style. It’s a style I evolved to. It was actually on (his 1989 novel) Midnight Club. After I read the first 100 pages, I was planning to flesh them out more, but then I thought, “I kind of like this.” It’s that more colloquial style of storytelling where things really just move along. That became my style.


I prefer short chapters, too. That’s also the approach most writers have today. It is the way we collect information in emails, text messages, watching television. Have you notices just how short scenes are in a t.v. dramas? 30-seconds is a life time on television.

While Shacochis’ The Women Who Lost Her Soul hits the scale at 713 hardback pages, but the chapters tend to be only 8 to 10 pages long. However, the length of a chapter depends more on a break-in-the-action then the desire to give a reader the chance to turn over on a breach towel.

What a writer needs to do with a charter-regardless of the length-is bring the drama (or action) to a close and at the same time, propel the reader forward into the next chapter.

In writing my novels, I find that what worked best for me was to ‘write myself’ into a corner in the same way one might inadvertently paint themselves into a corner of a room and then need to, somehow, jump to safety. More often than not, I’d surprise myself with my resolution of the situation. And in surprising myself, I knew, too, that the reader will be surprise as well.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Realistic


I don’t do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I’ve written doesn’t seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, “I don’t like what you do, or I don’t like Chagall, or I don’t like Picasso” but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant.

I’m not quite sure what James means here, but I need realism, even when I write science fiction. The reader has to ‘connect’ in some way with the characters and the story and with the outcome of the plot. While none of it may be true, all of it must be ‘believable’…yes, that could happen; yes, I know that feeling.

Outline Like Your Book Depends O It (Because It Does)


I’m a fanatic about outlining. It’s gonna make whatever you’re writing better, you’ll have fewer false starts, and you’ll take a shorter amount of time. I write them over and over again. You read my outline and it’s like reading a book; you really get the story, even though it’s condensed. 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.


I have never outlined any one of my 13 novels. In fact, I never fully have known how any one of my books would turn out, though often I would have tucked away in the back of my mind a closing line for the book. But not knowing fully where I was going with the narrative is fine with me. I want to be surprised as much as the reader. That doesn’t mean outlining is bad. I wish I had that ability to outline. I wasn’t very good at it when I was in high school either.

Outlining has a certain value. But first, I think, you (the author) must have conceived the whole novel, know that world first before starting. Katherine Ann Porter, a very fine short story writer, only wrote one novel, Ship of Fools. Shewrote the last chapter of that novel twenty years before it was finished. She needed, she said, to know the ending before she began to write the first chapter.

I think a writer should be as surprised by the material as the readers. Yes, this has meant many fault starts, blind alleys, and wasted time. So what? Paterson is able to produce a novel-plus-a-year because he sees his books as product, much like a car that’s manufactured on an assembly line, efficiency is valued.

Be Open To Changes During The Writing, Though


I know what the overarching story is when I start outlining; then I just start putting down scenes and I don’t really know what the order’s going to be yet. The ending almost always changes in the writing, though. It’s because I learned to listen to the characters. I change things. 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.


A lot of what James Patterson says here is very true. I have never had any of my novels finish the way I first imagined them. Realistic characters dictate their lives on the page. Also, in the midst of a narrative, often I will sense that something is missing in the story. I might need another character to fill out the plot, or need to eliminate, if not a scenes, also a character. You have to be a God when you write. Cast out the infidels in your novels!

I don’t begin so much with a story as much as I begin with a character, an opening line, a scene that I imagine and that sets the novel in motion. For example, in my new novel I begin with a book arriving at the main character’s used book store, sent anonymously. This ‘book’, in a metaphorical sense, is the core of the plot and everything that develops from its arrival at the used book store tells the story.

Write With Confidence, Even If  You Don’t Feel Confident Yet


I have confidence that I’m going to be able to tell a good story, and that hasn’t always been the case. I remember, I won an Edgar Award when I was 26 for Best First Mystery, and even though I knew I won, on the night of, I was worried. 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.


In my experience, I am always winging it. I think there is value of being on the edge, walking a tight rope with your prose and story, stretching your credibility as well as the credibility of your characters. You need to take chances. Why write if you want to always feel safe. Writing and publishing anything, whether it is a letter or a novel, exposes you to the world. It is your declaration. You’re saying: here I am. This is what I think. It is not easy. So in that sense, Patterson is right. You have to be confidence, (or faking it) to the outside world.

Now Who You’re Writing For And What They Want


People want to be glued to the page. They want suspense, and suspense to me is always about questions that you must have answered. 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. John Grisham always plants a really powerful hook early, that question that makes you want to know what the hell is gonna happen to this guy or this woman. But part of it is, who are you talking to? What have you got for them? 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.


Having a ‘hook’ is one way of pulling in an audience to a novel. Recently I read The Husband’s Secret by the Australian writer, Liane Moriarty, who also wrote the commercially successful What Alice Forgot. The ‘hook’ for her recent novel is blasted all over the jacket copy….”At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read.”

That’s one way to ‘glue’ a read to your book. So the answer then for any writer is to begin with, ‘Okay, what’s my gimmick that will catch readers’ attention?’ That approach has been done a thousand times, often very successfully. If that is the kind of writer you are, do it!

My problem is that I write for myself. I’m the first person who will read my sentences, so they better please me before they see the light of day. Yes, I have someone in mind when I tell a story. Why write unless you want to share a story? We all like surprises, one way or another, but we also want to be entertained, amused, instructed, and gratified. If someone is giving time and attention to what we have written, they want it to be worth their while. So any story, long or short, needs to have a payoff for the readers.

That’s it. Thanks for your time.

One Comment

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  • Thanks, John. I enjoyed this exchange immensely. Now I am wondering what kind of a writer I am. It is like a flood of words has been gestating in me for a life time and it is only in the last couple of years that I felt commanded by unknown forces to allow these words to flow through my fingers onto pages. Often times what I write comes to me in a dream the night before. When I read what I write, it is hard for me to believe I am the writer. Without all this magic, I would be lost as to what to write. If the writing spirits do not move me, there is no writing. I never know where I am going from one chapter to the next, but somehow a hidden hand guides me. I enjoy reading what I write even if nobody else does. For me, what I write is a lasting testament to my life.

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