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World's Best-Selling Author James Patterson On How To Write An Unputdownable Story

James Patterson's books account for one out of every 17 hardcover novels purchased in the United States. The wildly prolific author talks to Co.Create about how to tell a story that will hook people in.

They call it beach reading—the kind of ultra-accessible mass market paperback that nestles inside canvas bags all summer long. (And on airplanes year-round.) Considering how addictive James Patterson's books are known to be, and their inescapable popularity, the wildly prolific author is probably directly responsible for more sunburns than incidents of non-waterproof sunscreen.

James Patterson

Patterson recently earned the distinction of being the best-selling author since 2001. Just to be clear, one of the author's books wasn't merely declared "the #1 bestseller," a blurb that pops up on front covers regularly. Rather, James Patterson is the top selling author in the world for the last 14 years. An estimated one out of every 17 hardcover novels purchased in the United States is his, dwarfing the sales of both Harry Potter and the sparkly Twilight vampires.

The secret to this success isn't Patterson's uncommon productivity (he publishes at least three books a year, and as many as 13) or his range (spanning thrillers, nonfiction, children's books, and beyond). It's his colloquial storytelling style that grabs a hold of readers early on, instilling an insatiable need to know what happens next. While preparing to unleash a full slate of 2014 titles, the author recently spoke with Co.Create about how to write the kind of unputdownable books that cause shoulders and backs to get scorched by the sun.

Write Stories The Way People Tell Them

I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip. I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you'd feel like "Stop with the description—what's going on with Haig?" I tend to write stories the way you'd tell them. I think it'd be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that's my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I'm an okay writer, but a very good storyteller.

Make It An Experience

I try to put myself in every scene that I'm writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason.

Short Chapters Keep People Reading

I’m a big fan of these two novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell Jr. They’re both very eloquent, but they have short chapters. And then Jerzy Kosiński wrote a few books like The Painted Bird and Steps that have very short chapters and I just love that style. It’s a style I evolved to. It was actually on (his 1989 novel) Midnight Club. After I read the first 100 pages, I was planning to flesh them out more, but then I thought, "I kind of like this." It’s that more colloquial style of storytelling where things really just move along. That became my style.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Realistic

I don't do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I've written doesn't seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, "I don't like what you do, or I don't like Chagall, or I don't like Picasso" but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant.

Outline Like Your Book Depends On It (Because It Does)

I'm a fanatic about outlining. It's gonna make whatever you're writing better, you'll have fewer false starts, and you'll take a shorter amount of time. I write them over and over again. You read my outline and it's like reading a book; you really get the story, even though it's condensed. Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you're gonna get the scene, and you're gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work.

Be Open To Changes During The Writing, Though

I know what the overarching story is when I start outlining; then I just start putting down scenes and I don't really know what the order's going to be yet. The ending almost always changes in the writing, though. It’s because I learned to listen to the characters. I change things. One of the drafts I do, I'll decide that okay, it went this way, but it doesn't feel very interesting—what if this happened instead of that? And rarely do I know the ending. Occasionally, but mostly not.

Write With Confidence, Even If You Don’t Feel Confident Yet

I have confidence that I’m going to be able to tell a good story, and that hasn’t always been the case. I remember, I won an Edgar Award when I was 26 for Best First Mystery, and even though I knew I won, on the night of, I was worried. I felt like there might have been a mistake. That’s the kind of lack of confidence you can have early on. You’re writing this thing and you hope people like it. You’re rewriting and rewriting and get lost in the sauce. Confidence is a big thing.

Know Who You’re Writing For And What They Want

People want to be glued to the page. They want suspense, and suspense to me is always about questions that you must have answered. I try to pretend that there's somebody across from me and I'm telling them a story and I don't want them to get up until I'm finished. John Grisham always plants a really powerful hook early, that question that makes you want to know what the hell is gonna happen to this guy or this woman. But part of it is, who are you talking to? What have you got for them? It’s useful that if you tell somebody in a paragraph what the story is and they go, "Ooh ooh, I can’t wait, tell me more," as opposed to they were just kind of nodding politely. Well, then that just puts so much stress on the writing. That means that the style has to overcome the fact that you don’t have much of a story.

Now through May 5, Fast Company readers can get 45% off on James Patterson's latest thriller, NYPD Red 2, at Zola Books.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Morrell]

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  • Sharon (Head) Wallace

    I have read all of the Detective Cross books. I loved them all. I always wanted to write a book of my own. I became inspired after reading the Detective Cross books. I have started my book which has been in the back of my mind for a long time. It is a realistic fiction. It would probably be for young readers to adults. I need to know more about manuscript writing such as formatting for publishing. I have worked real hard to keep the story moving on a future solution of the problem. I have tried to keep the reader wanting to read more to see what happens but at the same time give the reader opportunity to believe they know what will come next. I wanted to take some kind of class/workshop to improve my writing in all aspects.

  • Rick Tollefson

    When asked which was more important, 'the story' or 'the telling,' Jack London answered that 'the telling' was more important because 'the telling' made the story come to life. He is still the widest read American writer outside the US.

  • Katla Sieltjes

    I'm a stickler for verisimilitude, which means that I like my books to resemble realism as close as possible. Comparing writing with Picasso or Chagall is non-sensical--we don't look at Picasso or Chagall for their realism, but their impressions. In a thriller or suspense novel, my 'suspension of disbelief' only remains suspended as long as I belief in the characters or the story. If the characters do something that jibes with the characterization, or if the story becomes ridiculous, the lack of verisimilitude will pull me out of the story. So, in that sense, realism and research are necessary.

  • benjwriter14

    He never said he didn't believe in research. I know for a fact that research is a large part of his process. You have to take his comments in context. The true driving force is telling a good believable story. Realism and believability are not the same. His point is, don't get stuck on realism at the cost of your story.

  • I'm definitely a suspense reader and writer. For me, it's story first, character second. The plot has to grab me and choke me - and that's how Patterson's stories are. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love this post and James Patterson's advice, especially about the outlining. I plan to do a better prep job on my next book. No wonder he's so prolific and popular!

  • Sage advice from an iconic bestselling author. I wrote short chapters more by accident than design and readers seemed to like that. I do wish I'd outlined more but I've learned that for novel two. It really does shorten the process towards writing, 'The End.' Although you know it's not really! Great post. Thank you. Harry Dunn (Smile of the Viper, Caffeine Nights.)

  • Outline, outline, outline. How many times do I need to read it until I really do it like it needs to be done?

    Thanks to the comments below about him doing an outline and letting other writers flesh it out, the value of a solid outline finally snapped into focus. Whether it's true or not, it drove home the point. Thank you!

  • Stefanie Stolinsky

    He does use ghost writers, but not in the beginning. He is a great storyteller whether he's using them or not. He wouldn't be able to get out 9 books a year if he didn't use people to fill in the outline. His original works were great "Along Came A Spider" and "Kiss the Girls." I love his Private Series the best and I really like some of the writers he uses. I especially like that he gives them credit.

  • David Patrick Maurer

    it is well-known that patterson writes the chapter outlines that he mentions and uses ghost writers for the rest, why was the latter part not mentioned?

  • Mike Conley

    I disagree. It communicates, and so long as people get it, it's fine. The article is about storytelling, not literature, and Patterson is a colloquial storyteller. It's a made-up word that one of his characters might say, so it's perfect to describe his writing.

  • Edward Young

    Wonder who said it first? Bennet Cerf, Ian Ballantine, Oscar Dystel, Clifton Fadiman? Those men were giants.

  • Nick West

    Interesting piece! If you like gangster and thriller books, check out my new novel, The Last Gangster: Up Against It, about the last surviving participant in Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and two hitmen locked in an epically bloody collision course, available on Amazon for $3. – Nick West

    Twitter: @TheLastGangster

  • Connie Weissinger Tucker

    I love his "realistic" argument. Never thought of it quite that way but he is right on! His signature short chapters are what hooks so many readers. He's a marketing genius, no question!

  • Mike Conley

    It's called "bathroom length" - a chapter that takes as long to read as a good, satisfying dump. And I say that with the greatest respect. Mr. Patterson is a master craftsman - he knows when, where, and how people read, knows what they want and gives it to them.

  • Excellent advise for ALL writers from someone who knows what they are talking about. I will be putting into practice the insight of the article. Thank you.