Alan Heathcock’s 27 Tenets of writing fiction

This post was written on a Twitter request by people looking for this excellent writing advice given by an American fiction writer Alan Heathcock. It is re-posted as-is, preserving the original formatting and syntax.

  • 1. Make a unique character, with a highly specific flaw that puts into question their ability to clearly interpret the world.
  • 2. Do horrible things to your character, but never steal away their humanity. 
  • 3. Never make your character ignorant or crazy. 
  • 4. Enable your character to change, despite their flaw, and through trial, to understand a profound truth of the world. 
  • 6. Figure out the profound truths of the world.
  • 5. FEEL your character’s struggle. Make yourself weep and angry and tired. Make yourself swoon. Find out what it 
  • means to be someone who is not you.
  • 6. Empathy is of the highest importance. If a reader does not FEEL, then it is not drama but journalism, and journalism 
  • that is also fiction has little value.
  • 7. FEELING is communicated through the senses. Communicate through images, sounds, scents, and textures, not 
  • through words. You will primarily communicate through images.
  • 8. Put your character in a situation that is highly dramatic and unique, leaving your character naked to their flaws.
  • 9. Spend a lot of time planning the plot. Create plots that are so unique and off-formula that nobody believes you’ve 
  • spent any time at all thinking about plot.
  • 10. Let your character want something, but don’t give it to them easily. Give them what they’ve earned. Make them work 
  • the entire story to earn it, or not.
  • 11. Every scene you create must feel strange and unfamiliar. Strange and unfamiliar builds mystery, and feels dangerous, 
  • and mystery and danger feeds curiosity.
  • 12. Invent settings that are interesting and peculiar, or find something interesting and peculiar in settings that are banal.
  • All settings are metaphoric reflections of your character’s interior.
  • 13. Never be obvious. Never be coy. Make a reader have to work a little to understand what they’re reading, but 
  • eventually pay out their effort in empathy and clarity.
  • 14. Reveal something in your endings, creating a convergence of plot and story. Write the ending in a way it doesn’t feel 
  • tidy. Be French with your endings.
  • 15. Don’t under-write. Supply everything a reader needs to see and feel and think. Control the reader at all times.
  • 16. Don’t over-write. Don’t make a reader read a single word more than they need. If you make a reader read a single 
  • word more than they need then you’ve given them permission to skim.
  • 17. Always find the exact right nouns and verbs. Verisimilitude is largely determined by the accuracy of nouns and verbs.
  • 18. Write with a prose style that seems organic and free though it is completely planned and controlled.
  • 19. Don’t worry about length. A story will be as long as it needs to be, and not a word longer, or shorter. The story 
  • dictates its length.
  • 20. No short cuts. Think of the most demanding ways to accomplish what you want and do those things. It will save you 
  • time in the end.
  • 21. Never intentionally offend anyone. But don’t worry if people are offended by your work.
  • 22. Make your titles simple and a little odd. Make a reader have to read your story to fully understand the title, and make 
  • a title that helps a reader fully understand the story.
  • 23. Choose projects that make you feel something intensely. Be obsessed.
  • 24. You must give yourself up to the story. Eliminate yourself. It’s not about you.
  • 25. Don’t work around other people. Other people will make you self-conscious. Find some place you can be alone. Be 
  • alone.
  • 26. Do not look beyond yourself for validation.
  • 27. Be brave enough to take yourself seriously. Once you decide to take yourself seriously you will stop imitating others
  • and will become original.

Posted on the request on Twitter by Ann Murphy,@Gaiamethod

2 thoughts on “Alan Heathcock’s 27 Tenets of writing fiction”

  1. Number 27 is probably the hardest to overcome initially…to put yourself “out there” does require the bravery you suggest, but also a strong sense of self is necessary…

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