I often blithely remark that James Patterson writes ‘Hardy Boys for grown-ups.’ That’s not meant as an insult. The more I read his novels, the more respect I have for his craft. His books don’t demand any heavy lifting from the reader — in many ways, they’re like chilling out in front of your favourite detective or police TV show.
Here are seven lessons we can learn from this best-selling author:
- Lead with plot. Patterson was once criticised by Stephen King as being a ‘terrible writer’, but his millions of fan don’t seem to care. In a thriller, readers want a tight, nail-biting plot, not five paragraphs describing the antagonist’s remote villa or pages of backstory.
- Keep your chapters short. The average length of Patterson’s chapters is between 500-600 words. He uses the trusted ‘hook and hang’ technique — starting with action and ending with a cliffhanger. If you want to write an unputdownable thriller, don’t give your readers a reason to leave.
- Up-close and personal. Patterson mostly uses a first person viewpoint in his novels. This is what gives his stories their immediacy. We’re inside the character’s head. If you write in an unpretentious way — like real people talk, think, and react — you bring your reader much closer to your story from page one.
- The villain gets top billing. From perverted plastic surgeons to grieving fathers bent on revenge, Patterson makes sure his antagonists are intriguing, shocking, and wily. He also uses innovative viewpoint devices to get us into the antagonist’s mind without revealing their identity. If you want to give your hero an impossible mission, make sure his opponent is difficult to catch.
- Pare it down. In many ways, Patterson’s books read like a movie script. Dialogue and action drives the story. Description of characters, setting, and emotion are given in swift short hand. If you want to keep up the pace, make sure you only give readers the barest details that add a bit of colour, texture, and emotion.
- Know your ABCs. The main or ‘A’ story of a Patterson novel is always supported by two or three ‘B’ or ‘C’ subplots that run alongside it. Mostly these are multiple cases or mystery the hero must unravel, but sometimes they’re about his personal life. If you want to create a satisfying experience for the reader, give your story a rich cast of characters and a lot more conflict.
- Own your story. Patterson obviously does a lot of research and his books always have a ring of authenticity. Whether his plots have holes or his characters seem stereotypical, he always writes with supreme confidence. That’s probably the biggest lesson to learn — write like you mean it.