While the intent to write a bestseller doesn’t always create the greatest and most creative of motives—or even result in our best work—there is something very appealing about writing one.
Maybe you have dreams of receiving a big fat check or being validated by friends and family who don’t see your writing as a viable career. A bestseller might also lead to an amazing agent and a book deal with a publisher.
For me, the appeal of writing a bestseller is the prospect of using those resources to simply keep writing—to stop worrying about putting food on the table or getting the attention of the right person. It just creates the space to, well, create.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind if you want to try writing a bestseller. Just remember that while all books with these elements may not be bestsellers or appeal to readers, many bestselling books have many (and occasionally all) of the following ingredients.
Challenges for the main character
One of the most important elements in bestsellers is going in big. You want your MC (main character) to face extraordinary challenges, to the point of seeming almost insurmountable. And don’t go easy on them. Not a lot of investment is going to happen if your MC just sails through every obstacle without so much as breaking a nail. Make them bleed.
“Thrillers are especially reliant on full-throttle plots and high-stakes games,” writes Chuck Sambuchino after interviewing legal thriller author William Bernhardt in The 7 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Novel. “When it comes to inserting your character into sticky situations, ‘do not be afraid to go extreme.’ Pit your character ‘against every odd.’ There’s no real limit except your own creativity; get your characters as deeply in trouble as you can, and then figure out what they would do when ‘it’s make or break, do or die.’”
But there is a caveat: while you want to make things seem really challenging, there is nothing worse than authors who create forced obstacles out of the blue. Work to make the challenges engaging, but avoid a case of “and suddenly, the roof collapses!” This is where even pantsers (writers who write by the seat of their pants) are going to want to plot a few things out beforehand.
Empathy toward characters
The best and easiest example of this is probably the John Wick franchise. On the surface, it’s just another action movie. But when you create empathy for the characters, and a strong and heartbreaking motivation? Watching that MC tear up the world isn’t just fun; it’s satisfying. Once the reader identifies with your character and shares their ambition and drive, you have them hooked. From there, it’s just a matter of ensuring that your character remains human and fallible. They can make mistakes, and feel fear and doubt. The more nuanced and deep your characters are, the more readers will want to keep reading.
One key element in a bestseller is good, clear writing. Many readers can be distracted by flowery language and long, meandering passages or unrelated tangents that don’t have any purpose or contribute to the narrative in a meaningful way.
“All authors should strive for clarity, but bestselling authors go beyond simply getting the point across by creating a narrative that’s ‘unputdownable,’” says Sambuchino. “Extreme readability is the result of writing, rewriting, editing and rewriting again . . . Don’t skimp on the revision process: It may be the one step that separates the hopefuls from the headliners.”
One of the greatest tricks of writing is making your work appear effortless. That’s a mark of good writing—and good editing.
Compelling dialogue is, as many writers and authors will tell you, one of the greatest challenges of writing books. It needs to be tight, punchy, and effective. Too meandering and readers skip ahead. Too scant and readers don’t get drawn into the encounter. And when in doubt, “said” always says it best.
More than any other ingredient in this list, good timing is the hardest to replicate because it has more to do with luck than with hard work. If there’s a popular genre or topic catching the public’s eye, it’s almost impossible to write, edit, and publish a great read with enough time to take advantage of it. And it’s difficult to anticipate what books will become trendy in six months, a year, or even two years. Changing habits, trends, and even world events all play a role. The right book at the wrong time isn’t going to create that magic bestselling moment for you.
“Anyone in the romance-publishing industry will tell you that the current racy bestseller, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Greyis fairly typical of the low-profile genre called erotic romance,” points out Laura Miller in Recipe for a Bestselling Book. “Thousands of titles with more or less the same characters and themes—many of them better-written and arguably more interesting than Fifty Shades of Grey—were on the market long before James came along. But James emerged from the word-of-mouth factory that is Twilight fandom, and as a result her books introduced hundreds of thousands of readers to a genre they didn’t know existed, much as Stephenie Meyer had introduced them to the vampire romance novel a few years before.”
An unexpected approach to genre
A good way to stay ahead of the curve is by not following in the footsteps of other people. In fact, some of the most successful books ever written came out of nowhere. What they did differently was take an approach—or trope, plot, or setting—that was already familiar and well loved, and then mash it with either another genre or with a completely unique twist.
“‘Unique’ may be stretching it,” notes Miller, “but most of them do combine familiar elements in less familiar ways—the recipe for successful genre fiction. Gone With the Wind transported the career-woman melodramas of its time into a historical romance. The Godfather is a family saga grafted onto a gangster story. The sensational historical-religious conspiracy theory at the center of The Da Vinci Code had already appeared in a nonfiction bestseller; Brown’s brainstorm was to change the delivery mechanism to a fast-paced thriller.”
The trick here? Take the expected and apply an unexpected approach. Mixing genres can work well. By seamlessly blending two seemingly unrelated genres or tropes, you might just come up with something magical.
One of the biggest mistakes I made with one of my (clearly unpublished) books was that I was so busy thinking about structure, marketing, and all the right ingredients that I never stopped to just enjoy writing it, or get lost in the characters. The best books—regardless of their bestseller status—are the ones we love to write. And the bonus? When your book is ready to be published, you’ll be OK if the book doesn’t become a bestseller after all. Because instead, you just wrote the best book you could, and you enjoyed the process.
The rest of it just comes down to timing, luck, and a whole lot of marketing.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.