A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hobbit, The Little Prince, and The Da Vinci Code are among the best-selling books of all time.
But what makes them a best-seller? Is it the creation of an amazing supernatural world, colourful characters, prominent themes of sex or love, or the pace and speed of the novel?
Let’s look at the ingredients of a bestselling novel.
What makes a novel successful?
The term best seller means a literary work that has hit one of the major lists, such as those printed in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USATODAY, New York Times, or Publisher’s Weekly. As you guessed, that’s a measure of book sales in America, which is still the best place to launch your book. Of course, there are other monthly lists.
An algorithm has been developed to determine if a novel has the literary ingredients to hit the New York Times bestseller list with 80 percent accuracy. When the algorithm was run on authors such as J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter) James Patterson (Women’s Murder Club) and E. L. James (Fifty Shades) it was over 90 percent certain their manuscripts would be bestsellers.
Jodie Archer, co-creator of the algorithm, said to The Guardian, “You have to hit the sweet spot on character, plot, style and theme.” She found readers of bestsellers like shorter sentences, simple vocabulary, and voice-driven narratives.
Her algorithm predicted authors who had worked in journalism had the greatest chance of writing a debut bestseller, and that bestselling authors spend 30 percent of their book on one or two topics only. If we unpack this, we can see John Grisham writes thrillers about the legal system, Danielle Steel about family issues and human relationships, Dan Brown about cryptography and conspiracy theories and C. S. Lewis about good vs evil.
Only 0.0001 percent of bestsellers are devoted to sex, making stories like Fifty Shades a bit of an anomaly. Themes common to good books include death, marriage, doctors, schools, work, and even presidents.
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The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
This fantasy story about creatures that live in holes underground created little stir when it was first published in the 1930s, but it became America’s best-selling mass-market paperback in the 1960s. Time Magazine spoke to readers at the time who described it as an escape from their complicated world where you could “cheer the hero and boo the villain.” This good vs evil backdrop was a perfect match for what that generation needed at the time.
Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
While featuring vampires, werewolves, and an incredible underworld of supernatural abilities, this is ultimately a love story between a boy and a girl from different worlds. All can relate to the underlying human desire to find a partner. A reader told the LA Times, “You get that utopic feeling of first love and you want to experience it over and over again.”
10 tips for writing a best-seller novel
A solid idea
All best sellers are built on this idea of a single important and interesting idea. While the plot may become more complicated around it, the underlying idea is always clear. For example, Tolkien’s stories are about a quest to save a homeland (The Hobbit), and to destroy a ring (Lord of the Rings). He spent years developing the world and languages around these ideas, but those are the essential ideas.
Once you have that solid idea, you need to plan out the rest of your story. Some writers are meticulous at this, organizing their ideas around scenes and story arcs. Others are looser with their planning, but you should have an idea of where the story is going.
Type of book
If you want to write a best-seller, it can be useful to work out what is selling first. Traditionally, fiction books have sold better than non-fiction, but data released from Penguin Random House in recent years suggests a change in that picture with a lot of growth in non-fiction. There has also been an increase in the recreational, children’s, and young adult categories, although generally adult crime and thriller are still the best-selling genres. You may also want to consider if you write a novel or a novella.
Keep the audience in mind
Best sellers are such often because they touch on a universal theme. As mentioned above, and as we can see in the examples, this can be good vs evil, conspiracy theories, family issues, or human relationships.
Build your world
Every story happens in a world that the writer creates and crafts. The more believable that world is with the details you layer into it, the more your audience will enjoy it and want to spend time in both that world and your story. Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling famously spent years building the world of their stories.
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Part of the idea of building a world for your readers is in crafting believable characters. This is often done through giving them a history, or backstory, that makes them who they are or has led them to this point in their lives. Making them relatable, as in perhaps flawed but likeable, helps the reader form a connection with that person and want them to succeed.
Open with a good hook
Grabbing your reader’s attention from the very beginning of your novel is important. There have been some incredible opening lines in novels, like this line from Jaws (Peter Benchley): “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.” Get the tone and atmosphere right in the opening lines or paragraphs and you’ll set the stage for the reader.
Point of view
The point of view is the perspective from which the story is told. It can be told by a person narrating events (first person) or from a perspective that sees and knows all characters (third person). Most stories are told in third person and more best-sellers are in third person, but there are exceptions. Famous first-person stories include The Hunger Games, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
A good plot twist surprises, keeps your reader guessing, keeps the stakes high, and helps build towards your explosive climax. Obviously, developing plot twists and laying them in the right point of your work is a skill. But it’s worth taking the time to do this.
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
The final tip in writing a best-selling novel is to understand your work isn’t complete after the first draft. All it is, is a draft. Revising and reworking to streamline your narrative is important.