Plot Like a Bestseller: 8 Things You Should Know

Author:
Publish date:

What’s the key to plotting a hit book? Well, just ask William Bernhardt, who hit The New York Times bestseller list with his Ben Kincaid series. As Bernhardt revealed in his CraftFest session “Plotting the Bestselling Thriller”:

1. Plot is the writer’s choice of events to tell the story of the character’s progression toward the goal or desire.
Bernhardt notes that you’re not just plotting a sequence of events—“you’re plotting a journey.” Your character will travel from one end of something to the other.

2. The plot must be right for the character—and vice versa.
So pair them accordingly. Don’t force it.

3. The plot is composed of a series of conflicts.
Bernhardt says every scene should have event, change, and conflict. And, “If every scene doesn’t have some kind of conflict in it, take it out.” He notes that each scene doesn’t necessarily need to contain a bomb, and that sometimes the conflict is small—but it’s no less essential that conflict occurs, and something changes for your character as a result of it.

“A person is defined by the choices they make, and never more so than when the pressure is on, as it typically tends to be in thrillers,” he says.

However, he warns not to just throw in big action scenes to create conflict—shootouts are meaningless if readers don’t care about the people doing the shooting.

4. The protagonist should fail many times before succeeding.
Bernhardt asked the audience which Star Wars film is better: The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi? The results were unanimous: The Empire Strikes Back. Why? Everything goes wrong for the protagonists, and that builds conflict. “That’s what really grips the reader,” he says.

5. The protagonist’s story is only as interesting as the antagonist makes it.
Simply put, Bernhardt says a solid hero mixed with a weak villain doesn’t make for a good read. He notes that conflict spawns from characters who have opposing goals—and not only should your protagonist have a goal or desire, but your antagonist should, too. “The bad guy may think he’s the good guy.”

6. Readers like to be surprised.
So twist it up. Bearnhardt says readers will take note of your cleverness—and then they’ll tell their friends about the book, and that’s the best type of advertising you can get: “Word of mouth is critical.”

7. Readers hate coincidence.
Sure, the real world has its fair share of coincidences. But Bernhardt says readers hate coincidences in books—they’re too convenient, and reflect poorly on your prose.

8. Conflict can be inner, personal or external.
Bernhardt says this is the place where you can elevate your book from the amateur to the professional. Layer the conflict in beyond basic motivations of good guy, bad guy. Combine all three types of conflict—inner, personal and external—and “then you’ve got something that’s really rich.”

Get the forensics details in your thriller novel right with the help of:
Howdunit: Forensics

Become a WD VIP and Save 10%:
Get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket.com, a 1-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop.com orders! Click here to join.


Also check out these items from the Writer's Digest's collection:
Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Beginnings, Middles & Ends

Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure

Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Conflict, Action & Suspense
Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description
Writer's Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint

Writer's Digest No More Rejections
Writer's Digest Weekly Planner

Writer's Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer's Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer's Digest 10 Years of Writer's Digest on CD: 2000-2009

When Is My Novel Ready to Read: 7 Self-Editing Processes for Writers

When Is My Novel Ready to Read: 7 Self-Editing Processes for Writers

Fiction editor and author Kris Spisak ties together her seven processes for self-editing novels, including editorial road-mapping, character differentiation analysis, reverse editing, and more.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Unold Crwca: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn unold crwca, a Welsh quatrain form.

5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

A spy thriller requires more than a compelling story and clever plot twists—the characters need to feel real. Author Stephanie Marie Thornton offers 5 tips for constructing believable spy characters.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Team Up

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Team Up

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time for a little unexpected team work.

Taylor Anderson: On Creating Realism in the Weird

Taylor Anderson: On Creating Realism in the Weird

New York Times bestselling author Taylor Anderson discusses the process of writing his new science fiction novel, Purgatory's Shore.

6 Books Perfect for Fall Reading

6 Books Perfect for Fall Reading

Whether you're looking for something cozy or a little spooky, these books are perfect for the fall season.

NaNoWriMo: To Prep or Not to Prep?

NaNoWriMo: To Prep or Not to Prep?

When it comes to a 30 day writing challenge like NaNoWriMo, do you need to prep beforehand to achieve success? Well, that might depend on what kind of writer you are.

Sarah Echavarre Smith: On Going for the Out-There Ideas

Sarah Echavarre Smith: On Going for the Out-There Ideas

Copywriter and author Sarah Echavarre Smith discusses the process of writing her new romance novel, On Location.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 583

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a fall poem.