Friday, February 22, 2013

So You Want to Write a Bestseller by Teresa Kennedy

Aspiring authors are always looking for the next right thing—the hottest new trend. They read voraciously, pouring over the latest blogs and the buzzing new titles, trying to discover what other writers, agents and publishing experts may know that they don’t. 

But despite all the great advice out there, and despite also what the marketing gurus may have you believe, writing a bestseller isn’t something that comes about by accident. When it comes to book publishing, whether through traditional or independent channels, there is, and always has been, a bestseller formula.

What is it? To begin with, the old publishing maxim: “Plot sells” always applies, but in bestseller territory, that plot has to operate according to some very specific parameters.

First, your protagonist must experience a life-altering event, preferably in the first 10 pages of your novel. What that event might be is entirely the author’s choice. They might discover a dead body, they might get the job they’ve always wanted, they might take on a client out of the kindness of their hearts, move to a new school, get abducted by aliens, or find out they are in line for the throne. The specifics don’t matter. The important thing is, this event changes everything, even if your protagonist doesn’t know it yet.

Second, the event must somehow reveal to the protagonist that, whether it involves good fortune or bad, things are not what they seem. Thus, stage two of your plot development must involve, to some degree, a loss of innocence. Maybe the new job involves compromises the protagonist is unwilling to make. Maybe the dead body did not die of natural causes but was murdered, and that murder is one of a string of such crimes. Perhaps the young Pro Bono attorney discovers his client is an ungrateful SOB, who is nevertheless a victim, or the heroine finds there’s something really weird about this new school, or somebody is taking potshots at the heir to the throne. Again, the choice is yours. But to deepen the reader’s empathy with your character’s situation, a degree of disillusion has to happen, hot on the heels of the life- changing event in question.

That loss of innocence involved must in turn serve to strengthen your character’s resolve. Despite conflict and despite misgiving they must win the court case, play office politics, discover the murderer, graduate high school, or refuse to abdicate their rights to the throne. They are in search of Truth, after all, and Truth must be revealed in the course of the story.
In a bestseller, that quest for Truth will necessarily put them at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Those might manifest as some ancient Vatican secret, a war breaking out; corruption extending to the highest level of government or discovering supernatural forces and being hauled off to the funny farm for your pains. It might involve your parents trying to marry you off to a philandering pipsqueak as your soulmate lies wounded on the battlefield, or the serial killer is your old boyfriend. Whatever. But at this point in your bestseller, it needs to be obvious to the reader that whatever else is going on, your protagonist is in very deep doo-doo.

At which point they can only choose to pursue their quest at great personal peril, confronting seemingly insurmountable odds. They need to get fired, lose the fortune, be disowned, get expelled, get shot, or have somebody cut their brake lines or plant a car bomb. Actual physical peril is essential to the formula, and if you’re really good, these new events and twists of plot will leave your protagonist more or less unscathed, but will cause them to lose a valuable ally or someone they love—the spouse, the trusty sidekick; a lady’s maid who sips the poisoned wine, the hapless, cheerful neighbor who borrowed the car. That element of profound personal loss or sacrifice is another essential element of the bestseller formula, but it’s also important to have it be something of a surprise, to both the reader and the protagonist.

Finally, the bestseller must have a satisfying resolution. Too many authors fail in that respect because they’re leaving themselves open for the sequel. Regardless of whether or not you’re planning a series though, by the end of your bestseller, secrets must be revealed and conspiracies thwarted. Justice must be done, wars should end and true love should triumph, at least to a degree. Sadder perhaps, but wiser, your protagonist doesn’t need to emerge from your plot with the whole enchilada. That’s a fairy tale, which is entirely distinct from a bestseller. In fact, it’s often better when they don’t. What they do need to convey to the reader however is a sense of ultimate satisfaction. Whatever happened, whatever they’ve done and despite what they’ve lost, that sense of knowing, deep down, that it was all worth it?

That’s the happiest ending of all.

Editor Teresa Kennedy is a specialist in story development and author coaching. For more about her services, come see us at