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


  • 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…

    • Agree. It takes a long time and willpower, conviction. One has to be prepared for criticism and rejection. Not for wimps.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.