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Anatomy of a Bestseller

Categories: qp7-migration-Fiction.

If anyone tells you he has a sure-fire formula for a bestseller, quickly back away and keep one hand on your wallet. There are simply too many radical factors in the success of a novel: demographic quirks, talk-show endorsements, marketing expenditures, distribution deals …

And constant surprises. Go back 10 years and imagine hearing this: “In the next decade, the publishing industry will be conquered by a 14-year-old murder victim narrating from heaven, a cryptologist uncovering church secrets in Renaissance paintings and millions of kids lining up to read a 900-page book about a teenage wizard.” (That’s The Lovely Bones, The Da Vinci Code and—come on! Where have you been?)

Still, although it’s nigh-on impossible to mimic your way onto the bestseller list, you’d be a fool to pass up all the secrets to be found in successful, well-written books. Let’s take a vastly divergent trio of recent hits—Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Rule of Four and Life of Pi—and see what they have in common.

MAKE PROMISES

In The Rule of Four, two Princeton students search a Renaissance text, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, for startling secrets. Narrator Tom Sullivan begins by describing the execution of two untrustworthy Renaissance messengers. He goes on:

Five hundred years would elapse before anyone discovered the truth. When those five centuries passed, and death found a new pair of messengers, I was finishing my last year of college at Princeton.

Co-authors Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason have just struck a bargain with the reader: We know that Renaissance text analysis sounds like a dry subject—but people are going to die over this! And so the reader turns the page.

In Life of Pi, the promise arrives in the form of simple geography. Author Yann Martel’s protagonist lies in a Mexican hospital bed, suffering from severe symptoms of exposure. But his narrative begins with his childhood in India. What happened between India and Mexico? You have to keep reading to find out.

Bridget Jones begins her Diary with a list of New Year’s resolutions, revealing the cockeyed self-delusion that will fuel the rest of the story:

I will … develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as a woman of substance complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.

The promise here is simple: You will have fun.

You don’t need “Call me Ishmael.” You don’t need a boulder chasing Indiana Jones from the cave. But you do need to deliver an intriguing promise, and you need to keep it.

THE PISTOL ON THE MANTELPIECE

One of the oldest saws of the theater world decrees that, should you place a pistol on the mantelpiece, then sometime before the final curtain, someone had better shoot it. Otherwise, you’re creating an expectation and failing to fulfill it.

Early in Life of Pi, the eponymous narrator spends an entire chapter explaining the psychological underpinnings of lion taming. Granted, Pi is the son of a zookeeper, but this would still seem a frivolous digression—if not for the fact that he eventually finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

In The Rule of Four, the boys of Princeton spend Chapter 2 playing laser tag in a network of steam tunnels underneath the campus. How disappointing would it be, in a thriller filled with chase scenes, if those dangerous, alluring tunnels failed to make a reappearance?

Now for the bonus round. When Bridget Jones first encounters impressive lawyer Mark Darcy, she takes one look at his awful holiday sweater (the kind “favored by the more elderly of the nation’s sports reporters”) and immediately writes him off. When he reappears 80 pages later, sans sweater and suddenly quite appealing, it not only legitimizes that early appearance, but it allows any reader who’s caught on to Bridget’s extraordinarily bad judgment to declare, “Aha! I knew it!” And the stage is set to watch this seemingly minor character become a prime mover in the rest of the book.

LINGO BONDING

As teenagers, we learn to solidify our circle of friends through the use of slang and syntax. In much the same way, authors can build relationships with their readers. For instance, the odd sentence structures of E. Annie Proulx’s Shipping News or the minimalist punctuation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses may initially be off-putting. But once the reader adjusts to it—once he becomes part of the “inner circle”—he’ll not only finish the book, but he’ll get into bar fights defending the author’s good name.

Bridget Jones owes much of her fame to author Helen Fielding’s wickedly funny use of language. By combining artful abbreviation (v.g. for “very good”), pronoun-free diaryspeak (“Understand where have been going wrong …”) and entries reflecting the protagonist’s immediate state of mind (“Course is OK—everyone drunks office Christmas parties”), the Diary inspired a veritable army of single, female copycats.

In The Rule of Four, language is entirely the point. Our scholars are spelunkers of meaning, making their way through the treacherous caverns of the Hypnerotomachia armed with Latin wordplay, cryptological ciphers and numerical analyses. It’s an enormous treat for bibliophiles that’s mapped out by the authors with an astonishing clarity.

Pi Patel narrates his Life with the formalized English of India and a poet’s heart: “It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I’ve made none the champion.”

Much of Martel’s wordplay is actually nameplay. The hero is named Piscine, after the French word for “swimming pool.” He later changes it to Pi, after the mathematical figure. His two favorite teachers—an atheist biologist and a Muslim baker—are both named Kumar. And for 40 pages, the oft-mentioned Richard Parker appears to be human—until a tiger with that name climbs into Pi’s lifeboat. All of these names have their stories, all are rich in symbolism and all drive the plot forward.

CRANK IT UP

Are you giving your hero a hard time? Good! Adversity is the most essential spice in the fiction chef’s pantry. Just when things look their bleakest, however, stop and ask yourself this question: How can I make it even worse?

Halfway through her Diary, Bridget pops up to the roof of boyfriend Daniel’s flat to discover a naked, blonde Amazon named Suki. A week later, Bridget accepts Daniel’s fervent invitation to drinks, expecting a plea for forgiveness and reunion. But here’s what he says: “The thing is, Suki and I … we’re getting married.”

After struggling through the death of a colleague, mind-numbing riddles and accusations of plagiarism from theft-minded superiors, The Rule of Four‘s Tom and Paul finally decode the passage that should contain the Big Secret—only to run into a big fat “however.” Their Renaissance puzzler has lost his nerve, deposited the real secrets in the Hypnerotomachia‘s second half and told them, in essence, you’re on your own. (“Only your intellect will guide you now.”)

Your Turn Copycat Exercises
MAKE PROMISES
After you write the earth-shattering climax of Chapter 21, go back to those first few pages of your novel and see if there are places where you can insert tantalizing hints of things to come.

THE PISTOL ON THE MANTELPIECE
Uh-oh. Something just popped into your story, and you have no idea what it means. (This happened to me when one of my characters, in a frantic inner monologue, suddenly mentioned “poor Stephanie.”) Should it stay or go? Take a shot at writing an explanation for its appearance and how it might effect your plot. Ten chapters later in my book, Stephanie ended up serving as the catalyst for the novel’s primary climax.

LINGO BONDING
If a character in your novel has an unusual name, devise a story to explain it. I once had a protagonist named Scootie. No particular reason—it just dropped into my head—but a friend demanded that I explain myself. Turns out Scootie’s real name was Leonard, but he got a middle-ear infection as a baby and began crawling sideways like a crab. The story became a running joke in the novel.

CRANK IT UP
Got your hero pinned to the mat? Stop right there, take out a piece of paper and write 10 ways you could make the situation even worse. You may decide to use none of them. But one of them could be just the twist to make your story unforgettable.

MESS WITH PEOPLE’S BELIEFS
When considering issues you’d like to take on in your fiction, think about the ones you’re not decisive about. Gray areas produce much more interesting—and surprising—outcomes than black-and-white absolutes. Better yet, think of an issue that few people would disagree on (um, “thou shalt not run with scissors”?), and think of a scenario in which you could argue the opposite view.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL
At the beginning of your novel-writing process, consider your characters’ hobbies or backgrounds, and do a little research on those subjects. Such knowledge can deepen your story. For my current novel, which stars a geneticist, I found scientific studies that connected directly with my main storyline—a tale of divorce and adultery—which I hadn’t realized had scientific corollaries.

In a sense, the entire narrative of Life of Pi is “cranking it up.” On the third day of his lifeboat odyssey, Pi is understandably preoccupied by the dangerous face-off between a hyena and an orangutan, over the dying body of a zebra. He hasn’t seen the tiger since the sinking of the ship and has begun to think the whole thing was an illusion. But when the hyena kills the orangutan (a creature Pi had known since childhood), Pi becomes enraged and steps to the “animal” side of the lifeboat to attack the hyena. It’s at this point that he spies the huge head of Richard Parker, who’s been hiding under a tarp, plagued with seasickness. “You might think I lost all hope at that point,” he says. “I did.”

MESS WITH PEOPLE’S BELIEFS

After the sensation caused by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (whose take on church history held the feet of Catholicism to the fire), it’s clear that challenging long-held beliefs is an excellent way to sell books. And it always has been. Consider The Satanic Verses, Fear of Flying, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Jungle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

With its Renaissance scholarship and revisions of history, The Rule of Four may seem merely a Da Vinci Code knockoff, but by all accounts, it’s just a happy coincidence. Caldwell and Thomason began their book years before Da Vinci Code‘s release and wrote it in a much different style. Regardless, Rule of Four‘s Medici-era showdown between secular art and religious morality makes for provocative reading on its premise alone.

The beach read Bridget Jones’s Diary actually asks a semiserious and topical question: Is the single life really so bad, or is it more the hell-on-earth created by the expectations of society, family and the “Smug Marrieds”? Bridget coins a name for aging free agents like herself (“Singletons”) and asks the rest of the world to please leave them bloody well alone.

Life of Pi takes on beliefs at every step, beginning with religion. As a teenager, Pi decides to practice the Christian, Hindu and Muslim faiths all at the same time, and manages to plead a pretty good case for why this isn’t the problem it appears to be on the surface. (Though he cringes when his three spiritual advisers and his modern, secular parents all find out about one another’s existence at once, and in person.) Pi also expresses surprising admiration for atheists—”my brothers and sisters of a different faith”—whom he prefers to ever-doubting agnostics.

On a smaller scale, Pi offers a compelling argument in favor of zoos, which, he argues, provide a much better existence for wildlife than the parasite- and predator-infested wilderness.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

It’s a little too easy to brush aside comic works like Bridget Jones’s Diary, when, in fact, any honest writer who’s tried it will tell you that comedy is the hardest genre of all. But Fielding produced much more than a few laughs; she created a fully drawn, exquisitely flawed heroine who seems to reflect the experiences of millions of women around the globe. Fielding developed Bridget as the star of a regular column in a British news-paper, The Independent, and this gradual evolution obviously helped in working out the details. It’s Bridget’s humanity, her ability to elicit an, “Oh my god, I do that, too!” response in the reader, that allowed Fielding to launch an entire new genre of fiction (that would be chick lit) with this one book.

The tiger-in-a-lifeboat premise of Life of Pi is so outrageous that only excruciating attention to detail could make it plausible. Be it a description of a sea turtle’s flipper, the changing colors of a dorado fish as it fights its own death or the inventory list of a lifeboat’s supply locker, Martel battles the incredulity of his primary conflict with the eye of a hyper-realist.

Pi also brings up another option for fiction writers: investing your story with a peripheral body of knowledge, again, through interesting details. Pi’s small lectures on theology and zoology (beginning with a treatise on two- and three-toed sloths) enrich the reader’s knowledge of his background as Pi prepares to relate his great adventure.

The Rule of Four‘s peripheral body of knowledge is an entire—and actual—book, providing its authors an opportunity to lay before the reader a hearty meal of Renaissance culture and history. Caldwell and Thomason spent six years researching and writing their book. I’m betting that the scenes they had the least trouble imagining were the ones in which Tom and Paul leave the library stacks after hours of eye-glazing, mind-numbing research into the Hypnerotomachia.

If you take anything away from this session of idea-harvesting, take this: You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you take on a subject you’re passionate about. The work will seem like joy, the joy will radiate from the page and perhaps, someday, you’ll find your name on that precious list of bestsellers. And people will steal ideas from you.

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