How to write a great story: writing tips from Alexander Pope

How to write a great story: writing tips from Alexander Pope

Alexander-Pope-9444371-1-402At the house we’re renting in Coeur d’Alene Idaho is a large collection of books, upon which I found a family of small volumes, well worn with by age and careful scrutiny, called The Best of the World’s Classics. One passage within is Alexander Pope’s comments on epic poetry, which I found may be useful in writing in general.

For the Fable… Take out of any old poem or history book, romance or legend, those parts of story which afford most scope for long descriptions. Put these pieces together, and throw all the adventures you fancy into one tale. Then take a hero you may choose for the sound of his name, and put him into the midst of these adventures. There let him work for 12 books; at the end of which you may take him out ready prepared to conquer, or to marry; it being necessary that the conclusion of an epic poem be fortunate.

Take any remaining adventure of your former collection, in which you could no way involve your hero; or any unfortunate accident that was too good to be thrown away; and it will be of use applied to any other person, who may be lost and evaporate in the course of the work, without the least damage to the composition.

Deus ex Machina

When you cannot extricate your hero by any human means, or yourself by your own wits, seek relief from heaven, and the gods will do your business very readily. This is according to the direct prescription of Horace in “The Art of Poetry,” verse 191: Never presume to make a god appear, but for a business worthy of a god.” That is to say, a poet should never call upon the gods for their assistance but when he is in great perplexity.

As for similes and metaphors, they may be found all over the creation; the most ignorant may gather them, but the danger is in applying them. For this advise your bookseller.


1) Find a great story you love. Pick out the elements, the central conflicts, the scenes. See if you can retell it. the passion and drama will come easily, simply replace characters, geography and culture. Write them into a background environment you’re intimately familiar with.

Great writing does not come in a void. Art is not novel and fresh and new; it is the ultimate and timely synthesis of everything that has come before, being picked, selected, and retold in a way that connects the timeless emotional themes with a modern audience.

2) Don’t rely on “luck” or “divine intervention” too much (like a sudden storm, or an animal attack).