Notes on ‘Writing Popular Fiction’

Writing Popular Fiction by Dean Koontz

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Writer’s Digest; 1st edition (1974)
  • ISBN-10: 0911654216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0911654219
  • ASIN: B000I2YUNS

The most successful writer […] is the one who can sit down at his typewriter every working day and produce a certain number of words or finished pages, regardless of what he might prefer to do instead (p.180).

First, let me start off by saying that this book was published in 1974 and some of the information is no longer relevant; however, some information never goes out of date.

In this book, Koontz examines the ‘major categories or genres of fiction’ and gives specific ways and examples of writing well in each. According to Koontz, the major genres of popular fiction are:

  • Science fiction/Fantasy
  • Suspense
  • Mystery
  • Gothic/Romance
  • Westerns
  • Erotica

Right away the book shows its age. In the chapter on ‘Gothic/Romance’ Koontz only discussed the Gothic novel and it’s structured plot formula, which is not nearly as popular now as it apparently was then.

In an article from March 19, 2008 titled Sub-Genre Descriptions, Writer’s Digest lists the major genres of popular fiction and includes the sub-genres. As one would expect the Gothic novel is not under the Romance category; it’s considered a sub-genre of Horror.

While the categories have changed, Koontz is on point with the five story elements required for good fiction:

  • Strong Plot
  • Hero/Heroine
  • Clear believable motivation (i.e. love, curiosity, self-preservation, greed, self-discovery, duty and revenge)
  • A colorful background

Tips for Writers

Generating story ideas:

Everyone is a witches’  cauldron of bubbling facts, ideas, images, and memories. You must learn to tap this magical brew and order the unconscious plots within it (p. 153).

  • One method Koontz uses is to choose a dramatic or colorful word and free associate as he uses the word in a string of possible book titles, which he writes in a spiral notebook.
  • Another method is to play with a narrative hook. Sit down and type an intriguing opening sentence or paragraph. Then another and another and so on until your imagination takes flight.
  • Do the same exercise as above with character descriptions rather than opening hooks.
  • Help stories surface by reading:

With every novel you read, thousands of facts, characters, and plot twists are stored in your subconscious, constantly interacting below the level of awareness. When they jell [sic] and rise, they are usually in an original arrangement that bears no resemblance to the books that inspired them (p. 159).

Dialogue Tags

A few weeks ago, Dawn @ The Write Soil posted a very helpful tip from the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (1993 edition):

Do not tag dialogue with other verbs. Use said. (Strong Dialogue Series #5)

It was hard for me to accept this rule. It’s not alright to use ‘ask’? That seemed preposterous. Ever since, I’ve been interested in learning what other writers have to say on the subject. Koontz instructs writers to use said but also gives simple variants of said like – shout, call, reply, ask, and insist to use. If more force is required he suggests using these versions – cry, scream, howl, and wail.


  • Make titles dramatic, colorful, intriguing.
  • A title should promise one or any combination of 4 things – exotic events, suspenseful action, a violent incident or sex.
  • Keep titles short with the promise in one key word.

7 Title Mistakes:

  • Dull titles
  • Cliche titles (unless you give it a clever twist. For example – Do Your Christmas Killing Early; Slayground; Murder is the Best Policy
  • General titles
  • Incomprehensible titles
  • Misleading titles
  • Revealing titles
  • Arty titles

Finally, I read it all the time – ‘just write and edit later.’ I agree with this practice, but I also have a lot of trouble sticking to it. Koontz advises eliminating revision whenever possible because your emotional involvement with the story can be the “intangible quality that makes the book exciting and marketable”. He also argues that planning to do several drafts fosters an attitude of carelessness with your first draft.

Koontz also warns writers to NOT take a break from your book once it is finished because the break gives you time to start doubting your story. (Been there!)

Overall, I found the book worth reading. I’m glad I spotted it on the library’s shelves!