THE TOP 10 “COMMON ELEMENTS” in current BEST-SELLER NOVELS

So… Stieg Larsson, Stephanie Meyer, J K Rowling, James Patterson and Dan Brown… 

What `Top 10 Things’ do their best-selling fiction novels all have in common?
1) ALL ARE IN THE EXACT-SAME GENRE… 
All are in the Suspense-Mystery-Thriller Genre.
  • Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are investigating/pursued by killers
  • Potter has to find out who killed his parents; people are trying to kill him
  • Cross always has to solve a murder;
  • Langdon has to work out who is killing these people, and why;
  • Bella has to urgently find out whether she should:
    • a) abstain from having sex with a vampire, or
    • b) abstain from having sex with a werewolf – (before someone gets themself killed.)

 

2) ALL ARE A `TEXTBOOK’ CAMPBELL / VOGLER’S HERO’S JOURNEY
All of them have the “Hero’s Journey” story structure, and have all of the classic Hero’s Journey Character Archetypes.

Take a look at The Feature ScreenWriter’s Workbook (free) if you aren’t familiar with The Hero’s Journey…
3) ALL HAVE SIMPLE/`INVISIBLE’ PROSE STYLE 
– All of them are written in very simple, unmemorable prose.
i.e. So that, a Young Adult (or, an old adult, or even a dummy) could read this book, without going to the dictionary every second page.
So – write like Hemingway.

Small words. Short sentences.

Next…
4) THE SAME THEME 
All have the same exact Theme.
ie – Revenge
  • Salander’s journey is “all about Revenge” (she even literally says this, at the end of the 3rd book), as is Blomkvist’s journey (given the events at the start of the 1st book)
  • Potter wants to/(has to) avenge his parents death by Voldemort;
  • Cross is always trying to avenge the deaths of murder victims;
  • Langdon is trying to take revenge on the Church for its crimes;
  • and the 2 individual males – and their `tribes’ – tussling over Bella in `Twilight’ are constantly Revenging on each other, at every alternate step, in her evolving relationship with them – though sometimes Bella talks them out of it.)
5) FILMIC-NESS. (ALL HAVE THE SAME “SCENE-ERY” TO THEM) 
All their novels are constructed with `Scenes’ – just like a feature film.
ie – The Pacing and the Timing, Scene Structure and Length (and Dialog) – is all written `like a film screenplay’.

(And – they have all therefore been Optioned, Adapted, and Filmed and – Marketed back to the mainstream, and – fans of the books. Which is the mainstream anyway.)

Importantly – by contrast – such heartbreaking works of staggering literary genius as `The Catcher In The Rye’ and say `On The Road’ and `The Great Gatsby’ are filled with internal narration, slow (or haphazard) “meandering” plots, and –don’t necessarily make for decent movies (or even `Films’, which are more `literary’ than Movies.)… They just make for awesome literary novels.

(Note also that – those 3 (latter) novels AREN’T mystery-thrillers, as such. Certainly not with the Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie-style suspense-mystery-thrillery-ness about them…)

6) CLIFFHANGERS, AT THE END OF EVERY CHAPTER. 
Self-explanatory. This is partly why they are “page-turners” (“Chapter-turners”?).

The Millennium trilogy books are especially great at this.

This also feeds back into Point #5, ie – Films kind of HAVE to do this – or there is a lack of Suspense – which, The Audience finds: Boring.
7) All of them feature `VILLAIN TRIUMPHANT’ stories in their first book of the franchise. 

Also, take a look at The Feature ScreenWriter’s Workbook (free) if you aren’t familiar with this story trope…
8) ALL ARE AMATEUR-DETECTIVE PSEUDO-`SHERLOCK HOLMES’ STORIES… 
Again the Millennium trilogy is the most obvious example of this. And – it does it brilliantly.

This also ties back into point #1, all of them are in the Suspense-Mystery-Thriller Genre.

The hero is always a `Detective’ (sometimes `amateur’ detective, eg Potter, or Bella) and – has to `solve the mystery / catch the killer’ – or else they (or someone close to them) will die.
High-stakes, life & death suspense.  (If this sort of pulp fiction doesn’t appeal to you, then, possibly, you are not in the “mainstream’…)  Then again, half the world is `below-average’… What can you do. Cest la vie. So it goes.
So, re-read the classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries – (and Agatha Christie `classics’!) and, create your own damn Sherlock Holmes…

But – make him an investigative journalist,  or a wizard in high school, or a Jedi Knight in space, or a forensic psychologist in New York, or religious symbologist in Paris, or heck – maybe a tree-doctor in the Sahara. (Why not?)

9) ALL OF THEM FEATURE A “NON-EVERYMAN”, `ELITE’ HERO… 
  • Harry Potter is `special’ – born of `special’ parents, with an amazing talent. (See: Luke Skywalker in `Star Wars’.)
  • Cross is a super-sleuth, as well as being a strong, handsome, intelligent black man.
  • Langdon is a genius symbologist/academic / “cryptographer / code-cracker” type.
  • Bella… hmmm, isn’t really that great at anything much, but she is one hot, sulky, sultry babe. Not `average’.
  • Lisbeth Salander and Michael Blomkvist are phenomenally-gifted experts at what they do. Lisbeth is one of the 30 best computer hackers in the world(!) and a mathematics genius (see Fermat’s Last Theorem in the novels..). And – Blomkvist is an exceptionally-bright, gifted and talented investigative journalist.

ie – These are NOT ordinary/Everyman/Everywoman people by any stretch. – They are all `super-special’ or outstanding in some, or even many ways.

So – make your novel’s protagonist super-special; an expert, or highly-talented (or genetically-gifted… which, is the same thing as highly-talented anyway) at – SOMETHING
…Cops and lawyers are always popular. Look at all the `police procedural’ and `legal’ shows on TV.
And now – the last, most politically-contentious point:
10) ALL OF THESE BEST-SELLING HEROES ARE PRIVILEGED WHITE MALES. 
Ok – so, Bella isn’t a male – but Edward Cullen sure is, they don’t come much whiter n’ a vampire. Sheesh!
(So, Tip #10: Don’t go writing about a non-white Hero, in your would-be best-selling novel.)
Make the bad guys as `ethnic’ as you wanna, though. (Hey – knock yourself out, make the bad guy a spooky albino, with a weird spiky-chain-garter-thingy on his thigh… 🙂
(…Okay, okay, so, Alex Cross is black… But – everyone in Stieg Larssen’s Millenium novels are Anglo-Saxon, so, we’re still talking “4 out of 5” of these best-selling characters are priveleged Anglo males… And check out how much Revenge there is in the (awesome) Millenium series, and how much it is in the Agatha Christie/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mould/genre/tone/style..! Aye carumba!)

——————
So, yeah…

That’s my `take’ on why those best-selling novels (novelists) are all successful – and what you need to do, if you want to emulate that Bestseller success. They all do those 10 things.

(Then again – I am a priveleged white male. If it helps, I feel real guilty about it.)
Okay – Motivational hyperlink time… check this out:
http://www.paywizard.org/main/VIPPaycheck/VIPpaycheckauthors
Ok – so you have the `10 Rules’…
Now – get cracking on that best-seller novel !!!!
Hope it helps.

PS – If you want some inspiration, read this novel:

http://am-so-as.webs.com/

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4 Comments on “THE TOP 10 “COMMON ELEMENTS” in current BEST-SELLER NOVELS”

  1. Good post, Joe. Rules are made to be broken. Even some of the people who make them break them. I like something that’s fresh and different, not a hackneyed remake based on a formula.

    • Thanks Kathy. And yes, great point, I actually don’t think there are actually any `rules’… There are conventions, but even those are just what a *majority* of creatives follow (and the trick is to do something different, ie creative: ie – `novel and appropriate’.)

      If you like things that break rules, you would probably like my novel:
      http://am-so-as.webs.com/
      – as it breaks almost every `rule’ there is.
      ie It’s a total subversion of the hero’s journey monomyth, for example.
      (eg The novel asks: What happens when your `Mentor’ is really lousy? ie Not *all* would-be heroes actually *do* manage to save the princess, find the Grail, etc…
      So, what about all the guys whose `Mentors’ screwed up really badly – and say, gave them the old outdated map, or a magic talisman that was busted?)
      And this is just one of the rules that novel breaks… There are about 10 rules I purposely broke.
      Mainly as it was so much fun to do.
      Anyways, thanks for reading!
      Cheers
      JT

  2. Elise Janes says:

    This is a great summary! It’s interesting that readers are trending toward the ‘non-everyman’ hero as you call it, which kind of goes against the whole underdog sympathy thing that has been getting around for a while now.

    Also interesting that we still tend towards the WASP hero. I read a great article recently about believability in fiction and one aspect was this tendency toward merry bands of white guys taking on the world. You’d think we’d have outgrown that by now.

    Makes you think. Thanks for great post 🙂

    • Thanks Elise 🙂 All great points.
      i.e., `Lord of the Rings’ are basically a merry band of WASPs, I guess. Maybe Guardians of the Galaxy mixes it up a bit. Anyway yes great points all round… thank you.


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