In his terrific book, How to Get a Literary Agent, author and super-agent Michael Larsen suggests that readers know what makes them love a book. Once a reader finds an author that consistently produces those elements in stories, they buy everything that author writes. Larsen doesn’t list what those particular elements are, but suggests that writers make a list of what makes them eagerly await their favorite author’s next novel. I thought this was an interesting idea, so here’s my list of the elements that make a best seller:
· A great title. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is pretty hard to top.
· Interesting characters that do interesting things; Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake is a knockout.
· Characters that I come to know and care about; I like a rich variety of characters more than a small cast (George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has me loving the good guys and bad guys equally); Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love characters have taken up permanent residence in my brain.
· I like action and adventure in almost any form. Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island, Peter Benchley’s The Island (what can I say, I guess I’ve got a thing for pirates), or Jim Butchers’ Codex Alera series are great.
· A fast start or a steady progressive build-up of tension. Look at any of Dan Brown’s books.
· Something unique and new; about the setting, the direction, the events. I like surprises in my fiction; like magic, fantasy, or unusual elements. Carlos Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, or even Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues.
· I love an organic plot where everything is interrelated, and everything connects to or emerges from something else. Wilbur Smith, Michael Crichton, and George R. R. Martin are masters at this.
· I need a resounding, ending. It doesn’t matter if the good guy wins or not (Thomas Tryon’s The Other was fabulous), as long as there’s a satisfying closure and sense of resolution. Steven King’s The Stand and It come to mind of course, but T.H. White’s The Goshawk and Jack London’s White Fang have always been favorites.
So that’s my list. Yours may be different, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some overlap; feel free to send me yours. Larsen suggests putting it up on the wall where you write and to use those same elements in your own fiction. Good idea.