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‘The sentences of bestsellers are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the different clashing colors and the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel  and angels  and stars. Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.’

Upon recommendation, (a very good one it turns out) my fellow scribbler Michelle Kenney directed me towards a book called The Bestseller Code. Now, to some this may reek of previous attempts to quantify what makes a great book, or in this case, a bestselling book. The purists among us will cringe at the possibility of a computer using number and statistics and algorithms to pronounce what is good and what is not. Surely the greatest joy in reading is that we all get to have our opinions on what we like and don’t.

But this is not what this book does, and it is clearly stated from the outset. The authors are both involved in the literary world and are well read and respected. So, they trained their computer model to identify many aspects which make up a good model and then put in all the bestsellers of the last 30 years, along with an equal number of non-bestseller books.

The results, to me, were staggering. The computer model was able to correctly identify which books would become bestsellers correctly 80% of the time, just by analysing the words in the manuscript. This, of course, means it was wrong 20% of the time, but I am sure anyone in the publishing world would leap at a manuscript if they thought it had 80% chance of becoming a bestseller, computer model or not!

So, what makes up the anatomy of the blockbuster novel?

  • a great opening line (including an active decision, two characters implied, a reference to human closeness and conflict at the heart of it. simple language, easy to read, no excessive use of clauses, no unneeded words – this is how to have a believable, authoritative voice.)
  • style (It was found that the overwhelming majority of the books at the top of the list for style were by women. Though the computer did think Stephen King and James Patterson were female looking at their writing style. The computer also found two things – first, they suggest that male authors in the sample have a ‘more consistent and homogenous literary style’. Second, the females authors have ‘greater stylistic range’.)
  • a plot which has sharp up and down beats (often ending at a lower point than you begin with)
  • words themselves (the word ‘do’ is twice as likely to appear in a bestseller than non-bestseller and the word ‘very’ (called the ‘leech that infests the pond of prose’ by Strunk and White) is only about half as common bestselling style. Most surprisingly, the word ‘thing’ appears 6 times more often in bestsellers)
  • contractions (the contraction n’t appears 4 times more often in bestsellers, -‘d is 12 times more common, while -‘re is 5 times more common along with ‘m.)
  • punctuation (we find more question marks in bestsellers, however we find far fewer exclamation marks. These are a negative indicator. The use of the ellipsis is more common in bestsellers. Period points are more common, too, with semicolons and colons significantly less so.)
  • sentences (‘in bestsellers, adjectives and adverbs are less common. So bestsellers have shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words and do not need decoration with additional clauses. Nouns don’t need to be modified 3 times! Verbs, more common in a bestseller, prefer not to be followed by a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in -ly.’ And I love this quote. ‘the sentences of bestsellers are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the different clashing colors and the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars. Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.’)
  • titles with ‘girl’ in it (they are only half serious in this chapter, but do go on to make a compelling case about this – best to read it as it’s hard to summarise)
  • active characters with agency (they need to do something – everything that happens in the story has to result from something they did. They also express their needs and wants. They have ‘direction, capacity and surety.’ They are ‘special. They are courageous and confident. And readers support them.’)
  • verbs (links to character agency above – the verbs need and want are the two biggest differentiators between a bestseller and one that doesn’t. So use these words. State what your main character wants and needs at regular intervals, or better still, show us. The top 4 verbs in bestsellers are need, want, miss, love. But dislike is a verb more associated with non-bestsellers, almost 2 times.)
  • body actions and gestures (a character in a bestselling novel is one who ‘eats, nods, opens, closes, says, sleeps, types, watches, turns, runs, shoots, kisses, and dies’.)
  • dialogue tags (a personal bug bear of mine – they say any writer who uses anything but ‘she said,’ is heading down a ‘writerly road to hell’ and bestsellers use simple dialogue tags. If you use ‘remarks, mutters, exclaims, protests, shouts, demands, addresses’, etc, then you will most likely be writing a non-bestseller.)
  • adjectives and adverbs (Bestsellers use them less often. I love this line – ‘it’s like sticking fat tires and flashing rims on a vintage Jaguar.’)

So, I think that’s enough for now – this is only a glimpse of what they tell you in the book – if you are serious about writing and want your book to succeed, you must read this. Many of the craft suggestions are well known, and good writers already do many of these things, but to have statistical data to back it up…well, that’s when it becomes fact, no?

And no good post would be complete without a list of some sort, so I’ll give you their list – just the top ten – produced by their computer model. They have many lists in the book by the way, and they are fab to read, so do get yourself a copy.

  1. Dave Eggers, The Circle
  2. Jodi Picoult, House Rules
  3. Maria Semple, Where’d You Go
  4. Michael Connelly, The Burning Room
  5. David Baldacci, The Hit
  6. Patricia Cornwell, Scarpetta
  7. Harlan Coben, Six Years
  8. James Patterson, Double Cross
  9. Janet Evanovich, Twelve Sharp
  10. William Landy, Defending Jacob

What do you think about this list? How many have you read? Feel free to comment below.
And buy this book, seriously, I’m glad I took my friend’s recommendation and did.