Book Review: Carolyn Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction

book review, writing "how to" books February 8, 2012

I love it when people tell me they’ve got a book idea. This is inevitably followed with something like “I just don’t have the time to sit down and write it,” “we should collaborate,” or “I’m not even sure how to get started.” The first two options generally result in me either politely mm-hmming or not so politely laughing at them, depending on my mood. The last option I usually take as an opening to provide suggestions on books that might guide them into the process.

How to Write Killer Fiction is a “how to” book about writing mystery and suspense novels. Author Carolyn Wheat present a four-part system for organizing both mystery and suspense novels and then discusses the writing process. The first third of the book is dedicated to the mystery novel, the second third to the suspense novel, and the final third of the book discusses the writing process for both genres.  

Wheat describes the movements in a novel as “arcs.” Arc One of the novel is for presentation of the conflict, for making contact with the reader and establishing tone and style. Main character(s) should be introduced, as should subplots, and the inner need(s) of the main character. Arc One is for hooking the reader. It should end with a crisis, the first turning point in the story.

Arc Two is for testing the character, for deepening the subplots, moving the tensions in the story to a “crunch point.” This arc should also end at a crisis, which is ideally the point at which the character “hits bottom,” the point of no return. Change in the character is now inevitable, and forward movement must happen despite resistance from the character.

Arc Three heightens the tensions that were pulled taut in Arc Two. The pace of the story should pick up in Arc Three, the character should be tested further in preparation for the final showdown. Subplots can begin to be resolved. Arc Three should also end in a crisis, a crucial decision or a recognition of what’s at stake.

Arc Four is the final showdown between good and evil. Plotlines are resolved, the character is transformed, and comes full circle. (cue the Disney music)

The final third of How to Write Killer Fiction, the discussion of the writing process, concerns the tools of writing, the styles of writing (plotter vs. pantster), the elements of a novel, and revision. There is also a section on publishing. I found this final third section quite informative and useful.

The first third of the book, the section on applying the four-part system to writing the mystery novel, was not helpful to me. The authors descriptions of the arcs are vague enough to be a bit confusing for me. There are so many subgenres within the mystery genre itself, that a blanket system like this is not effective.

My biggest problem with this book was the author’s heavy, heavy reliance on examples.  I felt lost for most of the book because I have not read many of the authors that she referred to.  Most of her points are made through examples:

We like the crooks in Get Shorty better than the so-called honest citizens of Hollywood, and we root for the gangs that couldn’t shoot straight because they make us laugh (page 95).

I’ve never read Get Shorty.

There are others, but the final straw for me was a reference to the television show MASH. I despised that show after only one or two episodes and never watched it again, in fact, make it a point to avoid it. I struggled to get through the first two-thirds of the book.

However, when I got to the final third, the section on the writing process, the author’s use of example slowed somewhat and I enjoyed it much more. I learned some good things about the writing process, and the positives and negatives of outlining versus blank-page writing. I am an plotter, to some degree, and Wheat has good advice for making the most of the technique.

Wheat also uses the terms “expansion” and “contraction” to describe the writing process. Expansion refers to the part of the process in which the brainstorming takes place, where the characters have the lead, when the author is asking herself “what if?” Contraction is when the author must pick and choose, must “kill the babies” and tighten the story. I found this method of describing the process to be really helpful in putting things in perspective.

While the book wasn’t a total waste of my time, I was discouraged by the heavy use of examples. It made me feel inadequate as a reader, and, to some extent, as a television viewer, but I don’t watch a lot of TV anyway. That’s something I’m not ashamed of.

Bottom line, this book is recommended with some hesitation. Wheat offers good information, but how good it is depends on the reader.


Tattooed writer with an attitude seeks like minded people who appreciate snark and ink. Or snarky ink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s