Dean Koontz has been alternately called, “The Beatles” of the literary world, a “modern day Swift” and “Literary Juggler”.
There’s no question Dean Koontz knows how to pen a heart-pounding thriller with a soul.
From believable characters that jump off the page to pacing that leaves you breathless, Koontz is that rare author who is both master storyteller and expert writer.
Calling him a mere writer, though, is like calling Beethoven a musician. True, but massively understated.
A more accurate description might be literary maestro, craftsman of language, sultan of suspense.
Ok, enough pandering.
While (surprisingly) I’m not a fan of everything he’s written, he has always been my favorite word-smith. His sentences are works of art. They move. They spin. They dance.
(Disclaimer: while this post is based on many author interviews, author quotes and my own experience with his work, sadly Koontz in no way contributed to or confirmed these remarks)
How To Write Like Dean Koontz
1. 12 Hour Stretches
In a recent radio interview for his latest novel, Ashley Bell, Koontz revealed that he regularly puts in 70 hour weeks.
Yes, that means it’s not uncommon for him to write for 10 to 12 hours stretches in adult diapers while his golden retrievers feed him sandwiches.
A bestselling author has to what a bestselling author has to do.
Ok, I made that up. Koontz doesn’t eat sandwiches. Those are for mere mortals.
Key Takeaway: Write in long, uninterrupted stretches. Put in the work.
2. No Outline
Koontz makes up the story as he writes. He discovers it like a reader, page by page.
While I am a plotter who likes to outline before writing my first words, plotting as you go does seem more organic – and apparently that works really well for Koontz.
He doesn’t start with a completely blank slate. His process (outlined in general below) starts with a compelling premise that he explores through a cast of intriguing, often eccentric characters.
Key Takeaway: Plot on the run.
3. Outsource Research
Koontz hires an assistant to do research for his books. He adamantly avoids Internet research, and writes most of his novels on an ancient computer that, until a few years ago, wasn’t even connected to the Internet.
He simply focuses on the writing, the story.
Key Takeaway: Eliminate distractions, outsource as much as possible.
4. Obsessive Revisions
Before strapping on your adult diapers and blasting out a 80,000 word novel in 10 hour marathon writing sessions, realize that Koontz (usually) writes very – VERY – slowly.
He writes multiple versions of each page. Yes, each and every page. Sometimes that means 20, 30 or 40+ revisions. Of a single page.
This allows Koontz (by his own admission) to really fine tune the language, honing in on story details while simultaneously working out the larger intertwining movements of the narrative.
In a very real sense, he both acts and reacts to the unfolding story. He serves as both creative impetus and editorial nemesis. His stories, therefore, come across as both natural (organic) and focused (tightly plotted).
Key Takeaway: Write slow, revise often.
5. Never Glamorize Evil
Fans of Koontz quickly learn that Koontz never glamorizes the bad side. While all his characters are well-formed, the antagonist is never an appealing character designed for admirmation.
This seems to be a core principle of his writing – and likely, his personal character – as it threads through most (if not all) his work.
Key Takeaway: Don’t glamorize evil.
6. Be Funny
I’ll be honest here: Koontz’s sense of humor surprised me. He’s insanely hilarious. Just listen to his podcasts on his website, deankoontz.com.
His novels usually include scenes with funny dialouge, characters interacting and saying laugh-out-loud things.
His humor helps contrast the darker, more suspenseful scenes in his stories.
Key Takeaway: Use humor to contrast and highlight the other elements of your story.
7. Quirky Characters
Koontz has invented some of the most compelling characters that have captured the imaginations (and hearts) of millions of readers.
Koontz’s Keys To Character
- Give characters a backstory
- Give each character a quirk
- Give them an obsession
- Give them a great name (like Odd Thomas!)
- Give them flaws that humanize them
- Give them heroic traits
- Give them someone (or something) to love (and to love them back)
- Give them an obstacle
- Give them a goal
The most important point about character for Koontz? Giving them the “free will” to evolve in the story.
Key Takeaway: Make the most interesting characters possible for your story.
8. Play Poet
According to Koontz, a poet once read one of his novels and remarked that several passages were written entirely in iambic pentameter.
Koontz says most readers don’t notice the underlying structure of his highly stylized sentences. At least not on a conscious level.
It is this structure, however, that Koontz claims gives his writing a sense of “flow”.
He says, “Different poetic meters affect us emotionally in different ways.”
Koontz is in love with language. And that love spills over to the reader.
Key Takeaway: Play poet.
9. Follow the Koontz Story Process
- Start with an engaging premise
- Brainstorm the best (most intriguing) lead character
- Give the character a dark (violent?) secret in thier past
- Ask, “What is this story about?” This is theme and subtext
- Study the character to get the theme
- Consider multiple interconnected themes
- Start writing
- Let the story evolve as the characters lead you page by page to the end – this is the “free will” part
- Revise each page ruthlessly until it is “perfect”
Key Takeaway: Start with an intriguing premise and then let intriguing characters fully explore the premise.
10. Craft A Killer Hook
In his book, How To Write Bestselling Fiction, Koontz encourages aspiring writers to grab readers from the first page. For his own novels, he has several objectives for the first page (and chapter):
- Grab attention
- Introduce the main character
- Introduce the tone, genre and pace of the story
- Inject a sense of realism
Key Takeaway: Design a first chapter that fully orients readers to this *specific* story.
11. Follow the Bestseller Pattern
After studying bestsellers and literary legends, Koontz discovered this common narrative pattern:
- Protagonist has just been or is about to encounter a crises
- Protagonist tries to resolve the crises but only makes things worse
- Protagonist struggles with a series of ever worsening complications many of which are borne of his or her own misjudgements and misdecisions
- The complications are rooted in the interplay between the protagonist’s virtues and flaws
- The situation reaches its blackest point
- The protagonist is deeply affected and changed by the struggle
- The protagonist learns something new about themselves and/or the world that helps them resolve the crises
- The protagonist takes action to resolve the story crises and usually succeeds
Key Takeaway: Follow the story pattern
12. Fall Into the Story
A great quote by Koontz: “Your commitment has to be to the story and to our beautiful language, not to the publisher or even the reader. You want to please the reader, of course, because if you don’t, that’s the end of your career. But what’s so strange is that the harder you try to please the reader, the less you’re likely to do so. The more you forget about the reader, about the marketplace, and the more you fall away into the story, letting characters and narrative events sweep you along, the more that readers will like it. They sense your giddy enthusiasm and find it infectious.”
Key Takeaway: Fall into the story