How to Write a Bestseller

I just finished reading a book that purports to share the secrets of writing a bestselling novel, and I found it fascinating. The BestSeller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel is by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, and what it uses is text mining to uncover the shared elements of bestsellers.  As I understand it, text mining (in this instance) is essentially programming a computer to look for commonly shared elements of bestsellers.  The predictive algorithm the authors devised was proven to be right 80% of the time. Densely written, though also humorous in places, and a bit much to plow through (I would have really liked bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter), but thought-provoking.

Maybe you don’t have any desire to write a bestselling novel or memoir, which is fine. But some of these ideas might help you dream up kick-ass characters and write stronger prose. Take these ideas or leave them.  Some of them resonated with me while others kinda had me scratching my head. And remember, the points I mention are my interpretation of what I read. What jumped out and lands in my brain might be quite different for you.  I’ll go through each one:

Theme or topic

–The most prevalent topics of bestsellers were human closeness (i.e. love) and intimate conversation. Wait for it–it was actually these topics that predominated in Fifty Shades of Gray.  Not sex.  I swear to you this is what the book said.

–Bestsellers tended to stick to 2-3 main topics, while less successful books had more.

–Another particularly big topic was medical, as in characters suddenly having to go to the hospital which then results in human closeness as loved ones gather around. (My interpretation.)  This also goes along with what we’ll learn about cycles of emotion under plot.

Plot

–Far and away the most successful plot lines were those which featured a rhythmic beat of highs and lows. Lots of peaks and valleys of emotion. The book features many charts which showcase this.

–A clear three-act structure is most successful

Style

–The book tells the story of how J.K. Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith, mystery writer. She changed her name, gender, genre, audience and plot. But she couldn’t change her stylistic blueprint and the computer found her out.

–Bestsellers use the word “the” more. I’m just reporting the news, folks.  At first I thought this was silly, but then I wondered if it might be because of more specificity? And, as we know, the devil is in the details.

–The first sentences of bestsellers start with action or definite thought. And they just about always contain conflict of some sort.

–An understanding of everyday knowledge is essential if you want to write a bestseller.

Character

–Bestsellers feature strong characters with agency.  “They have some version of power, motivation, drive.”

–Characters in bestsellers do things! They express their needs and they have lots of them. (Need was the verb most linked to a likelihood to be a bestseller.) They also want things and they make their wants clear.

–“Readers want someone to be not to seem.”

–“Hesitation doesn’t keep the pages turning.”

–Characters in bestsellers have something magnetic that makes them stand out. They are gifted in some way, or they’ve done things others haven’t.

Fascinating, no?  The book goes into all these aspects in depth and is worth a read if you are so inclined to like dissecting things.  I’m not sure it’s possible or even desirable to plug in all these variables and come up with a bestselling novel.  But reading these ideas made me realize that sometimes my characters tend toward the passive and that I need to make them stronger.  I love the idea that the topics of human closeness and intimate conversation come up tops–those fit right into my genres of women’s fiction and romance.  I love writing stuff like that, and now I know there’s no reason to hold back on it.  The book has also encouraged me to go for more distinctive highs and lows of emotion.

What do you think of all this? Do you think it is possible to plug in a set of variables and come up with a bestseller? Or is the whole thing a really bad idea?

PS. There’s a book club dedicated to reading the top 100 books picked by this computer model. You can find out about it here.

PPS. I’ve actually got some room on my coaching roster at the moment.  Want to make 2017 the year you actually write that book? Maybe you’d like to finish the novel you’re working on and get it published? Or perhaps you just want to start a satisfying personal writing practice. I can guide you through any of these and more. I’m revamping my coaching page and packages, so if you’re interested, just pop me an email at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com. Put Coaching in the subject line so the email doesn’t get buried!

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Courtney Gulbro
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Courtney Gulbro

Sounds like a very cool resource! Your summary is so helpful — I’m inspired to read the book. Thanks, Charlotte!!

Amanda Moon
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Interesting! Especially in thinking about starting my 9 millionth rewrite of HOME. Kind of reminds me of that Breakout Novel workbook you had me do during The Loft.

J.D.
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J.D.
The prospect of writing by formula scares me. Jimmy Webb, in his book on songwriting, described writers who wouldn’t listen to the radio for fear they would pen something unoriginal. Your observations from this book don’t have that feel. Narrowing the themes, sing-songing the plot line, and strengthening the characters sound like great codes to write by. As I worked on my last book, I stuck notes on the edge of my computer listing traits of my characters I shouldn’t forget. I see myself doing the same with some of the points you list. An author who is “pantsing” without… Read more »
Don Williams
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Don Williams

Very interesting. Unfortunately, I’ve been hit hard the past few months by my CFS, but when I’m able to I like to check this book out.

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