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Sleuthfest: Dennis Lehane

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 8, 2011

Bestselling Author Dennis Lehane gave some great writing advice during his luncheon speech on Saturday at Sleuthfest as the rapt audience hung on his words.

Disclaimer: Any misinterpretations are mine alone. This is what I heard to the best of my ability. The words were flying so fast, it was sometimes hard to catch them.


Bestselling Author Dennis Lehane

So here is the essence of the speech which was full of wonderfully practical advice:

A story or a novel must have action, i.e. a character doing something in pursuit of a goal.

Motive does matter when it comes to writing.

If you’re a writer to make money, you’re insane. Why do you write?

We want to seduce, enlighten, engage readers and make them wonder What Happens Next.

Story is about engaging the reader and illuminating the human condition.

Don’t become a comedian if no one has told you you’re funny. Similarly, don’t become a writer if no one has said you’re a good storyteller.

You have to have a reason to tell the story and the reader must have a reason to read it.

Ten Tips on Writing:

1. Does the story begin on page one?

2. Does the main character act soon enough? Stasis in a novel is death. Someone must be doing something in chapter one.

3. Does the main character have a recognizable want? Want leads to action which leads to the inner life of the character. Want is plot.

4. Does the main character have a recognizable need? The writer may not know what this need is at the outset. Need is theme.

5. Does the main character’s action come across as authentic?

6. Does the main character go on a journey that results in an epiphany? The story is a journey. A plot shouldn’t call attention to itself. Anyone can write Act 1. Act 2 is where you discover who you are as a writer.

7. Do events in the story have dramatic inevitability? By the end, the reader should feel a universal truth.

8. Is something at stake in the story? Preferably what’s at stake is a piece of the main character’s soul. Otherwise, the story is just an amusement ride.

9. Write the book you want to read (and not the Great American Novel or you’ll write a pretentious piece of crap).

10. When in doubt, just tell the damn story. Try to transcend the genre in which you write. Never stop learning.


Sue Peek, Sharon Hartley, Cynthia Thomason (standing)


Sandra Madden, Carol Stephenson, Nancy Cohen


Auctioneer Cynthia Thomason


Britin Haller & Neil Plakcy


2 Responses to “Sleuthfest: Dennis Lehane”

  1. M. E. Kemp said

    Dennis Lehane’s tips for writers are practical except for one; don’t write for money? I wish I had some! “The laborer is worthy of his hire,” and most writers get peanuts, but not because they’re not good at it.

  2. I believe he means that we’re not in the writing field to get rich and famous. We write because it’s what we love to do. And if you try to jump on trends, they might be over by the time you submit your work.

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