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