Imagine my surprise when I read “Beyond the Plot: Craft Tricks of Great Commercial Thrillers” by Cassidy Lucas at, of all places, Crime Reads. Short reviews of a few “acceptable” genre novels follow this nonsense:

Deconstructing the craft of literary fiction in order to create our own is the standard approach to “learning” to write and the foundation of the MFA workshop. Aspiring or current writers of commercial or mass-market fiction, on the other hand, have a less clear-cut course of study. While the distinction between literary and commercial fiction could certainly warrant its own essay, and has certainly been the subject of standalone debate, I’ll propose, for purposes of this piece, that aside from the obvious role of corporate marketing decisions,  commercial  novels are defined by reader experience. For me, it’s the sense, when I reach the end of a novel, that its parts were bigger than its sum. This is not a lesser experience than finishing a literary novel; but merely different in that my peak enjoyment derives from an irrepressible desire to find out what happens next, i.e., from my investment in plot.The apex of my pleasure generally occurs while I’m actually reading the book, and fades steadily after I’ve finished the last sentence. By contrast, the pleasures of “literary” fiction are often a slower, longer-lasting burn and borne from a medley of craft component in addition to plot: character, atmosphere, lyricism, psychological nuance, etc. While great literary novels can certainly be plot-heavy page-turners, I’d venture that generally, their authors attention to other elements of craft is more evenly dispersed than that of the commercial novelist whose efforts skew heavily toward storyline.

Where then, can aspiring writers of commercial fiction—specifically, commercial  thrillers,  like the ones I’ve focused on writing in recent years—turn to develop and hone their craft?

Well, here are a few places:

Books for Fantasy Authors X: Writing the Breakout Novel in which I recommend agent Donald Maass’s exceptional book for all genres.

Books for Fantasy Authors XXIII: On Writing Horror, which is an excellent collection of essays on the subject of writing horror fiction.

Books for Fantasy Authors XXVI: Story Trumps Structure, a popular writing guide by Steven James

Then there’s Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, and I’ll throw in a few more, which I have not (yet) read, but look like good places to start:

Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seatsby Jane K. Cleland, and Suspense Thriller: How to Write Chase, Spy, Legal, Medical, Psychological, Political & Techno-Thrillers by Paul Tomlinson…

…and there are more. Lots more.

Okay, maybe there isn’t a class at Whatever Ivy League University, but I bet in those same universities they’re reading the plot-driven science fiction novel 1984 by George Orwell, which is the most important novel of the twentieth century. And maybe The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Dune, and Frankenstein, too. Or plot-driven cheapass fantasy works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other trashy bullshit like that, which you’ll never remember after you’ve finished reading.

Enough already with the casual dismissal of any novel that contains a story.

I just can’t anymore, and so I won’t anymore.

—Philip Athans

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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. keithakenny says:

    I’m with you, Philip. Storytelling in most books labeled literary is so poor and slow, that I’ve come to wonder whether those favoring literary fiction are able to grasp cause and effect. Does a character-driven plotline move too fast for them to follow? Does it get in the way of the wonder and mystery a reader feels from the long slow high-tea experience? The best qualities of literary fiction—character (including psychological nuance), setting/atmosphere, and craftsmanship are captured in quality genre fiction. But only to the extent that those qualities support what is happening in the story. Brevity to my mind is a characteristic of quality writing. I’ve also noticed that when quality genre authors, like say Kurt Vonnegut or Ursula K. Le Guin, receive recognition, they are immediately bequeathed ‘Literary’ status. I read in one of Le Guin’s articles that literary pubs would have nothing to do with her while SF pubs embraced her. Later it was, “Oh, sorry about that.”

  2. Lyri Ahnam says:

    Thanks for your spot-on takedown of the old “literary good, genre bad” BS. This trope is so worn beyond boring, and yet some writers and editors seem welded to resurrecting it. I’ll put my money on Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. LeGuin over any “literary” snob any day of the week.

  3. I agree with you completely. What absolute nonsense. Sounds like that dude has the problem, not the books he’s reading. Just gross. But I suppose some people feel the need to separate out their books as “literary” when they are commercially so unviable that they can’t make a living as an author. Or maybe that’s just the handful of book snobs I have to deal with.

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