How to be a Great Writer

I was having a conversation about Detective Fiction with a friend of mine recently.

He brought up the fact, apparently well known in detective fiction circles, that the mobile phone is killing detective plots. Writers are tying themselves in knots trying to invent situations in which their characters are unable to make phone calls: they lose their phone, they’re out of charge, there’s no signal, whatever.

Now, I should state again for the record that I don’t read much detective fiction. I’ve nothing against it, it’s just not my thing. But I can’t help thinking that the writers he’s talking about are missing the point. They’re making the same mistake that bad SF writers do: they’ve had an idea and they’re going to hammer the story around it to make it work. They’ve worked out a plot, and they’re going to follow that plot to the end, even if it means getting their characters to act in some pretty strange ways.

I’m often asked about how much I plot a story, and I usually say the same thing. I plot about half way, I have an idea about the ending but that’s it. I always end up following my characters somewhere else. This is one of those things that you can’t be taught, it only comes with practice.

Good writing involves finding an original set of characters and putting them in an interesting situation. Find those things and the story will write itself. A real character will have their mobile phone with them, they will remember to have charged it. Instead of asking how they will lose their phone, a good writer will instead ask what happens next after the character has made that call a lesser writer would have been trying to avoid. That will resuly in a far more interesting story…

You can tell great writing by the way that it just is. There’s something very unforced about it, something very natural, a sense that what you’re reading could be no other way than the way it is. Characters act naturally, any surprises in the story come from their circumstances, not from their reaction to events. Plots unfold in a manner which appears logical (at least on reflection), nothing seems contrived.

Great writing leaves the reader thinking “I could have done that. All I needed was the basic premise and I would have written that. I mean, what else could have happened?”

And that’s the point. It all seems so real, so natural. That’s the mark of a great writer. Someone who has worked hard to make it all look so effortless.


  1. I hope you don’t hate for me put it this way, er.. but :-



    I believe Bjarne Stroustrup suggests using this shorthand when submitting typos to him about his C++ books.

    I think good software designers can also make it look easy. Michael Jacksons’ book about software requirements has some interesting anecdotes on that.

    Ah, and personally, I frequently forget to charge my phone. Especially when a charged phone would be (with hindsight) handy. Murphy’s Law ? Or just, stress maybe.

  2. Don’t mind? I love it and thoroughly approve!

    And yes, I agree with you about good software designers. There’s something about a well written piece of code…

Comments are closed.