Here is a humble 1-page guideline that we produced after studying a sample of 10 years worth of the bestselling novels according to the NY Times Bestseller list. It was used as part of the Devoir Challenge in which some local Montreal writers were asked to try to write stories “like an American bestseller.”

One of the most interesting things we found when we sampled this past year’s bestsellers was that nothing much seems to have changed. In fact, the only really strong difference we detected was more emphasis on technology (more texting, phones, email, laptops, photographs, screens, and video). At the same time, there was less bitterness, genuineness, learning, and faith, and sadly more murders, police, lawyers and detection.

One question we were left with is just how stable this vocabulary is over time. Do bestsellers really reflect their times, and if so, what is the relevant time-frame (a year, a decade, a generation)? Or maybe they just consist of a relatively consistent set of tropes (action, police procedures, etc) recycled into a variety of insignificant sub-plots. More work to be done there.

How to write like a Bestseller

***Things to focus on:

Try to use many more characters than normal (about 30% more per novel).

Try to use more dialogue, about 50% more than you would normally.

Try to focus more on people, pronouns and actions:

  • More than 50% of the unique grammatical patterns in Bestsellers involve proper names
  • This is another popular formulation: gerund – to – verb, as in “going to run”

Try to focus on the following themes:

  • police and law (investigate, gun, kill, shot, file, lawyer, evidence)
  • technology (phone, photo, cell, text, program, scan, camera, screen, tape, button, but not “telephone”, that is more indicative of serious books)
  • conflict oriented words (problem, challenge)
  • facial expressions (nod, frown, sigh, grin, blink)
  • simple actions (grab, rip, gasp, ring, shook, crash, pull, get)
  • greater certainty (absolutely, totally, especially)
  • oddities: pretty, coffee, showers, porches

 

***Things to avoid:

Try to avoid using sentences longer than 11 words on average.

Try to avoid over-emphasizing nouns instead of proper names, in other words, think people not things (or even worse, abstractions).

Also try to avoid using nouns around conjunctions.

Some of the more popular grammatical patterns of serious literature involve nouns, adjectives, prepositions and determiners (such as every, few, this).

Try to avoid the following themes:

  • complex emotions (shame, weeping, pity, abandon)
  • nostalgia (children, childhood, mothers, fathers)
  • nature (sea, winter, trees, desert, branches, mountains, spring, clouds)
  • imagination (pretend, imagine, dream)
  • the act of writing (write , wrote, language, books)
  • tentativeness (sometimes, perhaps)

oddities: tea, coughing, meat, soap, socks

2 comments

  1. Potentially valuable information revealing a terribly sad state of affairs! Especially, “…avoid…using sentences longer than 11 words….” “Mary had a little lamb with fleece as white as snow.” Lol!

    Like

  2. Don’t worry too much Caliann. These are averages, so it’s not that you can’t use long sentences, it’s just over the course of your novel if you skew long then it is likely that your work will either be flagged by editors or less well received by readers. But the main finding is tempo, urgency and dialogue for bestsellers. Make it about people and make it about now.

    Liked by 1 person

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