Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Makes a Bestseller?

I took a class “How to Write a Bestseller” a few years ago. The instructor had never written a bestseller, but he’d read and analyzed a whole bunch to determine what they had in common. He planned to write his own novel titled—you guessed it—How to Write a Bestseller.

I haven’t seen his book or even his name in print since. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. But I like to think everyone has a little genius in them, and some of the things he said bear repeating. In fact, he may have been repeating the genius of others. I may, therefore, be guilty of the same.

Here’s the “How To” rules I remember:

*The opening chapter lets the reader know immediately where the story is headed.
*The stakes start high and escalate.
*The setting takes us somewhere extraordinary.
*The conflicts are layered.
*The characters are complex with unique voices.
*Two named characters dominate each scene.
*Tension leaps off every page.
*Every chapter ends with an irresistible cliffhanger.
*The story affirms the reader’s values and beliefs.
*The writing is concise, utilizing an economy of words.
*Dialog is more prevalent than narrative or description.
*The writer believes the reader is intelligent (hence no need for a lot of back story or explanations).
*Framing is used within the story.
*Bestsellers start with a “high concept.”

The last bestseller I read was Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. Although the book is from 1995, my book club just selected it for our upcoming meeting. Oprah picked this novel for her book club in 1998. Its film release followed in 2000 although the film rights sold in 1995 (I saw the movie years ago, too—love Natalie Portman). Don’t ask me if Oprah propelled the book onto the bestseller list, because I don’t know for sure. But I don’t think so. She most likely sent it into the stratosphere.

For those of you who don’t know the story, a pregnant seventeen-year-old, Novalee Nation, takes up residence in a Wal-Mart after her boyfriend abandons her there during their move across the country. I won’t bore you with the analysis, but I could check off almost every item on the list after reading the book. In fact, the book was so good, for while I thought it might have been a true story (because, of course, truth is stranger than fiction).

Now I haven’t written a bestseller yet, but I have to admit when I analyze my work, I can’t check off all these items on the list either. I do think about this list when I write, when I read, and when I watch movies, wondering if a bestselling formula really exists.

So, what rules do you keep in mind when you’re writing? And when you think about the bestsellers you’ve read—or viewed on screen—what would you add or subtract from this list?


Alan Orloff said...

Ah, a recipe for a bestseller. I've been looking for one!

I think you need a protagonist the reader deeply cares about.

(And, I'd argue that writing a bestseller is easy. It's selling a bestseller that's the hard part.)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I totally agree with the list and Alan's addition, especially the part about the hard part being the selling issue.

A lot of books are written that comply with that Best Seller Do List, but few of those get the PR push or attention to make them best sellers.

(And I loved the movie Where the Heart Is, but didn't read the book.)

Lisa Bork said...

How could I forget the protagonist? Yes, I agree, although I've heard the reader has to "like" the protagonist.

I suppose, too, that some books on the bestseller list get there because they got the publicity push, not because they can check all the items off on this list.

Jess Lourey said...

That's great that a person who's never written a bestseller is teaching "How to Write a Bestseller." :) I think that underscores the problem--being able to describe the qualities of a bestseller is totally different than being able to write one or teach someone else how to write one.

I still believe in magic, that every amazing book finds its audience.

G.M. Malliet said...

"The writer believes the reader is intelligent" (and would spot a book written via "do" list in a heartbeat).

Cricket McRae said...

I had a hard time convincing an old teacher of mine that cozy readers didn't necessarily LIKE tension on every page. I guess I might add that the reader needs to understand why the antagonist does what they does. Maybe not like it, but at least understand it.

Natalie Portman is wonderful in that film!

Deb said...

I think I'm pretty strong on dialog and tight-writing ... must be all those years working as a reporter. I also like that one about 2 characters in each scene ... (even though I often have more) 1 character is death on the page. Too much interior thoughts ... Zzzzzz.

Re: ''high concept?'' Not so much. Not even sure if I know what that means, but I don't think anyone would describe my books (or many cozy, or traditional mysteries), as such).
Good post!

Beth Groundwater said...

Well, Lisa, I just added 'Where the Heart Is' to my Goodreads "to-read" list, which is growing faster than I can read the books I keep putting on it!

One thing that my book club looks for in choosing a book to read and discuss is a theme or issue that is meaty and controversial, that will get us talking and disagreeing. My impression is that bestsellers tackle those weighty issues and, through the character that we care deeply about, open our eyes to new facets of that issue that we may not have known about or understood before.

lora96 said...

I loved Where the Heart Is and enjoyed the movie despite my lack of love for Natalie Portman due to her one single facial expression---beautiful, yes, but lacking in emotion. She makes an unbelievably delicate statue, I suppose.

As far as the bestseller rules, yes, I guess they are quite accurate. Nevermind that, in that vein, I need to delete my Work In Progress and make it much more gripping/dialog heavy/exciting.

Okay, it *really* does need to be more exciting, but these rules scare me!