Susan May Warren

Susan May Warren is the award-winning, best-selling author of over twenty novels. A three-time Christy Award finalist and a RITA finalist, she’s won the Inspirational Reader’s Choice contest multiple times. She teaches at writing conference around the country, as well as her private Book Therapy retreats and is the founder of, a daily craft blog and community for writers. She runs Book Therapy, a fiction editing service that helps writers uncover the structural and craft issues in a story. She can be found online at

Five Secrets of Best-sellers

A best-selling story will have a hero or heroine who is both strong...and damaged...

J.K.Rowling, John Grisham, Karen Kingsbury, Tom Clancy, Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, Robert Ludlum: all best-selling authors, from different genres, markets, even eras. How? What sets their stories apart from others that make them a must-buy for readers?

They know the secrets to a best-selling story. And you can to.

Secret #1: A Sympathetic Hero or Heroine

Harry. Jack Ryan. Jason Bourne. Frodo.

Who are your favorite characters in a novel or movie? Why do we get addicted to television shows, or buy every book in a series? Because we love to love our heroes and heroines. We love people who struggle, yet overcome. They give us hope and encourage us in our own battles.

But it’s not just their strengths that draw us. It’s their weaknesses, their fears, their broken histories, their obstacles, their wounds. We love a hero who isn’t perfect.

My favorite James Bond movie is the most recent, Casino Royale. Before this movie, Bond didn’t capture my heart—yes, he was dashing and his movies riveting, but I didn’t love him.

But seeing his back story in Casino Royale—his betrayal and broken heart—I became a fan. No wonder he can’t stay in a relationship; the only one that mattered was stolen from him.

A best-selling story will have a hero or heroine who is both strong . . . and damaged; someone who will win your reader’s loyalty.

Secret #2: A Noble Quest

A Noble Quest is different from a theme. It’s that purpose, that one goal the reader can embrace and pump her fist in the air and shout, “Hurrah!” It’s that one cause that makes the reader forgive the characters for their mistakes, their bad behavior, their quirks, and even iffy choices. The Noble Quest is that one element locked inside the hearts of the hero and heroine that will keep them going forward, over the mountains and through the dark woods to victory.

How do we find Noble Quest? Ask your character what he would die for, and why? His country? Because he believes in freedom? Or, is it because he had a buddy who was killed in 9-11? What if your hero isn’t trying to save the world? What if she’s compelled by a belief that love has to touch a person’s soul? So much that she’s willing to drive across the country, give up her life, her career, her fiancé, and her future for a voice she heard on the radio (Sleepless in Seattle)? A well-motivated Noble Quest will be one a reader can believe in and cheer for.

Secret #3: A Rich Setting

Most of us don’t live on the French Riviera. Or in an Italian vineyard. Or in a penthouse in Manhattan. But maybe, for just a moment, we’d like to. When readers open a book, they want

to be transported from their living room sofas into the hero’s world—the future, the past, today’s world, or in a made-up world. They want to see it, taste it, touch it, hear it, and smell it. They want details that make the story come alive: the social norms, the speech, the attire, the political climate. A rich setting embraces a reader and acts as a magnet to the story.

Secret #4: Insurmountable Obstacles

Without obstacles, the reader simply doesn’t care. And the more difficult the tasks, the higher the curiosity of the reader and the more glued they’ll be to the story. Frodo is going to sneak into enemy territory and throw a ring into the center of a volcano? And not only that, but he’s about the size of a ten-year-old? C’mon! That’s an insurmountable obstacle.

Even a story about relationships should have insurmountable obstacles. Pride and Prejudice creates an obstacle in Mr. Darcy’s immutable shyness, the social decorum that holds them all on a tight leash. We want to see a hero overcome his personal, as well as public, obstacles. Because if they can, then maybe we can, too.

Secret #5: A Theme with an Epiphany.

We want more to a book than just a fun read. Yes, reading is a pastime, but books that resonate and keep a reader buying more are those with a theme that touches our hearts, that makes us think, that applies to our lives. We want answers, or at least suggestions, to help us navigate this world, and a good novel can weave a story, borrowing threads from the fabric of life, and create a tapestry for us to examine and learn from.

Writing a book is never an objective experience. It’s about probing deep inside to see what matters to us, what questions we have, what answers we’ve discovered. It’s about journeying inward and pulling those questions and answers out for examination on the page.

And I guarantee that, as an author, the things that matter to you will matter also to your readers.

A best-selling story doesn’t just drift out of the mind of an author. It’s about seeing characters as real people, giving them a cause, examining the world and bringing those details into the story world, about throwing up obstacles, and finally, connecting us all to a common theme. It’s about writing a book that leaps from the shelves and into a reader’s heart.

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