writers tips / writing

Writers Tips #94: 9 Writing Tips From James Frey

writers tips

Great tips for soon-to-be great writers

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

I have read several of James Frey’s how-to books on writing–How to Write a D*** Good Novel and How to Write a D*** Good Thriller. Although I write thrillers (and I’ll get one published if I ever get the rewrites done for my agent), there are a lot of general rules about constructing novels that apply across the board whether you write thrillers, romance, YA or novelettes. Frey points these out in a pithy concise manner that even those of us with short attention spans can get. Here are some of my favorites from his 176-page book, How to Write a D*** Good Novel:

  • “For most writers, and certainly all beginning writers, character biographies are a necessary preliminary step in the making of a novel.”
  • Even though “Human beings sometimes do foolish things… All of your central characters, both protagonists and antagonists, should at all times be clever and efficient in handling the problems you have presented them.”
  • quoting Raymond Hull: “The strength of the conflict is not just a product of the protagonist’s strength” but is a product of the “strength of the opposition” as well
  • “The art of writing the dramatic novel is the art of holding the reader gripped in a slowly rising conflict.”
  • “Does every dramatic story have a premise [a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story]? Yes… There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or a situation, give the protagonist a dilemma and then meditate on how it might go. Let your imagination run.”
  • “A story is a narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters who change as a result of those events. In a dramatic story, the only kind generally worth reading, the characters will struggle.”
  • “Where…do you start your narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters? Usually, you begin just before the beginning.”
  • “Aristotle said in the Poetics that the length of a drama should be such that the hero passes ‘by a series of probably or necessary stages from misfortune to happiness, or from happiness to misfortune.’ Twenty-three centuries later, Egri says the same thing when he insists that a character should ‘grow from pole to pole.’ A coward becomes brave, a lover becomes an enemy, a saint becomes a sinner–this is growth from pole to pole.”
  • “Think of a climax as the target and the rest of your story as the flight of the arrow.”

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersIMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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5 thoughts on “Writers Tips #94: 9 Writing Tips From James Frey

  1. Good points, but I disagree with the second one. If your character is to be believable, it’s ok for him to make mistakes or foolish decisions occasionally. Yes, you don’t want to fill your manuscripts with such trivia, but sometimes such things add life. Not everyone can walk the straight and narrow; sometimes it’s necessary to stumble once in a while.


    • I tried to think back on times when the POV character in books I read stumbled. I think because I read thrillers (where heroes are bigger than life and always do the impossible), and stumbling isn’t an option. I’d find a new hero if they did that. But, I think that’s because it is a thriller. Literary fiction is different.


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