Guest Post by Ryan King for A to Z A Blog Challenge
Alternate Title: How to Write a Bestseller
I recently finished reading James W. Hall’s Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers. This is an interesting attempt to identify what books are fabulously popular with readers and what common threads they all share. James Hall is a literature professor at a university in Florida.
With that said, he is no dry academic. He has written seventeen mystery and crime novels of his own, several of which have ended up on the New York Times Bestseller lists. Hall explains that his efforts to examine these books were primarily in order to find out what about them appealed to people. He claims that what he found helped him make his own works of fiction better and was often counterintuitive and contrary to what he had been taught in literature classes.
As part of his examination, Hall chooses twelve books from the twentieth century. These are not just any bestseller sitting at the top of a list for a few weeks. These were mega bestsellers and often the biggest selling books of their respective decade. These books in many ways changed how certain generations thought, and all have withstood the test of time. The examined books are:
- Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell, 1936
- Peyton Place – Grace Metalious, 1956
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee, 1960
- Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann, 1966
- The Godfather – Mario Puzo, 1969
- The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty, 1971
- Jaws – Peter Benchley, 1974
- The Dead Zone – Stephen King, 1979
- The Hunt For Red October- Tom Clancy, 1984
- The Firm – John Grisham, 1991
- The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller, 1992
- The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown, 2003
You’ll have to forgive Hall for getting his toes wet on this list and including Dan Brown’s work from the twenty-first century, but he evidently couldn’t resist.
One of the first things that may jump out at you while reviewing the list is that all of them were made into movies. It could be argued that these books were popular because of the exposure film granted them, but Hall contests this. He explains that all of these books were wildly popular and sold multimillions of copies well before they were made into movies. These books were adapted to film because of the success of the written work, not vice versa.
Hall argues that all twelve of these books share certain traits. I’ve identified below the ones I thought were most striking and important.
1. They are entertaining. Some of you might be saying “of course”, but don’t rush past this point too quickly. Sometimes authors and publishers want their books to be works of art. They want them to transcend to the literary heavens and be talked about for hundreds of years. What often happens in these cases is something dry and boring. As Hall tells of a colleague of his who often addresses a roomful of aspiring novelists – “The only place people read books they are not interested in is in college.” These twelve books are fast paced and entertaining. They use simple earthy prose and don’t try to impress scholars with their gymnastic vocabulary. The authors tell their story simply and truthfully and in a manner that appeals to the reader. It is obvious that they weren’t trying to impress anyone, only to tell the tale.
2. They additionally all involve protagonists with a high level of emotional intensity that results in gutsy and surprising deeds. Often the protagonist suffers, is threatened, or terribly conflicted early in the story and at first seems overmatched and unsuitable for the task, challenge, or threat facing them.
3. These characters are often part of a smaller story set against a backdrop of enormous scale and consequences (think the Civil War for Gone With The Wind).
4. Surprisingly, the protagonists in these books have a noticeable lack of introspection. They leave that task to the reader. Also interesting is the fact that many of the main characters of these books could be considered stereotypes which may help the reader relate to them quickly. Our heroes are also often mavericks rejected in part or in whole by the society in which they live.
5. There is minimal to no back-story on any of the characters. Past events, deeds, or mishaps are hinted at, but rarely elaborated upon freeing the reader to wonder and create on their own.
6. Tension and suspense are established early in the books. The pace typically remains fairly fast throughout the tale. Time is often the enemy in the story and something must happen or be defeated or changed in a given amount of time building suspense as the pages turn.
7. Nearly all of these books contain a theme of yearning for something lost. Hall calls it the seeking after a lost Eden and typically involves a loss of innocence. Often this yearning and loss makes the protagonist sympathetic despite their faults and even in the face of the heinous acts they may commit (think of the main characters in The Godfather).
8. All of these works contain an incredible amount of factual information and detail. Hall explains that even in fiction, readers like to go someplace new and learn something or be exposed to information they might not have access to anywhere else.
9. Many of the books involve conspiracies, secret societies, or closely guarded portions of societies. Hall states that this plays on the American paranoia and distrust of secrets which is one reason why they are so popular. We also see a tension between America’s twin traditions of lawful order and rule-breaking independent spirit.
10. An epic journey is frequently involved and sometimes has rural characters traveling to the country or vice versa. These journeys can involve gaining or exposing the American dream or nightmare and frequently show a character’s rise from humble beginnings to power. Additionally, the first sign of tension in these novels is the arrival of a stranger in town or on the scene.
11. They all contain some element of religious undertones and in some cases overtones. Most of these works seek to expose the difference between genuine belief and hypocrisy.
12. Much of the time at least one of the main characters comes from a broken, dysfunctional, or non-traditional family. A missing parent, spouse, or child often drives the main character to some action or behavior. These are the primary elements of commonality that I’ve chosen to highlight from those that Hall identified in his work. He summarizes them all by saying “…They’re fast, emotionally charged. They’re full of familiar character types. They’re fun to read – the opposite of work.”
I think that is the ultimate goal of any writer – to create a story that is enjoyable to read. To be drawn into a world and forget for a few hours that you are actually reading. To instead be part of a secret world that only you have been invited into.
There is magic there and it is real…if we can find it.
Ryan King launched his indie author career in 2011 while keeping his day job with the US Army. Watch for his upcoming guest spot here featuring monthly reviews of post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian fiction.