Funny Business

I cut my writing teeth on humor columns.

It came from years of reading great writers who knew how to make readers smile and laugh, authors such as Patrick McManus (one of the funniest columnists I’ve ever read, who made me laugh out loud and was a surprise when I finally met him, because the guy was dry as a geology professor), Donald E. Westlake (who combined classic whodunits with humor), Max Schulman (author and creator of Dobie Gillis), and Jack Douglas (most of you haven’t heard of him, but he was an outstanding TV writer who became a noted author in the 1960s and 70s), and finally a good friend and author, Joe R. Lansdale, who combines action and dark humor and is still going strong.

They all taught me one thing about being funny. Don’t try so hard to make people smile and most of the time, subtlety is the answer (which is not the column below).

I can go into the sociological aspects of writing humor, but that ain’t one bit funny.

I sat in on a humor writing class once, and came out weeping. The presenter broke down humor with sentences like, “Writing comedically usually requires establishing a setup pattern and then misdirecting the reader by throwing in a punch line. The simplest way is to create a pair of ideas and then add an incongruent statement. I like to list three, because 30 is too many.”

Good lord.

How about misdirection, which can be funny by taking readers someplace they expect to go and suddenly shifting direction.

“I looked down at my five-year-old son who broke the window and lied about it. I was shocked to think he wouldn’t tell the truth, and had to get him to understand what he’d done wrong, so I knelt on one knee, took his small shoulders in my big hands and looked him in the eye. Son, I have something to tell you.”


“Quit picking your nose.”

Most of the things we laugh at in real life are true stories that someone exaggerates for effect. I once wrote a column about running from a bear while wearing a backpack…

“That thing was right on my heels, and I ran like rats across the tundra. My backpack came open and I left a string of equipment behind, my tent, half the food I’d packed, tent stakes, the stove, a laptop computer, two cameras, a chair, the kitchen sink and a VCR along with all my John Wayne videos. Now light as a feather, I left the bear far behind, sniffing the laptop full of newspaper columns and probably wondering what stunk so bad.”

Some other things I’ve learned:

Don’t try to write jokes. Look for something that happened in real life and make a few changes. Here in Texas, every truck has a trailer hitch. We all know they’re right there, but when the guys get together, someone inadvertently barks his shin on the damn thing. While we curse and rub that shin, the rest laugh like loons. What is it that makes us guys giggle like little girls? We’ve all done it. Exaggerated familiarity is funny

Don’t tell your reader something is funny: “Hurts, don’t it,” he joked. Like the old saying goes, if you have to explain it, it ain’t funny.

Avoid sarcasm, except to identify a character.

Surprise your reader.

I’ve judged humor writing contests, and cousin, exclamation points don’t make a story funny!

Use humor sparingly, unless you’re shoving it in someone’s face, like this slightly insane column I wrote some years ago about an Outdoor Detective that somehow caught on with readers. I only produce one of these a year. They’re a lot like fruit cakes, you don’t want too many, but an occasional bite is good.

The Case of the Invisible Case

I’d been puttering around my office all afternoon. After a while I put the putter away, kicked the golf balls into a corner and leaned back in my chair. Putting my feet on the battered desk, I scraped some off on the floor and relaxed.

I had just returned to my job as the Outdoor Detective from a weekend of pheasant hunting in the Texas high plains. We flushed birds for two days. Then I called the plumber and he cleared the drain.

“Don’t flush anymore pheasants,” he ordered.

I joined him and ordered a hamburger and fries as well.

“Try flushing quail, they’re smaller,” he said, then left.

A timid knock at my office door caught my attention. It was noir time. I turned on the background saxophone music to set the mood. “Come in.”

The man who entered looked like he wanted to run. He was sweating. It was his running shoes, headband, and shorts that gave him away. “Where’s that sax music coming from?”

“It’s a mystery ain’t it. That’s what I do. Solve mysteries. What can I do for you?”

“My name is Nobody. I want to hire the Outdoor Detective.”

“That’s me,” I answered.

“I expected more.”

“They always do. What can I do for you?”

“I want to hire you to find my missing hunting guide. His name is Earl. You need to keep your eyes peeled for him.”

“I’d rather not,” I said. “They always dry out when I do that, and those dried peelings crackle under your feet.”

His gaze wandered as I talked. “Is that your dog?” Nobody pointed to the corner.


“What’s his name?”


“Play dead, Neil,” Nobody said. “Good dog.”

“He is dead. Croaked last night.”

“Don’t don’t croak.”

“Oh. Wise guy, huh? Fine. Now we know where we both stand.”

Nobody pointed at the floor. “Of course. You’re there, and I’m here.”

“Now that we’ve established that, I’ll help you look for the guide. You can be my partner.”

“But I don’t know how. Maybe you could show me the ropes around here?”

I produced several ropes of various lengths.

“It looks too complicated,” he decided. “Maybe you’d better do it for me. How much will it cost?”

“That depends. Are you rich?” I asked.

“No, I’ve already said my name’s Nobody, but that sometimes confuses people. You can call me Ken.”

“You don’t look like kin. You must be from dad’s side of the family.”

He nodded. “Will it cost a lot?”

“What’s a lot to you?”

“A big piece of land to scrape clean and cover with concrete buildings.”

“I’m talking about money.”

He produced a wad of bills and I licked his hand gratefully. “All right. What happened to your hunting guide?”

“I’m not sure. We were hunting out near Abilene and communicating by walkie-talkies…”

I took notes as he talked. Mostly B flats.

“…and I was in a deer stand. He was in the coffee shop and we were singing a duet when a huge buck stepped into my view. I described it; a large animal with legs and antlers. I heard him order coffee and then he said “shoot.”

I was almost ready to pull the trigger. I just had to load the rifle and attach the scope, when guns began firing all around me. Then machine guns started chattering and pretty soon I heard artillery thumping in the distance. Soon the mortars kicked in for support. It was awful.”

“The shooting?” I asked, sympathetically.

“No, the coffee he’d ordered. He said it was chicory. Ya gotta help me!” he shouted.

“You’ve gotta stop saying words like ya gotta!” I shouted back. “I don’t know what your guide looks like. Do you have a picture?”

He produced an oil portrait of Picasso.

I didn’t say a word. He has mean eyes, I thought, both on the same side of his head.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Just read the sentences above.” Annoyed, I dummied up.

His eyes narrowed. “I can see the dummy’s mouth move when you talk.”

“It’s supposed to be the other way around,” I answered.

“Good luck.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it.” We shook hands and he left.

I practiced my yodeling and for a while, turned off the music and smiled at Neil. “Good dog,” I said.

I hate it when dogs jump up on people.


And with that, potential humor writers, read the authors who make you laugh and study their technique. They’ve figured it out and it’s something that triggers your giggle-box. Learn to use it in your own way.

Good luck, adios, and adieu.



True Crime Thursday – Thanksgiving Wine Heist

By Debbie Burke


In 2013, a pair of Seattle plumbers decided Thanksgiving sounded like a good opportunity for a heist. The Sodo neighborhood should be deserted for the holiday. No one was likely to notice two vans parked outside Esquin Wine and Spirits. The building housed climate-controlled rental storage lockers where wine collectors kept valuable vintages.

Samuel Harris and Luke Thesing, then 35 and 36, had planned the heist at least a month ahead. Harris kept a journal entitled “The Plan” with all the steps plotted out.

They rented a locker for access to case the building. At Lowe’s, they bought spray paint, gloves, and black plastic sheeting.

On the big day, they carefully parked the getaway vans to block exterior surveillance cams. Once inside the building, they spray-painted lenses of other cameras, covered motion detectors with black plastic, and went to work. They cut through sheetrock between lockers to gain access to 200 cases of expensive wine valued at $648,000 that they planned to sell.

However, they probably shouldn’t have parked the vans in a towaway zone.

While the thieves were busy inside, their vehicles were impounded.


Plan B: They loaded the stolen wine into Harris’s Cadillac Escalade.

In an attempt to cover their tracks, Harris cut a natural gas line and tampered with a pilot light, believing the building would catch fire and burn down.

With the vans gone, the exterior security cams now had a good view of Harris and Thesing as they drove away in the Escalade.

The next day, someone reported smelling gas inside the building. The arson attempt could have resulted in an explosion that would have devastated the neighborhood. Fortunately, it was unsuccessful and the theft was discovered.

Things didn’t go according to The Plan.”

The Escalade was tracked to Harris’s residence. He was identified by the business owner who recognized him from the previous month when he had rented the locker.

They neglected to throw away the Lowe’s receipt that police found in Harris’s possessions. The store’s security video showed Harris and Thesing together buying supplies used in the heist.

Detectives also found more evidence in Harris’s car and home, including his journal plus additional documents: “Is it Accidental Fire or Arson?” and “How to Commit the Perfect Crime.”

Apparently, they did not study those directions thoroughly enough.

The investigation also tied Harris to an earlier theft. In May 2013, he had stolen $250,000 worth of wine from a Belltown woman who had hired him to build a wine cellar.

Harris and Thesing pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court. In July 2014, they were sentenced to prison, Harris for nine years and Thesing for five years.

The best-laid plans…….


Today, I’m raising a toast (with lawfully-purchased wine) and giving thanks for many good friends at The Kill Zone.

Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving surrounded by loved ones and lots of leftovers! 

A Very Happy Thanksgiving

A Very Happy Thanksgiving
Terry Odell

Thanksgiving turkey
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Last year, most of us weren’t ready to get out and mingle, especially if it entailed long-distance travel. That was the case at our house, although it was short-distance travel for most of the immediate family. This year, we’re fortunate and thankful that our Northern Ireland-based daughter is able to be with us, and that we can gather round the table, not the computer screen.

In our household, most of the traditions revolve around the food. One year, over 40 years ago, I came across an interesting recipe for stuffing (now dressing, thanks to health concerns.) The kids loved it and insist that it can NOT be varied. I shared the recipe on my own blog last week. You can find it here.

Here’s a turkey tip from my chef brother that’s served us well for decades. No matter your “recipe” for the bird (unless you deep fry), start the cooking at 450 degrees (or 425 if it’s 16 pounds or more). After 30 minutes, lower the temp to 350 (or 325). Continue to cycle the temp up and down like that every 30 minutes. This moves the juices up and down inside the turkey, and even the leftovers are juicy.

Here’s a little fun.

Another tradition of ours is listening to “Alice’s Restaurant.”

And here’s an interesting article – Arlo Guthrie’s thoughts on the 50 year anniversary tour of Alice’s Restaurant.

What are your Thanksgiving traditions? Any you wish would disappear?

I know I speak for everyone here at TKZ when I say “Happy Thanksgiving.”

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellNow available for pre-order. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Timing and Punchlines

by Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Allan Warren, Creative Commons license



I use the cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a joke, I smoke as long as they laugh and when they stop laughing I take the cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke. – George Burns




Note: Today’s discussion concerns later drafts when you rewrite, edit, and polish. It doesn’t apply to first drafts where the main job is to get the story down. 


I love the great old comedians like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx. They not only knew WHAT to say to make the audience laugh, they knew WHEN to say it. They were masters at timing.

Johnny Carson freely admitted, when he was starting out, he blatantly copied Jack Benny—the gestures (elbow in hand, hand on cheek), the pauses, the deadpan stares.

These guys knew how to tell a joke: introduction, buildup, suspenseful pauses, more buildup, and, at last, the climax of the joke known as the punchline.

According to

Where Did the Punchline Originate?

Punchlines in jokes can be traced back a long way, but the term “punchline” first came onto the scene in the early twentieth century. While it is usually attributed to the British humor magazine Punch, the term itself was first used by a Wisconsin newspaper, The Racine Journal News, in 1912, when a review of a play described a “punch in every line.”

The New York Times talked about “punch lines” the following year. “Punchline” then gained traction and usage in reference to performances and finally appeared in the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 1921.


Classic comedians can teach authors a lot. After all, what are jokes but tightly compressed stories that have a beginning, middle, and end?

Both comedians and authors introduce a situation, one or more characters, and a problem. Events unfold. Certain key clues are withheld. Suspense builds. At the end comes the Big Reveal—the PUNCHLINE in a joke or the CLIMAX in a novel.

As authors, we are concerned with macro issues: plot, character development and story arc.

Today, though, let’s focus instead on micro issues. By this, I mean individual sentences, paragraphs, and scenes with special attention to word order and timing.

In How to Write a Mystery (an excellent book I reviewed recently), Hank Phillippi Ryan writes:

…Even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. 

Think of a paragraph like a joke. Although the content doesn’t have to be funny, the delivery is similar. It needs an introduction, building action and suspense, then a mini-climax that propels the reader into the next paragraph.

One paragraph leads to the next, with more building action and suspense, then another mini-climax.

Put a bunch of paragraphs together and they become a scene.

Combine a bunch of scenes and they turn into a chapter.

Stack up those chapters and you eventually have a book.

Let’s examine sentences since they are the building blocks on which the entire story rests. If you start with solid sentences, you’re more likely to create good paragraphs, scenes, and chapters.

What makes a good sentence?

Clarity. The meaning should be understandable on the first read.

Direct and active;

Has a purpose in the story;


What shouldn’t be in a sentence? 

Description for description’s sake;

Pointless thinking or musing by a character;

Excess verbiage or fluff.

Confusing elements;

Long, overly-complicated, or convoluted phrasing.

When you rewrite, examine each sentence, word by word.

When you read it aloud, does it flow smoothly? Are there places where you stumble?

Is there a stronger verb or noun you can use?

Are there filler words you can cut without changing the meaning?

Consider the order of the words in the following example:

Ed plopped on the couch and popped the top on a beer that he’d just bought when he drove to the liquor store. He’d been arguing with Mary all morning. She claimed he was drinking too much.


Hard to follow because the events are out of chronological order. The “punchline” is buried. Nothing pulls the reader into the next scene.

The argument about drinking too much is actually the first event that starts a chain reaction. Ed and Mary argue. He drives to the liquor store, buys beer, comes home, and starts drinking to thumb his nose at Mary’s concerns.

If this example were a joke, the punchline is buried near the beginning.

The paragraph ends with a whimper, not a bang.


Ed was fed up with the constant arguments. Why did Mary keep trying to control him? He stormed out the door, drove to the liquor store, and bought a twelve-pack of Rainier. Back at home, he plopped on the couch. When Mary entered the living room, he grabbed a can. “Hey, honey, listen to this.” He popped the top.

The same information is conveyed. However, the sentences are shorter; the chronological order is rearranged for clarity; the punchline is at the end.

The punchline also serves as a mini-cliffhanger hinting their argument is about to escalate.

The reader turns the page to find out what happens next.

Ideally, each paragraph is part of a 250 to 300-page chain reaction that continuously builds to the ultimate explosion of the story climax.

Our goal as writers is to make the strongest dramatic impact on the reader. By carefully rearranging words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, you build suspense and impel the reader to turn the page.  

My first drafts are full of long, convoluted sentences and thick, dense paragraphs. Events happen out of order and don’t make much sense, except to me.

All right, sometimes they don’t make sense, even to me!

That’s because I write things in the order that they occur to me. A clue or line of dialogue pops into my mind. I write it down quick before I forget it. That means many words and phrases are in the wrong place.

Of all the tech advances since the dawn of word processing, cut-and-paste is my favorite. It makes editing and polishing far easier than the old-fashioned scissors and tape method. It allows quick and easy rearrangement of words and sentences.

While editing, the writer discovers:

The snappy comeback on page 23 works better in the dialogue on page 12.

The description of the grungy no-tell motel needs to be moved from page 64 back to page 33 when the motel is first shown.

The revelation about the cause of the hero’s scar should be delayed to the midpoint to increase reader curiosity.

As you polish later drafts, consider what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it at any given moment in the story.

In mysteries, we direct suspicion at different characters. We plant clues that don’t seem to have meaning until later chapters.

We mislead the reader with red herrings (although it’s important to play fair or the reader will get angry at being duped).

A revelation unexpectedly pivots the plot in a different direction the reader didn’t expect, resulting in a surprise.

The following video appeared in a previous post. It’s worth watching again because it’s a terrific example of suspense building, perfect timing, and a punchline that delivers a wallop. 

Good timing results in the greatest dramatic impact on the reader.

For old-time comedians (and good contemporary ones like Dan Yashinsky), timing is crucial.

The same is true with storytelling.


TKZers: Do you consider timing when you write? Do you have suggestions how to achieve more dramatic effect?



Black Friday through Cyber Monday Sale. All Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are only $.99 from November 26 through November 29.


Major Online Bookstores

The Science of Gratitude

Several weeks ago, James Scott Bell posted a question about gratitude. There were a lot of responses to his query, proving writers are a grateful bunch. As we begin this week on final approach to Thanksgiving, I thought I’d take a deep dive into the meaning of the word gratitude to see if there’s been any research into its effects.

Wow. I found a lot. It turns out scientists are discovering a wealth of benefits that come from just being grateful. Remember how Mom used to say, “Count your blessings?” In an article entitled “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain,” researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong state, “many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.” They noted the positive effects of gratitude are felt even if you don’t share it. (It’s nice to see science is catching up with Mom.)

Brown and Wong also performed functional MRIs on some of their subjects’ brains and found those people who were more grateful experienced greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with learning and decision making.

Dr. Robert Emmons from the University of California, Davis, is a leading expert on the science of gratitude. In his article “Why Gratitude is Good,” he lists a wealth of benefits experienced by people who regularly practice giving thanks. Some of these are

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better sleep
  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • Relationship strengthening
  • Feeling less lonely and isolated
  • Increased daily word count in their writing (Okay, I made that one up, but it’s probably true.)

Now, I’m not advocating that we pretend to be grateful just so we’ll receive the benefits of better mental and physical health. But it’s clear that by sincerely affirming the good things we’ve received, we will enjoy happier and healthier lives. And we may make somebody else’s life a little better along the way.

Since we’re writers, let’s return to the question Jim asked several weeks ago, but with a narrower focus.

Name one thing about writing you’re grateful for. It can be a book you’ve read, a mentor who’s inspired and helped you, a blog you love, or any other person or thing you’re grateful for.

I am certainly grateful for all the contributors and commenters on TKZ. Happy Thanksgiving! Wishing you all a safe and healthy holiday.

“Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.” – Aesop

* * *



Nancy Drew meets Tom Sawyer in this fun and chaotic romp through the third book in the Watch cozy mystery series.

With Time All Things Are Revealed

Your Guide to a Weekly Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell

If I may riff off Brother Gilstrap’s recent post, I think there are generally two types of writers. There are “natural” storytellers. John is one of them. I think he’s shared this here on TKZ, but I remember him telling me about getting virtually the entire story for Nathan’s Run while on a long drive. How’s that for nice?

Other writers have to dig in hard ground to find, stimulate, and coax ideas. Then take the good ones to the workshop and figure out the best way to develop them into stories. That would be me. When I started out on this writing journey I dove into study of the craft. I devoured writing books and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I read popular fiction analytically to unpack how successful writers did things. I studied movies with an eye toward learning structure.

And when it came to finding ideas worth turning into full-length fiction, I found I couldn’t sit there waiting for one to show up. I had to follow Jack London’s advice: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club.”

Early on I read How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. He has a section in there on finding story ideas. Among his suggestions:

Read widely. Newspaper stories can present the germ of an idea. Nonfiction on various subjects, too.

Write narrative hooks. Just sit at the keyboard and type hooks (first lines) until “you find one that is so intriguing that you simply must find out what happens next.” One day Koontz wrote:

“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.

He had no idea who Roy was or what he meant. But he sat there looking at it and it came to him (“out of my subconscious mind”) that Roy should be a boy of fourteen. From there his imagination started chugging and he wrote two pages of a conversation between Roy and a boy he named Colin. When he was finished he knew the book was going to be about the duality of human nature (good and evil), that Roy was the villain, and that the book would be fast-paced and suspenseful. Indeed it was, and became an early bestseller called The Voice of the Night.

Titles. Write out titles by the bunch until one of them tickles your fancy.

Characters. Start writing about an intriguing character and pile on backstory details. When one starts to take on life, ask:

  • What does the character fear more than anything else in the world?
  • What would be the very worst thing that could happen to him?
  • What event would throw his life into complete turmoil?

So I scheduled a weekly creativity time. A half hour to an hour sitting in a local coffee joint doing these exercises, just letting the ideas flow. After a few weeks I noticed that my creativity muscle was growing stronger. Indeed, it began working “on its own.” I’d be driving down the street and see a billboard and suddenly I’d be asking What if? What if that happy couple clinking champagne glasses is about to be blown up by a bomb?

I kept all my ideas in a file. When one of them cried out for further attention I put into “development.”

My first step in the development process is what I call a “white hot document.” This idea comes from Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer. You start a document that is an exercise in “focused free association.” You just start writing what comes to mind, go off on tangents, explore rabbit trails. Ideas for scenes, themes, characters, plot developments—write them all down without any intrusion from your inner editor.

You put this aside and come back the next day to edit and annotate. You take what’s most emotional and exciting for you and develop it further with more free association. Do this for several days and you’ll have a solid foundation for a plot. Swain wrote: “The important thing, always, is not to sit idly waiting for the feathers to grow. Don’t just hope for ideas. Hunt them down! Find a springboard! Develop a plan of action!”

So unless you are a natural storyteller, make it a point to exercise your imagination on a regular basis. Play games. Go wild. You’ll find good ideas soon enough and your creativity synapses will grow stronger.

Then all you have to do is write the novel. And the one after that. And the one…

What kind of storyteller are you—natural or a digger in hard ground? Where do your ideas come from? Do you wait for them to show up or do you light out after them with a club?

That Special Sauce

By Steve Hooley

In recent weeks we’ve had two posts on editing by removing material from our manuscript that shouldn’t be there: Killing the Mosquitoes in Your Fiction and Surgery for the Manuscript. Today we’re going to discuss editing and writing with the focus on what to put into the manuscript to make it successful and unique. We’ve used analogies of entomology and surgery. Today we’ll use the analogy of cooking and baking.

That which should be removed from a manuscript is usually clear to editors and writing instructors with the expected disagreements. That which should be put into the manuscript is a whole other universe. You’ll get as many answers to that question as the number of writers you ask. And the number of books written on that subject is probably too large…huge.

Let’s turn to the analogy of cooking and baking, and let’s examine “that special sauce.”

According to Merriam-Webster, definition #2, special sauce is defined as “an element, quality, ability, or practice that makes something or someone successful or distinctive.”

Now, staying with the analogy of cooking and baking, we all have our favorite restaurants, and probably our favorite entrees and dishes: sandwiches, steaks, pastas, desserts, etc. Something about that food item is different and special. It makes a favorable impression on us, and brings us back again and again, asking for more. It may be a secret family recipe or an unexpected ingredient that the chef adds to the dish. Whatever it is, it’s something the chef does intentionally, and something that sets the dish apart and makes it successful.

My wife makes baked goods at Christmas to give to the people who have provided special services for our family during the preceding year: doctors, dentist, mechanic, accountant, etc. One of those items is a gourmet chocolate brownie. It is so well liked that she usually gets phone calls thanking her for the brownies and telling her how much their family enjoyed them and look forward to them. The unspoken message is, “We hope you don’t forget us next year.”

I asked her, “What is the special sauce? What makes those brownies so good?”

Her answer, “I use quality ingredients. I don’t cut corners. And I put in extra chocolate and add a little coconut.”

Ah, that special sauce.

Now, isn’t that the kind of response we want from the readers of our books?

We’ve all found writers whose stories engage us in such a way that we can’t put the book down, and we come back for more with each new book the author writes.

When agents are asked what they are looking for, their typical answer is “a fresh new voice.” We agree that “voice” is difficult to define, but what those agents are really looking for is something new, different, and appealing that engages readers and will sell lots of books.

I won’t try to define that indefinable recipe, that special sauce, for our writing and our books. This is the tricky point in this post where I have to break the news to you that I don’t have the recipe for that secret special sauce.

If you thought I was going to provide that secret today, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or the fountain of youth, that special sauce for your writing may take a lifetime of searching. But, if you’re looking, you’re looking in the right place. Finding “that special sauce” is the underlying theme and hidden subject of almost every post that is written here at TKZ.

So that I do not to disappoint you too greatly, causing you to fling this post across the room like a rage-inducing book, I will, however, list some books that have helped me on that (as yet unsuccessful) quest of looking for that special sauce.

James Scott Bell:

Lisa Cron:

Donald Maass:

Larry Brooks:

S. P. Sipal:

The list goes on.

Now, it’s time for your input. Please help us find the recipe.


  1. What writers have you found whose “special sauce” has addicted you? And what is that special sauce in their writing?
  2. What books have you found to be the most helpful in your quest to find and invent your own special sauce for your writing?
  3. Without giving away the secret or all the ingredients in your special sauce(s), can you tell us about one of them and the final effect you are trying to achieve for the reader?

Reader Friday: Writer Friends

Writer friends are the absolute best. They lend advice, encourage when things seem bleak, and help celebrate successes.

Give a shout-out to one special writer friend in your life.

How’d you meet?

Why did you choose this writer?

Our Brains Are Wired For Story

Wired For Story by Lisa Cron was one of the first writing craft books I read. It was published in 2012, just as I was drafting my debut novel. Wired For Story, A Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence was game changing. It caused me to go back and rewrite—a good thing because my book did well on opening day.

I was so inspired by Wired For Story that I contacted Lisa Cron and thanked her. She graciously responded, and that led to Lisa sharing a guest post on my blog at DyingWords. I’ve dug it from the archives and am happy to repurpose it here at The Kill Zone. Hopefully, Wired For Story can have the same effect on others as it did on me.


What would you say if I told you that what the brain craves, hunts for, and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for? What’s more, that it’s the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller?

You’d probably say, prove it. Fair enough.

First, the mistaken belief: From time immemorial we’ve been taught that things like lyrical language, insightful metaphors, vivid description, memorable characters, palpable sensory details, and a fresh voice are what hooks readers.

It’s a seductive belief, because all those things are indisputably good. But they’re not what hook the reader. The brain, it turns out, is far less picky when it comes pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe.

What does the brain crave?

Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling that seduces us into leaving the real world behind and surrendering to the world of the story.

Which brings us to the real question: Why? What are we really looking for in every story we read? What is that sense of urgency all about?

Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, these are questions that we can now begin to answer with the kind clarity that sheds light on the genuine purpose of story and elevates writers to the most powerful people on earth. Because story, as it turns out, has a much deeper and more meaningful purpose than simply to entertain and delight.

Story is how we make sense of the world. Let me explain . . .

It’s long been known that the brain has one goal: survival. It evaluates everything we encounter based on a very simple question: Is this going to help me or hurt me? Not just physically, but emotionally as well.

The brain’s goal is to then predict what might happen, so we can figure out what the hell to do about it before it does. That’s where story comes in.

By letting us vicariously experience difficult situations and problems we haven’t actually lived through, story bestows upon us, risk free, a treasure trove of useful intel – just in case.

And so back in the Stone Age, even though those shiny red berries looked delicious, we remembered the story of the Neanderthal next door who gobbled ‘em down and promptly keeled over, and made do with a couple of stale old beetles instead.

Story was so crucial to our survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it, especially once we realized that banding together in social groups makes surviving a whole lot easier.

Suddenly it wasn’t just about figuring out the physical world, it was about something far trickier: navigating the social realm.

In short, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes people tick, the better to discern whether the cute guy in the next cubicle really is single like he says, and to plan the perfect comeuppance if he’s not.

The sense of urgency we feel when a good story grabs us is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to it. It turns out that intoxicating sensation is not arbitrary, ephemeral or “magic,” even though it sure feels like magic. It’s physical. It’s a rush of the neural pleasure transmitter, dopamine. And it has a very specific purpose.

Want to know what triggers it?


When we actively pursue new information – that is, when we want to know what happens next — curiosity rewards us with a flood of dopamine to keep us reading long after midnight because tomorrow we just might need the insight it will give us.

This is a game changer for writers.

It proves that no matter how lyrical your language, or how memorable your characters, unless those characters are actively engaged in solving a problem – making us wonder how they’ll get out of that one – we have no vested interest in them.

We can’t choose whether or not to respond to story. Dopamine makes us respond. Which is probably why so many readers who swear they only read highbrow fiction are surreptitiously downloading Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m just saying.

I know that many writers will want to resist this notion. After all, the brain is also wired to resist change and to crave certainty.

And for a long time writers were certain that learning to “write well” was the way to hook the reader.

So embracing a new approach to writing – even though it’s based on our biology, and how the brain processes information — probably feels scary. The incentive to focus on story first and “writing” second, however, is enormous. To wit:

  • You’ll reduce your editing time exponentially because story tends to be what’s lacking in most rough drafts. Polishing prose in a story that’s not working is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • You’ll have a 1000% better chance of getting the attention of agents, editors and publishers. Yeah, 1000% is arbitrary, but it’s not far off. These professionals are highly trained when it comes to identifying a good story. They like good writing as much as a next person – but only when it’s used to tell a good story.
  • You’ll have a fighting chance of changing the world – and I’m not kidding. Writers are the most powerful people on the planet. They can capture people’s attention, teach them something new about themselves and the world, and literally rewrite the brain – all with a well-told tale.

Indeed, the pen is far mightier than the sword.

That is, if you know how to wield it.


Lisa Cron is an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She has worked in publishing at W. W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Kill Zoners – What’s your view on brain science and storytelling? Is it something you consider when writing?