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Writers Tips #94: 9 Writing Tips From James Frey

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, 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 books:

  • “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.”

If you’d like to purchase Frey’s books on Amazon, here are the links:

To have these tips delivered to your email, click here.

More writing tips from books:

13 Ways and 3 Books to Build Blockbuster Plots

Writers Tip #68: Three Tips From David Shenk

15 Tips From Writing From A to Z

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor of technology in education, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

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

  1. Pingback: Writers Tips #101: 17 Tips from Writing the Blockbuster Novel | WordDreams...

  2. I disagree with the second premise. Humans do foolish things. If your main characters are always clever and efficient, they’re not human. Even strong leads should stumble some, like the rest of us.


    • That tip, I believe, is from the thrillers how-to book. In thrillers, we want main characters bigger-than-life, with foibles but not so foibled they are human. Russell Blake’s Jet is a great example of that.


  3. Love these tips. I started writing a formal biography for all my characters last year. Before then I had scribbled notes in no particular order! Though I know these characters inside out, when I’m struggling with a scene, I refer to the biography and take a minute to focus. I usually know how to respond after that!


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