All bestsellers share a number of common features. The bigger the bestsellers, the more of these features they have in common. Make sure your novel has most of these 12 features and you will set yourself up for hitting it big.
1. Be Engaging
This seems blindingly obvious, but bestsellers are page turners. They keep the reader engaged. They are exciting and rush forward at a breath taking pace. Never pause the action. No matter how much you love your character’s history, it is still just back story. Let your reader learn about your characters through their actions.
2. Be Topical
Pick a current national issue that is capturing attention, and say something meaningful about that issue. Frame that issue in a larger perspective. Have your characters (and even your narrator) take definite sides. Even issues you think have been exhausted (“done to death”) are still viable topics if people are still passionate about them, and more importantly, if your characters are passionate champions of those issues. These issues can be anything from politics to abortion to racism to privacy — if they have staying power in the news (or keep coming back again) then people are still interested in hearing about it.
3. Be Big
Pit your characters against larger struggles and backdrops. Throw them into the middle of the conflict and have them fight against (or for) the important topic you write about (racism, privacy, poverty, class struggles, etc…). Make the smaller story of the characters immediate struggles reflect the larger struggles on the same topic of the world at large. By choosing a side in a larger issue, and having their personal struggles reflect that issue, your characters will resonate with your readers, and make them live on long after the novel is over. Your character will come to embody the larger topic in your readers’ minds.
4. Be a Seeker of Paradise
The characters in best-selling novels all have an ideal world they are struggling to create (or that they remember). There is an Eden somewhere they have lost, and they will move the world to get to it. Whether that Paradise is something as simple as reuniting their family, or more complex like ridding the world of war, the characters have a clear vision of what that paradise is and what they need to do to bring it about. This “lost paradise” might be a past they know they cannot return to (such as childhood) but it doesn’t matter, because the characters still know that things could be better.
5. Be a Teacher
Don’t shy away from technical details. Educate your readers about the world your character inhabits. Whether it is the intricate social details of running an English estate (Downton Abbey) or the mechanical details of building a bomb, people want to feel like they learned something. You learn from the books you read, now you need to repay the favor, and teach in the books you write. Do your research and explain to your reader in an informative and engaging way. Build your world through teaching, not back story.
6. Be an Insider
Best-selling novels expose the inner-workings of little known societies. Whether it is the Mafia, the Masons, or the Mormons, the sense of mystery and “peeking behind the curtain” will make your readers feel they have been let in on a secret. Have your characters either be members of a secret society, expose the inner-workings of a secret society, or have your plot center around the actions of a secret society. Whether a real organization (the Catholic Church) or fictional (the Legion of Doom), with definite membership (the Fraternal Order of Police) or circumstantial membership (the One Percent), your readers will love being exposed to these groups. The idea of “the other” is deeply ingrained in our society.
7. Be Adventurous
Your character needs to be called on some adventure. Being required to leave the comforts of their home and go on a journey to a distant land is the hallmark of best-selling novels. The quest could be to find love, right a wrong, or discover the meaning of life, but whatever it is, your characters need to be thrust out of their comfort zone and be a “fish out of water.” Think of the Midwestern girl going to “make it big” in Los Angeles, or the high-end plastic surgeon becoming the small town doctor, it doesn’t matter which direction they are going, the story is compelling either way.
8. Be a Heretic
Most American bestsellers contain a strong religious component. And even more surprising, the characters are often skeptical of the religions in the book. Whether the religion is real (the Catholic Church) or fictional (the Bene Gesserit) the characters often struggle with how to integrate the demands of their faith with the actions required of the plot. These tensions between the religious and the secular is central to almost all best-selling novels. Note: this is not to say that bestsellers are hostile to religion, just that they have their characters struggle with real-life implementations of spiritual requirements.
9. Be a Dreamer
The concept of “The American Dream” is a powerful ideal in most people, and they are fascinated by characters who achieve that dream (or, by characters who have that dream taken from them). The characters in best-selling novels go from rags to riches or from riches to rags. These characters struggle against the oppression of the lower classes to become members of the upper class, or they have their upper-crust entitlements stripped from them and are forced to struggle without their normal means. This sort of social mobility lies at the heart of your reader’s sense of “freedom” and their belief that a single person can make a difference. Many bestsellers show both the positive aspects of the American Dream, and the negative aspects of people for whom that dream is taken away.
10. Be a Rebel
The heroes of best-selling novels don’t fit in with their society. They are rebels, loners, existing at the edges of their society. They are at odds with the conventional voices in their communities. They may rebel only in secret, or only in their thoughts. But ultimately, even the quietest rebellion marks them as different and spurs the action of the novel.
11. Be Non-Nuclear
Best-selling novels feature broken families. And all those families have a member who overcomes that background. It doesn’t have to be the Disney “death of a parent,” either. Sickness, loss of a job, abuse and countless other reasons cause an instability in the character’s family that need to be overcome. It doesn’t even have to be a traditional family that matters, it could be the crew of a sailing vessel, or co-workers at a large firm that become one another’s extended family.
12. Be Procreative
Sex is a transformative event in bestsellers. This doesn’t mean you should litter sex scenes all over your novel (unless, of course, that is the sort of novel you are writing). Rather, use a sexual encounter as a pivotal moment for your character that causes their entire world to change. In countless bestsellers there is one key sexual encounter (whether described in detail, or just painted with broad brush strokes) that plays a decisive role in the plot, and is a pivotal moment for the character.
(image from Drew Coffman)
These twelve steps were researched by Dr. James W. Hall and published in his book “Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.” It is a great read and goes into far greater detail about each of these steps (the “mechanics of speed” section on writing a page turner is worth the price of the book by itself!) Hall includes countless examples from real bestsellers to cement each point.
Can you think of any bestsellers that skip one or more of the steps above? Or is there a bestseller you love that does a particularly great job using these twelve points? If so, let us know in the comments below.
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