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?

40 thoughts on “That Special Sauce

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for the great post and analogy, which is perfect for the weekend before Thanksgiving. I might note that you already have your special sauce. More people need to come to the table to see what I mean.

    Re: Cindy’s brownies…extra chocolate and coconut? It is tough to beat that. I’ve lost my appetite for sweets, but I would have been all over that back in the day.

    Have a great weekend and Thanksgiving, Steve!

    • Thanks, Joe. And Happy Thanksgiving to you. I hope you have the opportunity to gather with your family and enjoy all your favorite foods, flavored just the way you like them.

  2. A good, meaty post, Steve. (And thanks for the kind mention.)

    For me, Raymond Chandler has a secret sauce that he ladles on just right…not too much, lest it overpower the story, but enough to enliven the taste in delightful ways. I would describe it as a knife-edged, gimlet-eyed, cynically-protective humor. How’s that for ingredients?

    I’ve tried to give a bit of that to my series character, Mike Romeo, adding other ingredients like a philosophic mind and chivalric instincts. Maybe the biggest secret of all is that you’ve got to love your characters, love bringing them to life, be excited about them (even the bad guys).

  3. Happy Saturday, Steve. You’ve written a very thought-provoking post. Your resource list is great–I’ve read many of them, including Jim’s books, and they’ve helped me with this.

    Secret sauce is the perfect way of putting that ineffable quality that makes some novels and stories so appealing. For me, that secret sauce has to include voice and it’s sibling, attitude, and “narrative energy,” for want of a better term. The story is going places–it has tension, urgency (as Lisa Cron puts it), drive, and it is engaging the reader, emotionally.

    One writer who has the secret sauce is Tana French. She is brilliant at voice and attitude and creating that narrative energy. Each of her Dublin Murder squad series is told from a different 1st person POV, and really immerses the reader in the story. The secret sauce is used to tell darker tales than I prefer these days, one reason I’m writing cozy mysteries rather than, say, police procedurals.

    In the first of my Meg Booker Library Mysteries I’m attempting to create a cozy secret sauce that evokes a younger time in one’s life, with both gentle and zany humor, and a protagonist who cares about others and about what is right, and who creates a found family that helps her even as she helps them. Meg is on a Heroine’s Journey.

    Gail Carriger’s Heroine’s Journey is my guide to creating that cozy secret sauce. It looks at the structure of that journey, contrasting it with the much more famous hero’s journey, and also the role of gothic literature in shaping both it and genre fiction in general. Humor is essential to the heroine’s journey, and now that I think about it, a combination of pathos and bathos is very often a key ingredient in the literary secret sauce.

    Thanks again for a post rich in importance and insight. Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Thanks, Dale. Great definition for “secret sauce” in writing. I should have consulted you before I wrote this post. Thanks for sharing an example of an author and their special sauce. Good luck in finding the right ingredients for your Meg Booker Library Mysteries.

      Have a great weekend and a Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Happy Saturday, Steve! Terrific post. In addition to all the other superb craft books you mentioned (and I loved them all, too) Story Engineering and Story Physics by Larry Brooks tops my list, along with JSB’s The Last Fifty Pages and How To Write Dazzling Dialogue. All four books brought my writing to next level.

    • Thanks, Sue. And thanks for the additions to the list of books. I read and reread all of Larry’s books. I especially liked GREAT STORIES DON’T WRITE THEMSELVES, because it was easy to outline and print a check-off list for what should be in each section of the book. I keep that list at my side as I’m writing my rough draft.

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  5. I like Lee Child. I know he’s a pantser but he seems to hit all the points with plot and characters. I also bought Wire for Story the other day after reading Garry’s post. AND wow, that book is blowing my mind.

    Thank you Garry Rodgers for sharing that. A must read.

    For me, I’m still developing my formula. Needs more liquid smoke and less filler.

    • Good morning, Ben. Good choice for an author. You have lots of company with readers who would agree with you.

      I’m betting that, with your talent for images and graphic design, your secret recipe for your special sauce will contain vivid description that will make the reader think they are immersed in the story world.

      Have a great weekend!

  6. Thanks for this post, Steve. I joined a neighborhood book club and I always find it fascinated to hear what resonates in books for “regular” readers. And there’s plenty of wine.
    Finding that secret sauce recipe? I can’t add much. For me, it’s characters and their relationships to other characters, which is why JD Robb’s “In Death” books are always on my list. I try to make sure my characters bring more to the page than simply solving the mystery.
    I think a reason there’s no answer is because people’s tastes vary so much. The extra chocolate in your wife’s brownies would be a winner, but the coconut would be a turnoff for me.

    • Thanks, Terry. Great thoughts. And it sounds like your strategy for discovering what resonates with readers is loosening them up a bit. Just kidding. Good point regarding how readers all have different ideas about what they like in books.

      Thanks for your comments. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  7. Great observations, Steve. Hunting for special sauce is a continuous quest. When I think I’ve found a few drops of it, there’s always more…out there somewhere in the pantry or spice shelf.

    JSB’s craft books carry cupfuls of it. “Act first, explain later” is my fave. So much wisdom in only four words.

    HRD’Costa’s Story Stakes really helped me focus plotting in terms beyond the obvious life or death. She examines other stakes like loss of reputation, freedom, sanity, loss of access to someone the character loves or their home, etc.

    Lucky friends on the Hooley brownie list!

  8. Thanks, Debbie. Great comments. And thanks for mentioning H.R. D’Costa’s book, STORY STAKES. I’ve not read that one, but I plan to check it out.

    I have to say that some of your special sauce involves grabbing the reader’s emotions. In INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL, the emotions were so intense, it felt like watching someone walking on thin ice, and wanting to pull them back before they went under.

    Happy hunting, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  9. Great post, Steve!

    For me, as a reader, I’m looking for a unique Concept, or to paraphrase Larry Brooks, the landscape under the story. The What If? of the story. Does it make me go: Wow, now that’s interesting! Like when Stephen King’s hero in 11/22/63 is intent on stopping JFK’s assassination. Or when Lee Child opens Gone Tomorrow with these words: Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers… and he proceeds to have his hero confront such a person.

    So in my story building, I’m looking for that unique Concept. Like: what if I could travel back to the time when Henry Hudson first stumbled on what would become New York City in 1609 and watch those early events unfold? I want the reader to Feel the Wow.

    • Thanks, Harald. I’m with you on unique Concept. I write fantasy, and I set each book in an anatomical organ system (brain, skeletal, cardiac, DNA molecule). Great examples of authors who use that unique concept to grab readers.

      On another subject, how did the Comic Sans font experiment go?

      Have a great Thanksgiving!

      • Hi Steve. Some folks get confused by Concept vs Premise. The Concept sits under the Premise. It’s the starting idea.

        Haven’t tried the Comic Sans writing yet (this latest book is basically done), but hope to on the next one. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Great post, Steve. I’m still in the Hell’s Kitchen phase of my own sauce. ?

    My go-to author for that magical sauce, though, is Charles Martin. Love at first read.

    His The Mountain Between Usis one of the most beautifully written stories ever. His sauce is so special I can’t even name it.

    All I can say is, if I were to quit this life today I’d want to come back as a word in one of his sentences. That would be enough, just to nestle there for eternity and soak up the pleasure of his readers.


      • Thanks, Deb. How’s your hip doing? Probably already been to rehab and heard, “No pain, no gain.” I hope you heal and rehab quickly.

        Thanks for mentioning Charles Martin and THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US. I’ll have to check that one out.

        And as to being in the kitchen phase, I think we all continue looking for ways to make our sauce better, or even add another sauce. Maybe those pain meds will loosen the inhibitions. Just sayin’.

        Have a great Thanksgiving!

  11. Like Dale says, Steve, this is a very thought provoking piece. First guy and book that comes to mind is Stephen King and On Writing. “You must not come lightly to the blank page”. He certainly doesn’t, and he doesn’t ladle on sauce. He douses his stuff with some sort of frikkin’ elixir. Enjoy your upcoming Turkey Day!

  12. George V. Higgins, of course, Richard Marinick and Edwin Silberstang. All three have written superb crime novels about the world they work in and the people they knew. Marinick in particular was a career criminal. Add in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men-superb!
    The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was Higgins’ fifteenth novel. He hunted down and killed the first fourteen.
    Anything by JSB. Anything. His “How to write pulp fiction” got me started and I thank him as my first mentor. Take a bow, Jim.
    Writing by George V. Higgins and Steven King On Writing, Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me and John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth.

    Secret sauce? Keep it real. Tell it like it is. Wind up the characters and watch them go.

    • Thanks, Robert, for those additions to our list of authors and books.

      I like your secret sauce, “Keep it real.” That should be a good formula for pulling the reader into the story. If it’s as real as reality, the reader won’t even notice that he’s been pulled in.

      Have a great Thanksgiving!

  13. Steve,

    First, please tell your wife she made my day just by my reading that she puts in “extra chocolate” for the brownies. Just reading the words “extra chocolate” puts me in my happy place. LOL!!!!

    Others may disagree, but I think the reason the ‘special sauce’ is so hard to pin down is because some aspect of it has NOTHING to do with the writer, but rather to do with the reader finding that book at that point in time in their life where the two are set to mix and create magic.

    Example: I have mentioned many times over the years that Zane Grey’s “Forlorn River” is my all time favorite novel that I read as a kid & remains my favorite to this day. Zane Grey has his detractors–some claim he’s too wordy, too formulaic, he’s not as good as (insert other western authors here). The standout features of that novel are 1) Zane Grey had the power to transport me to places west like no other and 2) it was a fantastic buddy story.

    Why was that special sauce? 1) I grew up in flat and featureless Maryland. Geographically uninspiring (for me, not necessarily for others). While reading his books I could gallop across endless mountain vistas and look at those surroundings in complete awe & reverence, explore gorgeous rocky chasms, and live wild and free and 2) as a kid, I was scrawny, sickly, & didn’t have a lot of friends and was sometimes bullied. In stories like Forlorn River, I experienced what it was like to have a best bud who would sacrifice for me. For whom principles really meant something. Forlorn River was published almost 40 years before I was born so Zane Grey couldn’t have had me and my situation in mind when he wrote it. Yet still, he had the special sauce.

    Example: I’ve been reading Victoria Thompson’s “Gaslamp Mysteries” set in turn of the century New York. I don’t understand the special sauce that makes me read them, but read them I do. I don’t care for New York (where the stories are set), I don’t tend to read books with women protags (though this series is based around a female protag). I don’t even spend much time reading/studying the turn of the century time period. Yet I keep reading those books. Perhaps it’s because the protag has a genuine heart to help people.

    And special sauce applies to non-fiction too. One of the books you mention in your post, “Writing the Breakout Novel” is one such book to me. Though there are many excellent books on writing, including from authors here at TKZ, there’s just something about “Writing the Breakout Novel” that I find highly inspiring, and my favorite of Maass’ books. The other non-fiction that has special sauce I can’t explain is Adam Grant’s “Originals.”

    That’s why I believe it’s so critical to write what you, as the author are passionate about, not just writing what you think people will want. Because if you write to your passion, somewhere, somehow, you and the reader are going to connect at the right place and the right time and they are going to experience that special sauce. I can’t imagine anything more thrilling than giving a reader that special sauce moment. They don’t happen often.

    • Thanks, BK. I’ll pass the word on to my wife. She’ll be happy to hear that.

      And thanks for a very elegant response. I particularly like your observation: “I think the reason the ‘special sauce’ is so hard to pin down is because some aspect of it has NOTHING to do with the writer, but rather to do with the reader finding that book at that point in time in their life where the two are set to mix and create magic.”

      It’s a moving target. And I would agree, it has to do with passion.

      Have a great Thanksgiving!

  14. Writers with “special sauce?” Isaac Asimov, M.C. Beaton, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Allan Poe, P.G.Wodehouse, and only a few dozen others.
    Books with special sauce for writers? Chris Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, L. Sprague deCamp’s Science Fiction Handbook, Irving Chernev’s Fireside Book of Chess, as well as any of Carl Jung’s books that he has in English written.
    My special sauce and the effect I hope it has? Promise not to tell anyone? I write behind an imaginary video camera, and try to describe the world coherently as seen through that camera, I hope to plunk the reader right down into the scene unambiguously, then let them see what happens there as experienced in the mind of my characters.

    • Great list of writers with special sauce, J. Thanks for sharing your list of books on writing. I’ll check out L. Sprague deCamp and Irving Chernev. I’ve read and highlighted THE WRITER’S JOURNEY.

      Your technique for your special sauce sounds like a good one.

      Have a great weekend!

  15. I love Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Writing. It’s my favorite writing book and inspires me every time I read it. As for writers who have that special sauce, JSB has stirred up a special batch with Mike Romeo.

    • Good evening, Patricia. Thanks for stopping by. Your choices for book and writer are at the top of my lists, also.

      I hope your research is going well. Have a great weekend! I look forward to your post in two weeks.

  16. Great post, Steve. Sorry to be so late responding, but we were out of pocket until late last night.

    In addition to the books you listed, I’d add “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, and “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami.

    My list of authors who found their voice would include the incomparable Raymond Chandler, Harper Lee, and Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” And, of course, James Scott Bell. His Mike Romeo series hits a resonant note.

    As far as developing my own “special sauce,” I’m at the nascent stage. Each of my three novels has been an experiment in trying to incorporate some of the things I’ve learned in craft books with ideas I had about expressing the story.

    Btw, your wife’s brownies sound scrumptious. Ask her if she’s ever heard of sticky toffee pudding. I bet she could do justice to it.

  17. Thanks, Kay. Sorry I’m so slow in responding to your comment. We were in northern Ohio all day at a grandchild’s birthday party, Lil’s.

    Great book additions. I need to check out Betty Smith’s book. I’m just starting on your books, but I like the way you have sisters working together, then copied with two young friends. The moving back and forth between the young and the adults sets up an interesting rhythm.

    I’ll ask my wife about sticky toffee pudding.

    Have a great week!

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