Can you write a best-selling novel simply by following a formula?
Creative writing professor and novelist James W. Hall tries his hand at teasing out the magical, alchemical recipe for creating a bestseller in his new book, Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers.
Hit Lit grew from a university course Hall began teaching years ago about about popular fiction, inspired by a collection of year-by-year lists of bestsellers he found in his university's library. "For that initial class I chose ten books that were the best-selling novels of their decade," he writes. "These books were big. Bigger than a big." Hall calls them "mega-bestsellers"-- books that sell in the multiple millions and often keep selling for years.
For his book, Hall analyzed Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, The Dead Zone, The Hunt for Red October, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County and The Da Vinci Code. Though Hall admits, "these twelve novels have radically different settings, different characters, very different plots," he says they all share 12 common features to the point where they are "permutations of one book, written again and again for each new generation of readers."
Hall isn't the first writer to take a crack at reverse engineering the characteristics shared by highly successful novels. My Google search turned up John Harvey's academic paper published in 1953, "The Content Characteristics of Best-Selling Novels." "The subject of this paper is the puzzle of literary success," begins the abstract. ". . . the author has, in the research here described, sought to isolate content characteristics which differentiate best- from poor-sellers. Although perfect prediction of book sales will require continued inquiry, he finds that certain content variables do appear to be associated with sales figures."
So, what are some of those "content variables"? According to James Hall, the protagonists in the novels he dissected all possess a "high level of emotional intensity that results in gutsy and surprising deeds." They "act decisively" instead of "navel gazing." The plots of these novels waste no time setting up situations where readers are "drawn forward by the momentum of the unfolding story as one complication after another challenges the central character and the original dramatic question mutates into another question and another."
Hall never promises that reading Hit Lit will help writers make the bestseller list. Unlike Hall, the subtitle of literary agent Donald Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), promises: "Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level."
"Any author who can write a salable novel can also improve, and virtually all writers can write a breakout novel," Maass confidently states in his introduction. "I believe it is possible for a writer to understand, at least in part, the mechanics of the breakout novel and to apply these devices to his writing."
In the '90s, 53-year-old carpenter and struggling writer John Baldwin determined to write a bestselling medical thriller. He spent several years analyzing the best examples of the genre, consulted with some Hollywood writers and agents, and created a 10-step formula for creating a hit thriller:
1. The hero is an expert.
2. The villain is an expert.
3. You must watch all of the villainy over the shoulder of the villain.
4. The hero has a team of experts in various fields behind him, etc.
5. Two or more on the team must fall in love.
6. Two or more on the team must die.
7. The villain must turn his attentions from his initial goal to the team.
8. The villain and the hero must live to do battle again in the sequel.
9. All deaths must proceed from the individual to the group: i.e., never say that the bomb exploded and 15,000 people were killed. Start with "Jamie and Suzy were walking in the park with their grandmother when the earth opened up."
10. If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.
Baldwin then teamed up with epidemiologist John Marr. Their thriller, The Eleventh Plague: A Novel of Medical Terror, netted them nearly a $2 million advance from HarperCollins and a movie rights sale. Though HarperCollins spent $200,000 promoting The Eleventh Plague, it never cracked the top 10 in The New York Times bestseller list, and is out of print.
Expressed vaguely enough to apply to radically different novels, the common features Hall discovered in the bestsellers he studied, Maass' techniques, or Baldwin's 10 steps could just as easily fit the books aimed at the bestseller list that flopped as the successes.
As a predictive strategy, writing formulas are as likely to be as useful to would-be bestselling novelists as the advice in today's astrology column is in making good decisions. How well do these formulas work when one applies them to the task of writing their own best-selling novel?
Baldwin and Marr struck out. James Hall has written 17 thrillers. His biography notes, "Several of the novels have been optioned for film and Hall has written screenplays for two of those projects. His novels have been Book-of-the-Month and Literary Guild selections." Absent is any mention of bestseller status for any of Hall's novels. Maass' official biography states that he is the author of 14 pseudonymous novels, none of them evidently a bestseller.
"Can any one set of tricks or techniques vault you onto the best-seller lists?" Maass writes. "Not really. A truly big book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt themes, vivid setting and much more. It is a kind of literary gestalt, a welling up of inspired material..."
Hall says that the novels he studied are "unique and creative mash-ups of traditional genres." Uniqueness is impossible to formulate. So is creativity. So is inspiration.
I like W. Somerset Maugham's wry advice on the subject: "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel.