Wednesday, August 22, 2012


One of the many blogs and writing groups I follow mentioned a book with the intriguing title of SAVE THE CAT, which is actually a how-to for screenwriters. The person who recommended it was right--it contains valuable information for novel writers, especially those writing thrillers, mystery or romantic suspense. Because successful movies can teach writers how to build tension.

The short version of the “Rule” is, “Put your protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him.” That is, give the hero lots of problems to solve and terrible scrapes to get out of. Stories like that keep the reader turning pages because she wants to know how the hero manages to overcome them all and survive.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

John Grisham’s first successful book, THE FIRM--his actual first was reissued later--was an example of that kind of story-telling. On one hand the hero is faced with being killed by his law firm boss, and at the same time he’s wanted by the F.B.I. Some readers complained that the actual writing wasn’t good, but the suspense of watching the hero succeed in that situation was compelling.

SAVE THE CAT also reminded me of the advice I got at a writers’ conference many years ago from a best-selling author. He said--and I‘m paraphrasing here--“Movies have been around for a hundred years, television for fifty. Readers and viewers are accustomed to stories that start immediately with action. You can write like Charles Dickens if you want to, and spend four pages on long descriptions, but the audience for that kind of book is DEAD.”

My first chapters are often rewritten dozens of times because I try to follow that advice and hook the reader with something compelling right up front.

Two years ago I sold a romance novel that had been submitted to publishers nineteen times, three of them to the same publisher. What made them finally buy the book? I’m not sure, but just before I sent the manuscript out the last time, I added a scene in which the hero sabotaged the heroine’s attempt to sell the yacht she’d inherited and couldn’t afford to keep. That gave her one more reason to hate him (before they fell in love). In effect, she was up a tree, and I threw another rock at her.

That book, SOUTHERN STAR, originally written with my friend, Carolann Camillo, was only available in hardcover, but--inasmuch as Amazon has bought Avalon Books--will eventually go digital.

John Grisham
Kurt Vonnegut
Carolann Camillo


  1. Great blog, Phyllis! I think I'll go throw some more rocks!

    1. Alexa and Dixie:

      Thanks for your comments. I'm so glad you found this post useful.

  2. Great post, Phyllis! I think I save my rocks for too late in the story. I'll try throwing earlier.

  3. Enjoyed the post...and the reminder! Thanks Phyllis! :)

  4. Phyllis, you're so right! When I first started writing, I remember a speaker saying "You've got to throw a lot of alligators in your heroine's path. If you don't, you've got a very dull book." Over the years, that's an admonition I've never forgotten when writing my books.

    1. Larissa & Misty: Thanks for the comments.

      Shirley: Thanks. I like the vision of alligators - really scary.


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