10 Things You’ll Find in Every Bestselling Book

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By Sarah Juckes, @sarahannjuckes

What makes a bestselling book? And how can you, as a writer, ensure that your book is the very best it can be?

The answer will differ from genre to genre, but at The Writer’s Workshop, we’ve found there are some things that every good fiction book will include.

     1) A killer concept

What? Look at the most notorious books in the last ten years, and you’ll find an irresistible idea at the centre of each of them. Dan Brown’s hunt for the Holy Grail in The Da Vinci Code for example, was the perfect hook for his publishers to sell to the masses, as was McEwan’s Atonement and Smith’s White Teeth.

How? Is your concept going to capture attention? To answer this, you should first know your market inside out. What books are selling and why? Next, try to condense your concept into fifty words or less. Will this spark the interest of readers?

     2) Protagonist motivation

What? Most bestselling books are centred around one character – the protagonist. In every story, the protagonist must want something. This could be something simple like the acceptance of the people around you, as in the case of Wonder by R. J. Palacio, or it could literally be the difference between life and death.

How? Understand what your protagonist wants and make it matter to the reader, too. Ensure that it is clear and consistent throughout the book. If it doesn’t matter to the protagonist, then it won’t matter to the reader.

     3) Jeopardy

What? The stakes are raised and things start to get worse for the protagonist. Their motivation in the beginning matters much, much more now. In the Harry Potter series for example, the jeopardy rises when the people around Harry are put in danger, and Harry’s motivation to kill Lord Voldemort increases.

How? Try mapping the jeopardy in your book. You should find that the stakes for your protagonist increase, before they are resolved.

     4) Unforgettable characters

What? These can be ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, like Bella in Twilight. Or they can be extraordinary characters in themselves, such as James Bond. They will all be memorable, consistent, and real.

How? Strong characters are built on knowledge. Get to know your characters inside out by completing this exercise. They don’t have to be likeable, but they do need to appear real.

     5) Real relationships

What? Most bestsellers will contain a romantic relationship or two. Some of them, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, are so well-drawn that they’ve become a cultural phenomenon.

How? Use your secondary characters to increase jeopardy, or progress plot. Do they help or hinder your protagonist’s motivation? Make them real by adding the quirks, flaws and inside jokes that you find in your own relationships.

     6) Dramatization

What? This is the stuff that keeps a reader on the edge of their seat. Action unfolds on the page in real time, and the reader is with the protagonist as it happens.
How? This is down to the age-old mantra of: ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t simply write, ‘he fell down the stairs’. Instead, describe what it feels like to hit every step.

     7) Good writing

What? It sounds simple, but words can make or break a book. Good writing will carry the plot, describe the characters and progress the story. Bad writing will have your readers putting your book down, no matter how great the concept is.
How? Avoid cliché in your sentences, and by that, I mean be accurate. Does a breeze really whisper through trees, or does it send the leaves clapping? Being economical with sentences, cutting down on the simile and metaphor, and avoiding repetition are also brilliant ways to keep readers reading. Complete this checklist with your work.

     8) Trust in the reader

What? You might mention something the reader has heard of before, and trust them to remember it. Or, you might trust your reader to know that your character’s ‘gritted teeth’ mean he’s trying not to say something.

How? Avoid spelling things out for your reader. Explanation slows the pace and many readers love a bit of detective work. Again, this comes down to ‘show, don’t tell’.

     9) Rhythm

What? Long sentences are brilliant for descriptions, whereas short sentences are perfect for climatic scenes.

How? Just like in music, good writing will use both of these together to create a harmony, rather than a monosyllabic beat. Alternate between the two and make your writing sing.

     10) An excellent editor

What? Most readers will never know the man-hours involved in creating a bestselling book, not only from the author, but from a whole team of editors, designers and promoters. If a book hasn’t seen the eye of a good editor though, it will be noticeable.

How? Most traditional publishing houses will supply an editor as part of your contract, and some authors benefit from speaking to an expert before they start submitting to agents, to make their book the best it can be. If you are self-publishing, editing is an essential part of the book writing process. Don’t skip it!

Of course, there are examples of books that have done well without these elements, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. Take time to understand your market, construct wonderful sentences and create real characters, and you’ll give your book the best chance of reaching the bestseller lists.

ww-logo-1Sarah Juckes works with The Writer’s Workshop, one of the largest editorial consultancies in the UK, and Agent Hunter, a comprehensive online database of literary agents. For more information on how honest feedback can improve your writing, see The Writer’s Workshop advice pages.

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12 thoughts on “10 Things You’ll Find in Every Bestselling Book

  1. That’s good checklist to keep handy. I’m currently reading a manuscript that, while interesting so far, still hasn’t revealed the primary crisis yet. And I’m on chapter seven. Not good.

  2. Hi Elizabeth and Sarah – what a great post … I don’t write novels, but can quite see where you’re coming from … and some books, articles, posts etc really frustrate me – and I’m sure your points in some form would cover my irritation … thank you – I’ve kept the listing … cheers to you both – Hilary

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