The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange - Wikipedia

Without a doubt, the whodunnit is the most popular type of mystery there is in modern culture, and if you read or watch a mystery story today, it’s probably a whodunnit. CSI? Whodunnit. The Mentalist? Whodunnit. Criminal Minds? Whodunnit. Detective Conan/Case Closed? Whodunnit. Murdoch Mysteries/Artful Detective? Whodunnit.  

People love figuring out whodunnit!

Which is why it might come as a shock to you that most Sherlock Holmes stories, the paragon of mystery crime solving, aren’t whodunnits. Doyle actually preferred howdunnits and whydunnits instead, at least based on the number of each he wrote.

Oh, the criminal is often unknown until later in the story, but the focus of the stories isn’t so much on who did it, but how or why it was done, and the criminal’s identity is often secondary to figuring that out. This is one of the things that may make reading Holmes a bit of an adjustment for modern readers, since Doyle seems to have found the simple question of who did it much less interesting to hang a story on than how or why it was done. Sometimes the criminals even turn themselves in “off camera” once their schemes are revealed because it just isn’t that important to the story.

However, he did write whodunnit stories from time to time for variety, and the formula he used isn’t much different from the others at heart…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word short story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed and there are two or three suspects who could have committed it. The mystery is built around figuring out which one of them did the crime.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely suspect is proven to be innocent by dying or new evidence showing they’re innocent. (This is why there is usually three suspects – since one will be eliminated from the list at this point.)
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detective gathers the guilty people together and tells them what really happened, explaining how each of them is connected with the crime until they settle on the real criminal last. The real criminal reveals why they did it when confronted with the truth, answering any questions the audience might have like motives (usually hatred because of past events or greed).
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

The above formula can also be used for novels, but would require a bit of expansion and development to make it work. One of the advantages of whodunnits is their ability to be padded out as much as needed by simply spending more time exploring and learning about the backgrounds of the victims and suspects. Subplots about how the crime was done and motivations are also easily incorporated into a whodunnit story as needed.

Generally, the main clues that reveal a culprit in a whodunnit story are going to be verbal ones – they say the wrong thing while giving testimonies or answering questions. Occasionally, it might be something they are tricked into revealing by the detective, in which case it is often something simple and innocuous were it not connected with the current case. However, spoken mistake are rarely enough to convict a person of being the criminal, so there will need to be other physical evidence available to support it and finish the case.

The Three Mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes | Description, Stories, & Facts | Britannica

While making my way through Stephen Fry’s astoundingly good Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection on Audible, I began to notice a pattern in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Story after story in the collection tended to follow one of three different patterns, and after I started taking notes, I began to realize that these three patterns didn’t just apply to Holmes’ stories, but mysteries in general.

Using the language of mystery fans, I classify these three patterns as “whodunnits,” “howdunnits,” and “whydunnits.” For those not familiar with the term “dunnit,” it’s a slang version of “done it” and traditionally connected with “whodunnit” (who has done it) mysteries. And, in this and the following posts, I’ll be discussing each of them as they relate to the Holmes stories and the rough story formulas each of them is used in classic Holmes stories. Of course, these formulas can be applied to any plot or subplot to get a mystery out of them.

Let’s look at each in order of their popularity.

Whodunnit: A mystery story built about the question of who committed a crime. When most people think of mysteries, or “murder mysteries,” they’re thinking of whodunnits. In these stories, there will be two or more possible suspects who may have committed the crime and by the end of the story the detective will have figured out which one did it. There might be questions about how a crime was done, or motives, but ultimately everything leads back to the central question of who the criminal was. A classic Holmes whodunnit is “The Adventure of the Abby Grange.”

Howdunnit: A mystery story built around the question of how a crime was accomplished. A classic example of the howdunnit is the “locked room mystery,” which is defined on Wikipedia as a crime being “committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” These are also called “impossible crime” mysteries, for obvious reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of howdunnits as well, like a crime where the criminal seems to have been in two places at once, but the focus of these stories will always be the central question of how a crime was committed. In fact, often the criminal is known to both the reader and the detective(s), but to lay the hands of the law on the criminal requires figuring out how the crime was even possible first. A classic Holmes howdunnit is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

Whydunnit: A mystery story built around the question of why something has happened (or is happening). These stories usually come in two flavors – motives and events. A motive-based whydunnit is built around the question of why a character did something, usually a crime. An event-based whydunnit is usually built around the question of why something out of the ordinary happened. Doyle made use of both, but he especially loved to write event-based whydunnits because of their ability to shock and intrigue readers. In a Doyle story, the reason behind the event is usually a crime, but one which is seen from a strange angle (often that of someone affected by the crime indirectly) and then when the events are seen correctly everything becomes clear. The story may involve elements of whodunnits or howdunnits, but the central mystery will always be why something did or did not happen. A classic Holmes whydunnit is “The Adventure of the Red Headed League.”

Of course, these stories are often not “pure” and often contain elements of each other as plots and subplots, and you can even have a story that contains all three- a mysterious criminal who commits an impossible crime for unknown reasons. However, especially with short stories, there is usually one of these three which is the dominant mystery question to be solved. Which one it is can usually be discerned by it being the last question the story answers, since once it is done, the story is effectively over.

Making each of these the focus of a story can change the story quite a bit, since each of them has their own special rules and quirks that will be discussed in turn in each of the following posts. Just click on the links below to look at how Doyle writes each in more depth.

Lastly, some of you might be saying, “Wait a moment, Rob! What about Whatdunnits? Whendunnits? and Wheredunnits?” If we’re playing with question words, wouldn’t those be stories too?

And you, intelligent reader, would be right, but those three are rarely the focus of a mystery story for good reasons.

A “whatdunnit” would be in a weird space between a “whodunnit” and a “howdunnit”, but really covering neither of them well. If a non-living (or non sentient) thing committed a crime (or other act) then technically it’s a “whodunnit” with a non-living suspect. This has been done, usually in stories where the victim accidentally killed themselves with some weapon or object, and the twist is that all the suspects were innocent. On the other hand, if the “whatdunnit” is about what object/method was used to commit a crime, then the term “howdunnit” is better because it covers a lot more possibilities.

A “whendunnit” or “wheredunnit” would build a story about the time or place a “crime” (or other act) occurs, but in most stories those are just pieces of information that lead to answering other questions. In fact, time and place are usually parts of “howdunnits” when they’re the focus of the story, so that category also covers them already.

Now, on to the formulas!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula

The Psychology, Geography, and Architecture of Horror: How Places Creep Us Out

I found a fascinating paper on why certain things creep people out, which is invaluable information for writers of horror, suspense, and anyone else who wants to play their reader’s nerves like a fiddle.


Why do some types of settings and some combinations of sensory information induce a sense of dread in humans? This article brings empirical evidence from psychological research to bear on the experience of horror, and explains why the tried-and-true horror devices intuitively employed by writers and filmmakers work so well. Natural selection has favored individuals who gravitated toward environments containing the “right” physical and psychological features and avoided those which posed a threat. Places that contain a bad mix of these features induce unpleasant feelings of dread and fear, and therefore have become important ingredients of the settings for horror fiction and films. This article applies McAndrew and Koehnke’s (2016) theory of creepiness to the study of classic horror settings and explores the role played by architecture, isolation, association with death, and other environmental qualities in the experience of creepiness and dread.

Full article here:

Dan Brown Masterclass on Thrillers

I just finished going through the Dan Brown Masterclass on writing thrillers. Lots of good advice for new writers there, and a few little gems for me. 

I’m not going to write a full review, but I will say that Dan Brown’s background as a teacher really shows through. He’s thorough and methodical, and covers almost all the points that new writers would need to consider if they want to try to write standard thrillers. It’s a good 3+ hour lecture with a professional who knows his craft that covers a lot of ground.

However what I found most fascinating listening to it is that Dan Brown is a Setting>Plot>Character writer. His starting point in stories is setting, which he uses to find interesting plot ideas, and then he populates it with stock characters. Most writers are Character>Plot>Setting, or Plot>Character>Setting, but Dan’s approach is actually somewhat rarer, and (for me at least) that was the gold in this particular mine.

His key advice is to approach setting not as a sociologist, which is very common, especially among sci-fi and fantasy writers, but to approach it as a philosopher. To me, this was profound because what you’re doing then is looking for the fault-lines and cracks in the world you’re writing in and then exploring those. It creates a natural sense of depth in your world because your story is no longer about good and evil, but different perspectives on the same topics. You and the audience may agree with one side or the other, but if you do it right then both sides do have a valid reason for doing what they do.

Of course, he’s talking about modern-set thrillers based in our real world, and for fantasy and sci-fi writers things are a bit trickier. Imaginary worlds still need to be built logically first, but once you’ve gotten your basic setting down, then you can switch to the philosopher hat and start looking for those points of conflict that bring out things you’d like to explore in that world. Stories are about conflict, and the more conflicts you have to write about, the better. (Within limits, of course.)

As someone who still struggles a bit with themes sometimes, I found this a great piece of advice and plan to make heavy use of it in the future. Focusing on certain conflicts will cause natural themes to pop out, and influence the other aspects and shape of your story as well.

Of course, if you’ve ever read a Dan Brown book, you’ll know they’re basically research-based textbooks with plots, which is his thing, and it’s fine. However, going into this you should know that if you expect to be told how to create great characters, then you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed. While Dan is a master of settings, he’s someone who approaches those settings as a tourist, so his characters aren’t really outgrowths of his settings so much as tourists and guides who exist to show the setting off to readers.

What I mean is that his characters (to me) never really feel like they’re living, breathing examples of his settings who represent it with every act, word, and fiber of their being, but feel more like characters who exist to represent the most fundamental parts of the setting. They are part of the setting, but only the superficial parts and the parts the story wants to show off, but they don’t feel like natural outgrowths of their setting.

To give a simple example, it’s a bit like a picture of a horse drawn by someone who looked at many photographs of horses, and a picture drawn by an equal artist who grew up around horses their whole life. The photo-based artist can render a beautiful picture of a horse, but the one who grew up around them will be able to capture the subtle depth and character of horses in a way the photo-based artist never could.

Dan is good at technically rendering the ideas and character of settings, but he’s not so good at rendering them in depth or a way that makes you feel the people you meet are real people who were born from that environment.

Anyhow, if I were recommending something for a new writer to explore about writing thrillers, then I think I would definitely tell them to check out this masterclass.

Star Trek TV : By the Numbers

Recently, I found myself in a debate about the quality of different Star Trek TV series. and which one was better than the others. Being the data-minded individual I am, I decided to follow a “reals over feels” approach and collect some data to see what the real numbers were.

First, I threw the IMDB rating for each series into Excel and rendered it as a chart.


Thus we can see that fans liked Enterprise about as much (ratings wise) as they did The Animated Series but more than Discovery. Given that Enterprise only has around 1.5 good seasons that didn’t come until many people stopped watching, that is hardly surprising.

Need proof of that? Check out this heatmap of the series IMDB episode ratings:

It’s also interesting that for the most part, the above list goes in order of production, with each show offering mostly diminished returns. I also expect Picard to drop in the ratings with time, as right now it’s still in the honeymoon phase, going down to probably around where Enterprise sits. 

Speaking of Picard, the heatmap for Picard looks like this:

Picard Season 1.png

In case you’re wondering, Episode 7 was the one where he goes and hangs out with Riker and Troi. In other words, the episode people liked best was a TNG reunion episode, showing a strong lean towards nostalgia and fandom on this show. It will be interesting to see how many people show back up for the second season to watch. (Then again, I expect that will be the season which brings back the rest of the crew for more nostalgia hits.)

However, back to Trek as a whole. 

Another way to look at IMDB is how many people actually bothered to rate each show. This too shows passion among fandom and what people like and don’t like. So, that looks like this…


Ironically enough, Enterprise still stays in the same spot!

That said, this chart is probably a bad way to look at the popularity of each series due to outside variables affecting things.

First, older shows have an advantage of time on the site and more people having had the chance to rate them.

Second, at the same time, there is the heated Internet fandom wars influencing things here. Discovery is very low rated, but has had many reviews due to lovers and haters each rooting for their team, which is why it has so many votes. Picard suffers from a similar effect, as while it was less divisive, there are still many who love or hated it and each side wanted to cast their votes.

Third, Voyager was on UPN, while Deep Space 9 was generally syndicated, so Voyager was seen by more people and also promoted more as the United Paramount Network’s flagship show. (The same way Discovery had the crap promoted out of it as CBS All-Access’s flagship series.) 

However, since some people don’t like IMDB, here’s what the order looks like on Rotten Tomatoes, using combined User and Critics scores to determine the order.


Now, Rotten Tomatoes has gone to crap recently due to new corporate overlords and editorial manipulation. They no longer report the number of critics or number of users who voted in an effort to hide what the real numbers are to keep their advertisers happy, and for all practical purposes Rotten Tomatoes is a paid advertising site now. That said, it does paint a similar picture to the IMDB ratings in this case, with a weird tilt towards The Animated Series and DS9. (Going back to editorial manipulation, I suspect this is the result of The Animated Series DVD collection coming out a few years back so they fudged the numbers to encourage sales. Most people can barely manage to sit through The Animated Series, as the IMDB number of raters shows.) 

Anyhow. The definitive answer (in terms of actual social proof and data) is that Star Trek:TNG is the best Trek series of all time, followed by TOS, DS9, and VOY. Everyone else is sitting at the kids table.

Good Day, and God Bless!


Who is Reading YA Books?

I found some interesting reading on Reddit today in a thread from early 2019 that I thought was worth looking at. It’s very challenging to find actual data on the sex of Young Adult readerships since the publishers don’t seem inclined to share what they have and individual writers can only work with their reader surveys and collective wisdom.

The collective wisdom says boys stop reading at 14 and jump to fiction for adults if they continue to read at all. It’s definitely true that publishers have been following this logic, because at least when it comes to speculative (Scifi/Fantasy) they know what side of the bread to butter…

There is little hard data to base this supposition on, so I will throw in a survey of 2019 YA speculative fiction releases, put together by bloggers using Goodreads categories and upcoming releases.

They work hard to keep it updated, and it’s quite comprehensive, though most of the bloggers are US based. This list is unlikely to grow substantially, as young adult publishers tend to line up their publishing schedules more than a year in advance. The results of this list are below.

There are 207 non-contemporary/speculative teen novels coming in 2019 (fantasy, horror, sci-fi, historical, etc) with identifiable genders of protagonists taken from the information available. 27 books were not included in the survey, as their blurbs were vague on who the POV character was, or had no content yet.

Of the 207 books:

18 have a male protagonist only (8.7%)

172 have a female protagonist only (83.1%)

1 non-binary protagonist only (0.5%)

16 have protagonists of both genders (7.7%)

Male protagonists only written by men: 7 (3.4%) NB: interestingly, 4 of these are gay male protagonists. A straight male protagonist written by a man is (1.4%).

Male protagonists only written by women: 11 (5.3%)

Female protagonists only written by men: 6 (2.9%)

Female protagonists only written by women: 166 (80.2%)

Non-binary protagonists only written by Non-binary authors: 1 (0.5%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by women: 13 (6.3%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by men: 2 (1%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by male and female co-authors: 1 (0.5%)

Including co-authors, the gender breakdown is as follows:

16 male authors (7.4%)

198 female authors (92.1%)

1 non-binary author (0.5%)

If we include the books where gender of the protagonist was unidentifiable, the numbers are roughly the same:

18 male authors (7.6%)

217 female authors (91.9%)

1 non-binary author (0.4%)

We must also keep in mind here that there is evidence that picture books and younger middlegrade skew heavily towards male characters, and that’s something that we should definitely work on correcting. It’s unfair that young girls don’t see themselves represented in the books they see on the shelves. It’s arguable the same point could be made for teenage boys.


Interesting stuff, especially considering how YA writers, who in this sample are 92% female and writing stories where 83% of the protagonists are female (90% if you include dual protagonists of both genders) are usually the first to herald the cry for “diversity.” Yet they’re writing some of the most un-diverse fiction in terms of gender outside of romance novels (which are likely around 99% female lead).

Not that I can blame them. Publishers go where the money is, and if the ones paying the money are young women who want to see themselves in the books they read and relate better to female characters, then that’s what they’ll publish. So, they actively avoid male protagonists unless the book is really good and has crossover appeal (or is for a gay male audience).

Writer Steven Kelliher had this to say in the thread…

I don’t typically post about this topic because the downvotes are unreal, but I know several authors in the YA traditional published community, and the statistics of male protagonists accepted by YA publishers are INSANELY low relative to the content that is submitted.

Now, many assume that stories with male protagonists simply are not pitched to YA publishers. This could not be further from the truth. Many, many male and female authors submit manuscripts with male protagonists, and they are rejected because the publishers feel that they will not sell to the targeted demographic for YA fantasy.

YA fantasy should be much more inclusive than it is. You can argue the same thing about Epic Fantasy in terms of male protags and male authors, so it’s fair to say the reverse is true in the YA genre. I think it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where YA publishers largely publish books by female authors (and many, many female pen names) and featuring female protagonists because that’s what sells … but it’s also because that’s largely all they publish.

So, is there a market for male YA fiction? I think so, but most of the audience is online and that’s where it will need to be published. It’s “niche” material that will work best as ebooks and online serials, and not so well as traditionally published work due to the smaller audience.

Workflow for Creating and Marketing Webfiction

Mcoorlim asked:While I’ve dabbled in serial fiction most of my experience (and my day job) is writing novels. How can I adapt my skills from novelist to web serialist in terms of both creative production and marketing?

My reply:

In terms of creative production, the recommended formula for creating webfiction seems to run on a fairly standard model.

The Creative Phase:

  1. Plan out the first two arcs and final arc of your story. Leave the middle vague and flexible.
  2. Typical arcs are 40,000 – 60,000 words.
  3. Break your first arc down into chapters of 2000-3000 words, with a goal of 20-30 chapters. Each chapter needs to have a strong hook at the end to get readers coming back. For more details, check out my book. If you click on the “look inside” on Amazon, it should let you read the whole first chapter which covers the 10 things popular webnovels have in common.
  4. Write the whole first arc.

Marketing and Release Phase:

  1. Pick the sites that work best for your target demographic. (My very rough list is here, I plan to update it later)
  2. Release your first 10-14 chapters simultaneously on those sites, releasing them daily to get your story high up in the rankings and keep it there on the new release list so people will find it. Edit then release each day, so you can respond to reader feedback.
  3. After you’re blown through half your chapters, drop down to 2-3 chapters/week so you have time to write the second arc with reader feedback in mind and can avoid having to go on a long hiatus.
  4. If your story is successful and finds an audience, keep writing it and growing your audience.


  • Webfiction is all about momentum and consistency- keeping your readers engaged and wanting more, and giving them a regular dose of your stories on a set schedule.
  • Some sites have donation options, make sure you set those up so you can get money from your happy readers.
  • Make sure you read the terms and conditions of the sites you post on, most don’t put any creative or legal limitations on your work, but it’s good to know.
  • Obviously, you can later compile your story arcs into novels to sell on Amazon. Don’t be afraid to encourage your loyal readers to go and leave good reviews. Sadly, that’s likely all they’ll do, since they’ve already read the story for free and most won’t buy it based on what I’ve seen. (Unless maybe you offer some extras in each published book they might want.) However, a lot of good reviews will definitely help to boost sales from your new audience.
  • If your story still isn’t working after the first arc, finish it ASAP and move on to another story that might find a larger audience. From a publishing perspective, writing the second arc and then segueing into the planned final arc gives you a trilogy. Keep in mind that what might fail as webfiction could still find a solid audience as an ebook, or vice versa.

Good luck!

Figuring Out What to Write

Some writers have problems deciding on what ideas to use and what to leave on the table. However, the solution is pretty simple- you need to sell yourself the idea before you sell it to an audience. If you’re not interested, an audience likely isn’t either.

One approach to solving this problem is writing a book blurb for your story, which lays out the fundamental ideas of the story in an interesting and lively way that attracts readers. If you get excited reading/writing this blurb, then that story might be for you!

Blurbs are written using formulas, and one of the best I’ve come across can be found here.

However, if writing a full book blurb is still too much for you, a simple core premise logline might be better at getting you started.

A Core Premise is the central idea of your story and a seed from which the rest of the story will grow. With it, you’ll know the story you’re trying to tell, and have a guiding star leading the way to the end!

To find your Core Premise, you’re going to use a very basic technique that writers for movies have been using for a long time. In the movie business, writers often approach producers and directors with ideas for films, but they use a very simple structured version of their idea called a logline to get maximum effect and make the producers interested. If they can use it to sell a movie to producers, you can use it to sell a story to yourself- so let’s get started!

A great Core Premise needs to describe most of the following things:

  1. One or two adjectives about the main character. (to give them personality)
  2. The main character’s role or job. (Don’t use a name, just their role for now.)
  3. Anything that’s important to know about the setting or setup for the story.
  4. What the main character’s clear goal is.
  5. One or two adjectives about the opposition. (to make them interesting)
  6. The antagonist, opposition or challenge they face. (Also no names, use roles instead.)
  7. A hint of what will happen if the protagonist loses, or the stakes involved. (to add drama)

These can be presented in any order, but usually go in the above order, and will produce one or two sentences that look like this:

A mousy college student (adjective, who) working in a used bookstore (setting) must find a mysterious book (goal) when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits (adjective, opposition) that will escape the store at nightfall (stakes).

An overworked executive assistant (adjective, who) at a large corporation (setting) must choose between her work and her family (goal) when a long-time rival (adjective, opposition) threatens to steal a big project (stakes) during a family crisis.

A high school student (adjective, who) must find a way to tell her long-time crush her true feelings (adjective, challenge) before she moves to a new city and they lose touch forever (stakes).

It’s actually pretty easy and fun once you get the hang of it!

Try using the ideas you brainstormed to come up with a Core Premise that follows the rules above. You don’t need to use all the information you came up with, just the main ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to try different versions of the premise with different details until you get one that you like.

Once you’ve turned at least one of your story ideas into a good-looking Core Premise, then you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  2. Is this story going to be one you think will interest your target audience?
  3. Is this story going to make your readers feel something?

If a premise gets three solid answers of “yes!” then that’s the story you need to write. If none of them get a “yes” for all three questions, then you need to go back and brainstorm some new ideas and turn those into premises that will work for you.

Another Book Blurb Formula

Found this info in a thread on Royal Road on writing good reader-catching story blurbs by Vincent Archer. I thought it was worth sharing, his original source was a bit vague, so I couldn’t trace it. (Bolding mine for emphasis.)

The blurb is supposed to catch your readers’ attention and sell the story, not tell the story.

I’m going to pick from Author’s Society: Fiction book blurbs start with a situation (a), introduce a problem (b) and promise a twist (c). They usually end with a sentence that emphasizes the mood (d) of the story.

So you start with a catch-up sentence, since often, people will drop the blurb if they don’t like the first sentence, and you end with a kind-of-cliffhanger so that people go from blurb to story.

Blurb sample using the formula (along with ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’) lists:

For nearly twenty years since they’ve opened, the Gilded Gates of the Infinite Labyrinth have brought power and wonders to the subjects of King George III. Fueled by the resources from the place beyond the Gates, the modern age is in full swing across the British Empire (a: situation)

But the Hordes of Napoleon are not standing still. They will not stop until they can achieve total dominance, and ending the British advantage is what they plan for (b: problem).

Jonas Sims never planned to be a Labyrinth Professional and be involved in high stakes games (c: plot twist)

Now he, and the rest of his team have to level, push themselves forward and grow beyond their origins (d: story mood)

Or the Sun may set upon the Empire at last! (final hook)

Another one to illustrate the method:

The town of Las Viadas has two sides, like the twin swings of its saloon’s entrance. One seedy, one bright, and never the two meet. (a: situation)

But sometimes, people go into the saloon and don’t come out, and that’s something sheriff Marcus can no longer ignore. (b: problem)

The thing is, sometimes people who haven’t gone into the saloon come out, and no one finds that strange. (c: twist)

Getting to the truth will not be easy, nor will it leave the sheriff untouched by the weird. (d: mood)

Unless he goes in and never goes out. (explosive suspense)

Of course, you can have a full paragraph for each part rather than one or two sentences. You just need to keep your sentences very short, to the point.

There’s lots of tried “recipes” in writing. We’ve been writing novels and doing mass market publishing for centuries now. Everyone wants to be an amazing writer, but for most of us, myself included, using tried recipes and putting our own touch on them works better than attempts at being “truly innovative”.

You can pick my story and try to see how the classic Hero’s Journey steps apply, and you’ll find they’re all there (well, except the very end, since there’s 5 chapters left). It’s all about the presentation.

Same thing for the blurbs. Classic version works nearly perfectly. The best ones follow the recipe without you realizing it’s there.

It’s not a bad little formula, and I think sells stories pretty well.

(a) Situation

(b) Problem

(c) Plot Twist

(d) Story Mood

(f) Story Hook

You could even use it to sell a story to yourself to decide if it was worth writing. Create a blurb for a story you might write, and see if it gets you exited enough to write it!


How to Write a Quick Blurb

A “blurb” or “book blurb”- it’s the advertising description that sells your book to the readers. You find it on the back of printed books, or as the description on Amazon.

As for how to write a catchy one, most blurbs basically look like this:

  • Introduction (1-2 paragraphs)
  • Hook (1 paragraph)
  • Cliffhanger (1 paragraph)

Each paragraph is short, just 2 to 5 sentences long, any longer and the audience might lose interest.

-who is your main character? (the best blurbs are built around a character, not a story.)
-why should the audience care? (what makes them sympathetic – this is KEY, you need to make your audience like your main character)
-the most interesting details about the character or their world.
-things the audience needs to understand the hook or the cliffhanger.

-this is the main problem of your story that your character faces
-also, anything special that makes your story unique like special or unusual things about your main character, system, cheat, etc

-this is opposition – who or what is standing in the way of your main character accomplishing their goals?
-and stakes- what will happen if your character fails to deal with their problem? What price will they pay and who will pay the price?
-always leave them hanging and wanting to know more!

A few other tips:

  • Don’t refer to any more characters or places than you absolutely have to.
  • Names don’t mean anything to your reader, use descriptions (Not “Bob Smith” but “the last assassin of a lost ninja clan”, or not “Panagea” but “a lost continent filled with warring tribes of powerful martial gods”.)
  • Try to keep the whole blurb under 200 words or less.
  • Don’t use “is” or “have” verbs, use action verbs – “ran”, “conquered”, “convinced” etc.