Sally Bosco

Author of Dark Fiction

What Elements Make a Best Selling Novel?

What makes a best selling novel? James W. Hall, a creative-writing professor and crime novelist, did a study of “megabestsellers,” and found that they all share 12 common elements — to such a degree, in fact, that they are all “permutations of one book, written again and again for each new generation of readers.” You’ll find some of the elements surprising.

1. An Offer You Can’t Refuse:

  • Plot is high concept and can be stated in a log line (which can also be called the dramatic question.)
  • Protagonists have emotional intensity that results in gutsy and surprising deeds. They act decisively.
  • Pity and fear are the great emotional engines for tragedy.
  • The character has an intense commitment to his or her cause.
  • Backstory is minimal. References to the past are pared-down to essential information.
  • There is a serious threat of danger or failure. Some form of peril, physical or psychological, appears within the early pages of the novel. Red flags are planted.
  • There is a ticking clock.

2. Hot buttons:

  • Find hot topics that are perennials. It must express some larger, deep-seated, and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness
  • Examples are: women making it in a man’s world, small-town morality, sexploitation, exploration of the illicit side of family life, religion vs. secular humanism, evildoers, military secrets, and greed.

3. The Big picture (Scope):

  • The main characters should be the embodiment of people of their era.
  • Address the ways in which men and women work out their destinies within large groups and communities rather than alone.
  • A small story told against a sweeping backdrop.
  • Characters are not self-absorbed or contemplative.
  • Stories on a large scale that feature a wide assortment of social classes.
  • Social mobility; racial, gender, and class fairness; the struggles and triumphs of the poor set alongside similar conflicts of the powerful.

4. The Golden Country:

  • America-as-paradise shapes mega best sellers.
  • Sense that childhood innocence can’t last.
  • The Golden Country is a blend of place and time.
  • A nostalgic, wistful zone, a faraway Shangri-la pulses at the core of best sellers,
  • A vague awareness that something crucial slipped away when we weren’t looking, our childhood, our purity, our dreams, our sexual innocence, our national idealism.
  • Nearly every character will go through a shift of awareness, whatever illusions they once held are eventually stripped away.
  • We are all skating on slippery ice.

5. Nothing But the Facts Ma’am:

  • Large doses of information make the novel seem real. Seduces the reader into suspending disbelief.
  • Audiences are hungry for information.

6. Secret Societies:

  • Expose the inner workings of a secret society.
  • A secret society is any group that has isolated itself from the rest of the world by creating a collection of rules, rites, sacraments or covert behaviors that reinforces its separation from the larger population.
  • This can be a secret society of two, such as a love story.
  • Conspiracy or secrets. A series of Chinese boxes. Open one and you have another.
  • We have a natural suspicion of institutions.

7. Bumpkin Versus Slickers:

  • A central character sets off on a journey that takes her from rustic America into turbulent urban landscapes or vice versa.
  • The hero’s journey. A character is called to adventure.
  • “Fish out of water” story.

8. God is Great, or is He?

  • Best sellers often critique orthodox religious practice and the dangers of zealotry.
  • Hypocrisy is often outed.
  • Main character often doubts his faith or loses faith.

9. American Dream/American Nightmare:

  • Person achieves the American dream, but finds it hollow.
  • The dark side of the American dream
  • Immigrant narrative.
  • Character raises herself by her bootstraps.

10. A Dozen Mavericks:

  • The heroes are rebels, loners, misfits or mavericks. They reject the pressures and deadening effects of conformity and strike out for new territory.
  • Sometimes they want a normal life but are forced otherwise by circumstances.
  • Books, reading, writing, and literary references are an important story element.

11. Fractured families:

  • In each of the twelve novels, a member of a broken family finds an ingenious way to transcend his or her crazy stress.
  • We mostly all come from dysfunctional families, so we can relate to them.

12. The Juicy Parts:

  • One key sexual encounter plays a decisive role in the outcome of the plot and the transformation of the protagonist.
  • The sexual moment stirs a watershed event, but tends to be more life altering for the female than for the male.

It isn’t really that we’re going to try to fit all of these elements into the novels we’re writing, but it is interesting to think about, and I did get some inspiration for my work in progress by reading James W. Hall’s book, Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.

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One response to “What Elements Make a Best Selling Novel?

  1. lexacain September 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

    This is so fascinating. I devoured all the info. Although #4 and #11 left me a bit puzzled, I had no trouble understanding and believing in the magnetism of the rest. This will definitely help in my new WIP, and good luck to you on yours! Thanks for the awesome post – I’m totally bookmarking it. :-)

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