So what makes a best seller? Whether it’s a book or a movie, what is the magic ingredient, the recipe for success?
I think there are five things that you need for a bestseller:
- An easy-to read writing style
- An “I wanna see that” setting or premise
- A journey
- A person with skills and/ or qualities
- An everyman character or plot.
Let’s quickly canter through all five.
A bestseller needs to a competent writing style, but it doesn’t have to be great. All aspiring writers throw their hands up in horror when a book like Fifty Shades goes ballistic. You can hear the cry of “I can write better than that!” from every kitchen table, artist’s garret or home office.
Best-sellers don’t have to have peerless prose which drips with poetry. The writing needs to be good enough. That’s all.
Yes, writers, I know that hurts. I know it sounds counter-intuitive and so damned unfair, but that is just the way it is. We need to improve the way we write, but that on its own will not guarantee success.
Next we need an “I wanna see that” setting or premise. Just about every bestseller has a strong basic premise that people want to see or read about. A boarding school for young wizards. Spaceships and swordfights. Magical rings and medieval magic. Having your bottom spanked by a dominant rich man. A conspiracy theory about the Holy Grail. Secret agent foils plot to take over the world. Scientists reanimate dinosaurs. Snakes on a plane.
Most bestsellers can be summed up in one sentence and that sentence promises excitement. An element of “I’ve never seen that before”. Or “I really wanna see that”.
Then we need a journey. I don’t necessarily mean a physical journey from A to B, from the bucolic loveliness of the Shire to the comic r-rolling of Morrrdoorrrrrr. The characters need to go on an internal journey too. The whole book or movie needs to take them somewhere.
In Hollywood, this sometimes becomes all-too predictable. If a main character has a child, you can almost bet your mortgage that the parent will be having problems relating to said child. They will spend the rest of the movie getting to know the child better so that there can be a wonderful (yawn) reconciliation in the final reel.
It’s called a character arc. To be perfectly honest, it is a lot more important than faffing around with said-bookisms, points of view and other minutiae that authors obsess about.
Point four – a person with skills. This one doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Nearly every stonking good story needs a Jedi. We need to see someone who is good at something. An excellent sniper, a cunning spy, an uber-rich S&M practitioner, Han Solo, Yoda, James Bond.
Try to imagine the Harry Potter stories told from the perspective of one of the minor characters, say one of the not-so-good wizards who doesn’t win the prize every year. It’s hard to picture it working, isn’t it?
We can have stories with comic unskilled characters, but they are relatively rare. Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, perhaps. On the whole, we need to see someone who is very good at something. This Jedi might be the main character or the narrator, but not always.
The final point is perhaps the least understood. The everyman character or plot is almost essential to a best seller and yet we hardly ever talk about it.
First we need some definitions. An everyman character is someone with little or no knowledge who can stand in for the reader/ viewer. The everyman character has to experience things for the first time, just like the audience. They have to have things explained to them, just like the audience. They feel a sense of wonder about the unknown, just like the audience.
An everyman plot (my own humble invention) is when the story is constructed so that there can be an everyman character. And if it is done well the audience doesn’t see the trick.
You see, there is an underlying tension in fiction. We want to see characters who are skilled and good at their job. But skilled and knowledgeable experts can be boring. They don’t need to explain things to each other because they know them so well. So we need skilled characters who don’t know anything about the situation of the book’s main action.
Maybe some examples will help.
Harry Potter is simultaneously very good at magic (our skilled person) and he is also our everyman character because he has been brought up in a muggle household. The books wouldn’t have worked so nearly as well if Harry had known that he was a wizard all along. This then means that he has to discover the world of wizardry, which also means that it is explained to us.
In Fifty Shades, our heroine has to learn about the world of whips and chains.
Luke Skywalker is the innocent everyman counter to Obi-Wan, Han and Yoda.
Jurassic Park is a fascinating example. The basic story is that scientists discover a way to recreate dinosaurs, which then run amok. But if this story had been told in a linear fashion, it would be quite dull. There would be a huge amount of slow theoretical research before the exciting bit happened. And by the time the dinosaurs turned up, everyone would know all about them.
Michael Crichton cleverly twists the plot to introduce some everyman characters. He creates a situation where the park owner needs to bring expert archaeologists to Jurassic Park. These archaeologists are both Jedis and Everyman characters.
Frodo and Bilbo, in the Lord of the Rings.
Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Science fiction positively thrives on everyman characters. We are taken into the world of Avatar by the character of Jake Sully – an experienced soldier (Jedi) who is a late replacement for his scientist brother and so knows nothing about Pandora (everyman).
The Terminator brings Kyle Reese back from the future (Jedi) who then spends half of the movie explaining the plot to Sarah Connor (everyman).
Whenever Star Trek needs to move the plot along, Uhura, Scotty or Spock (Jedis) would explain something to Captain Kirk (everyman).
Then we have all the time travel or reanimation stories which take a character from our times into the past or future. Buck Rogers. Demolition Man. Sleeper. Planet of the Apes. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
There is a lovely story about the movie of Apollo 13. I’m sure you know the plot. A mission to the moon runs into difficulty when something on the spacecraft explodes. NASA and the crew have to work hard to bring the spaceship back home.
The key moment in the film is when the explosion happens. The script called for the astronauts to argue with each other about what had caused the explosion and whether any of them were to blame for it. This did not happen in real life. The astronauts stayed calm and dealt with the situation professionally.
The director, Ron Howard, insisted on the argument scene, even though it wasn’t realistic. He said that the audience needed to know that they were in trouble. The best way to show this was to invent an argument. That was his everyman moment.
I am struggling to think of a successful film or book that doesn’t have an everyman character or plot. And yet we never talk about it. That’s odd. Mightily odd.
There you have it. The secrets of writing a best-seller. Now all I need to do is to knuckle down and do just that.