Write Byte

How to Write a Good Story

(April 26, 2001)

Author Dee Henderson has written several inspirational romantic suspense novels in the past few years, and four of the seven she's had published have received B level grades from AAR's review staff. We consider her a buried treasure, not only because of the grades she's received, but because her books are part of a small sub-genre. Our own Linda Hurst got together with author Henderson recently and asked how she has managed to write so well so consistently. Here's what she had to say:

Iím often asked if there is a secret to telling a good story. Is there a formula?

There is. But itís not in making yourself into someone else, itís learning how to define yourself. What do Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, and Nora Roberts have in common? You can open a book and read a page and know without looking at the spine if the book is one of theirs. They have a voice - a way of telling a story that is uniquely theirs.

I have a one page definition which defines my voice that both I and my editor use. Itís my target and my ten arrows. As I write my 8th book, I know this formula works. It produces a Dee Henderson book that sounds like me.

Finding your own formula can be the difference between repeatedly writing good stories or being left to wonder why one story attracts an editorís interest and the next one does not.

Hereís the formula I use. It allows me to turn the huge mountain of telling a story into ten specific things to do:

  • Have a 50 page explosive opening event

  • Dialogue between people who know each other very well - humor and serious and heart-to-heart talks to balance whatever is happening in the plot

  • Have a powerful plot that moves at a page turning pace

  • Interesting characters who have depth and three dimensions

  • Research details woven into every scene

  • You can feel yourself in every scene

  • Information comes in small pieces not long chunks

  • Have a 30 page action-filled homerun ending

  • Powerful 1st sentence for the book

  • Solid scene endings that compel movement and have an excellent closing sentence

Danger in the Shadows, for which I won the RITA, was a formula book. Its story: what would happen if a lady in the witness protection program fell in love with someone famous? Itís 50 page intense opening: put a woman with good reason to be afraid of the dark in an elevator with a famous man in the middle of a storm and make it go black.

The Guardian sticks even closer to my formula script. The story: A federal judge has been murdered. There is only one witness. And an assassin wants her dead. U.S. Marshal Marcus O'Malley thought he knew the risks of the assignment...He was wrong. The book opens with 50 explosive pages on the night the judge is murdered.

This is my formula. Your ten specific items will be different.

To create your own formula, read your own stories and look for your strengths. Think about the items every writer uses: Plot, Pace, Dialogue, Character, Description. Identify the things you want readers to remember about your books.

I am not a descriptive writer. So my formula doesnít have an arrow for description. I write very terse and sparse. I target my arrow to a strength of how I convey information. Pace is very important to me, as are scene openings and closings. They get their own points.

Itís also a diagnostic tool. When my characters feel flat, I look at my formula. I often find the dialog doesnít convey enough sense of how well the two people know each other. When the pace feels slow, I often find I need to cut down the amount of information and give it in smaller chunks.

Write to a formula. And you will hit a home run every time.

-- Dee Henderson

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