Issues in Philosophy A Novelist's Tips for Writing Philosophical Fiction

A Novelist’s Tips for Writing Philosophical Fiction

The APA grant funded Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop was held at Oxford Brookes University on June 1-2, 2017.  It was organized by Helen De Cruz, and featured presentations and mentoring sessions with philosophical fiction writers including Sara Uckelman (Durham University) Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California Riverside), and the British novelist and screenwriter with a Ph.D. in Nietzsche and Kafka James Hawes (Oxford Brookes University).  I attended the workshop and here I share some of Hawes’ tips for creative writing. 

The philosophers sat in the bright newly-built classroom, eyes fired up with curiosity and caffeine, and pens hovering above their notebooks.  The automatic windows purred in the background to filter the rising temperatures as the unusually sunny weather streamed in.  Up front stood Dr. James Hawes, author of six novels – two of which have been adapted for the big screen and one for a BBC documentary.

“Forget about the plot!” Hawes declared, “What’s your governing idea?” We should be able to summarize every story in eight words or less, he explained, and this central idea about people in the landscape of a story – not the plot – is what will hold a story together.

Teaching a room full of philosophers about rules is a task fraught with danger and it wasn’t long before participants challenged Hawes, starting with the importance of the plot.  Hawes argued that in a show such as Hinterland – a TV cop show set in Wales – no one cares that it’s ridiculous that there’s a murder in a small town every single week; viewers care about the main character.  Plot is only a means to get characters into a situation of stress and choice.  Below are more of James Hawes’ top tips for aspiring fiction writers.

  1. Avoid speed bumps: The first paragraph should be as reliable as possible. This means that it should flow without the reader having to stop and re-read.  If you get the opening right, readers will love you straight away.
  2. Don’t open with dialogue: Characters need to have context. The problem with opening with dialogue is that the reader knows nothing about the characters yet.
  3. Introduce a strange idea and then broaden out: Just as a stone being dropped into a pond creates ripples, so too should your opening idea be unusual and then the story ripples out from there. Have a secure set up and then drop something into the character’s world that disturbs it and creates a demand to do something.
  4. Put characters in big trouble as soon as possible: The sooner you can put people in trouble, the sooner you will have the reader’s collaboration.  Kafka’s Metamorphosis opens with the character turning into an insect in the very first sentence.  Katniss Everdeen – the heroine of The Hunger Games –is thrown into a duty almost immediately and people are going to die unless she does something.  Readers also like stories about people transgressing.  They want to read about dodgy people doing dodgy things.
  5. Never have heroes decide on their own: Heroes should always decide in response to something, otherwise it’s too abstract. A self-motivated hero is never satisfying for a reader.  Heroes should be receptive to experiences but lack the capacity to drive themselves.  Readers will be interested in the journey and the characters’ choices are vital.
  6. Evoke, do not inform: Avoid saying “she was scared” or “he was amazed.” Rather, write what it felt like for that person to be scared or amazed.
  7. Find your governing idea: What’s your story about? What makes it work?  What holds it together?  You need to know this so that you know what belongs and what doesn’t.  It gives your story clarity of intent.  In Toy Story, the governing idea is that “Friendship always wins out” and every scene is informed by it.
  8. Write every day: You don’t have to write publishable work every day, but get words on paper. Forget editing and paragraph breaks.  The writing can even just be notes.  The point is to practice writing, to get words on paper, and to edit later.

The writing activity that Hawes asked participants to do was to use Ernest Hemingway’s method in the introduction to For Whom The Bell Tolls to write an introduction to a story of our own.

Opening of Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls

Hemingway’s introduction places the character in a specific context.  It provides vivid details about the scene.  It gives clues that the main character is on a mission, but we don’t yet know for what, which makes it intriguing.  It doesn’t open with dialogue.  Only after the scene is set does the main character ask a question.

While the philosophers afterwards discovered a widespread mutual dislike of Hemingway, it’s hard to argue about a book that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  And whether you agree with rules or not, Sara Uckelman reminded us of Picasso’s wise words:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

More about James Hawes and his work can be found here.


Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


  1. Not so sure about the 8-word “rule” for themes, but the rest of these guidelines (they are guidelines, no necessity to call them rules) are excellent. I’m a (published, well-“blurbed”) novelist as well as philosopher, and find this one of the better guidelines lists I’ve seen. Thank you.

  2. Those are fine guidelines for the plotless, character-motivated, literary fiction that American MFA programs are enamoured with, but that’s already breaking an original rule of writing that is essential to other genres. In his classic “Aspects of the Novel”, E.M. Forster said the first thing a story must do is get the reader to ask, “…and then what happened?” That’s plotting. Forster called it the most basic and uninteresting type of storytelling on its own, but still, it’s not always advisable to just throw it away. (That’s why MFA’s produce lots of great short stories (which happen to be easier to write and grade in class) but then write many novels that fizzle out after 50 pages.) If you are writing thrillers, sci-fi (often very philosophical), or other typical genres, you’ll need to hold on to the plot.

    Good “evoking” up front though! You used several physical senses—seeing, touch, sound, even a tiny bit of caffeine taste—although “purring windows” detracted from the excitement I otherwise thought I felt in the room. Good luck with everyone’s writing!


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