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What Makes for a Bestseller?

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On the surface a bestseller is a novel that keeps the reader flipping pages. Even when confronted with the risk of losing sleep, skipping meals and in some cases making it to work on time.  A good novel is read and forgotten. An amazing novel is read and re-read and given high praise on in the Kindle comment section.

What follows are scores of potential readers wanting to get in on the story.  Sales skyrocket and reviews and praise feedback in an endless loop.

The book becomes a Bestseller.

But what makes for a bestseller?

Although many of you will never accept this fact, it is well known that great novels follow a tightly controlled recipe.  We’ll get into that in a minute.

Let’s examine what makes for a NON Bestseller:

Books that don’t make the bestseller’s list are books that are written haphazardly. They start with a concept.  Sometimes an amazing concept with the potential to catapult the writer into the world of the successful writer.  But unlike great novels the writer sits down and begins to write allowing one sentence to meet up with the next and the next and so on.  This method of writing is actually GOOD.  You want the characters to flow naturally.  You want each event to flow seamlessly from one to the next. It all works fine until around page 50 or page 100 when the life of your character begins to slow down.  The writer injects some action or perhaps some dialogue and continues.

When all is said and written the novel is completed and the author reads it and tells herself this book sucks.  “I’ll publish it anyway.”

Planning to Write a Great Best-Selling Novel

Make no mistake great best-selling novels are planned.  This effort is done either consciously as in the case of drafting out countless outlines OR unconsciously.  Whenever an amazing author tells you they don’t draft a novel (a.k.a. Stephen King for instance) what they are really saying is that they don’t outline in advance.  However, Stephen King and other great writers who do not outline have, whether they admit it or not, a sort of plan that resides deep in the psyche.  This subconscious element is (at least it’s a theory of mine) comes from reading hundreds or perhaps thousands of novels. 

But these folks are special.  They are born gifted or are conditioned from a very early point in their lives to make key associations.  It goes something like this….they read a hundred great novels and come up with an idea.  Then when they sit down to write they get an idea.  Subconsciously, they tell themselves that they’d better move the character through a series of inevitable story markers….in a similar way that many of the books they have read and enjoyed did.

But if you’re not gifted in this way, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be an amazing author who can churn out best-selling fiction. It only means that you need to do some work beforehand to make sure you follow the rules that make for great fiction.

We will explore in greater depth some of the following but here are some essential underlying factors:

Character Dimension:

Character dimension is simply the notion that a character has several, but at least two, sides to their personality.  A story about an invincible superhero wouldn’t be great if he or she didn’t question his abilities or somehow couldn’t be challenged.  He is both invincible (physically) but he is also weak (emotionally). 

A cop that constantly does the right thing playing strictly by the book becomes cliché and boring.  Adding a dimension helps resolve this. A story about a cop who is fearless – always – similarly becomes boring.  A better cop is one who is fearless (most of the time) but who occasionally bows to fear some of the time.

Character Growth:

Another character element that is key is GROWTH.  A character must start on the journey and end up learning through the pages of your book.  A book that doesn’t show growth of its characters is a book that meanders through a set of seemingly obvious scenarios.  These obvious scenarios cheat the reader and leaves them thinking what’s the point?


Plot is another sure way to kill a novel.  The story you decide to write must follow one of the several dozen story forms that have been proven to work.  But shouldn’t my story be unique?  Yes and no.  Your story should be unique but the milestones the character is forced to confront in his or her journey through the story must follow true (and tested) events.  An adventure novel follows the pro forma of an adventure novel story.  A coming of age story follows the pro forma of a coming of age story.  These are different in both cases but are essential.  Why?  Because if you want to attract readers to your book genera then you need to cater to their anticipations which are set according to the genera that you are writing in.

Common Story Structure:

Then there is another plotting process that is unique to ALL stories.  These key milestones to any story, novel or film are key to all stories.  For instance, they all have a beginning, middle and end.  They all have an inciting event that propels the main character into a new world.  They all set goals to overcome their problems (and yes they all have problems).   They all have gradually increasing struggles that gets worse as you proceed towards the conclusion of the novel.  They are all faced with a final struggle and have one last battle to conquer which culminates in a climax.  Stories all end in a resolution.

Eliminating any key milestone runs the risk of losing readers.

Finally, there is the writing itself.  Bestsellers flow seamlessly.  Words, the tool of the trade, are chosen carefully to convey the mood or to keep the story advancing to its ultimate conclusion.  Character dialogue must be believable and must keep advancing the story.  Non-essential setting, dialogue and events must be out-right removed.

Follow all these elements and you have a solid foundation required for your bestseller.

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