Best Selling books always have a few common elements which are represented in their pages. The story which is being told by the author is essentially that of the mythic hero in a universal tale being told over and over again but being adapted to a new time and cultural situation. We are going to discuss some of those elements right now…essentially it boils down to 10 winning elements. These elements transcend the writing genre as well and translate to media across the board, so if you have film ambitions for your story please pay attention.
Element One: A Broken Family: all great books have an element of a family which is broken in one sense or another. This might be due to an untimely death, a divorce, or an argument between brother and sister. Essentially the main element is that the home must have an issue or there is no reason for the main character to leave on a quest. If everything is perfect in paradise, or in the home base there is nothing to search for, on the part of the character.
Element Two: Highly Emotionally Charged Characters: If you think about Tony Soprano or Belle from the Red Shoe Diaries you will recognize one major element. They both have huge elements of his/her personality pulling against one another. Whether it is the guilt of being a prostitute or a gangster, both works are penned so that you see the interior machinations of the characters.
Even a character like Tony Soprano who would be the archetypal bad guy if the work were penned in a different way is now an understandable and likeable guy. The reason he is likeable is because it is possible to imagine him with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other shoulder, much like the old Warner Brother’s cartoons.
Element Three: “Us Versus Them”: This means that there is a clear divide in between both sides of a conflict, this can be Spartans versus Persians, Democrats versus Republicans or the Germans versus the Americans. The most important thing is that there is a conflict that is created between two opposing and polar sides which can never be mistaken for the opposite side, each entity is clearly defined.
This is apples against oranges, and cats against dogs. The writer’s job is to ensure that both sides are shown in different respects and are not confused for one another. One side will generally be more sympathized with considering the perspective of the writer. However, the line in the sand will be clear and distinct.
Element Four: Periods of Learning: Whether it is a midlife crisis, a romantic sabbatical, or a quest to find oneself the main character must undergo a period of learning something. This is the story of personal growth of the main character. For this reason whatever the personal challenge, is the reader must be able to identify with the character or be able to picture someone that he/she knows as the character. For this reason the struggle or the learning period must be universal to ensure it appeals to readers.
Element Five: Conspiracies: Let’s face it nothing gets society to question things like a good conspiracy. If it questions the norms or the trends of history an audience will listen. For this reason if you have an original conspiracy idea or one that has not been tapped into much, like the Davinci Code the piece is bound to take off. Simply by questioning the laws of accepted history and by calling Biblical theory into question it has earned itself a place at the table of best conspiracy movies.
Element Six: A Twist: During the plot there needs to be a small element which will lead the readers astray. This can be as small as a hint that the story may not turn out the way the reader wants it too or that there could be other possibilities. Keeping your reader guessing is an essential element of a successful book. Think of the twist as an alternate ending for your readers, you will keep them interested and coming back for more.
Element Seven: Momentum: The reason that suspense books sell at the rate they do is not because of careful plot development. However, it is because of the quick clip of the dialogue in the book that people continue to turn the page and see what happens next. One action leads into the next and into the next to ensure that the reader is so enveloped in the train of events that they forget about all other elements of the story.
If you are attempting to write a suspense novel, check out the masters such as John Grisham to see exactly how they draw in the reader and keep them with constant action and plot changes. Or a perusal of some great Sherlock Holmes classics will net you the same discoveries as you decide “who had done it?”
Element Eight: An Awesome Villain: The term awesome might be replaced with original, there needs to be a dialectical force of opposition which leads to the protagonist and the antagonist dancing in a beautiful tango of strife. A villain with all the right characteristics will leave the reader with one of two emotions, disgust or perhaps a sense of slight pity as the reader will feel that he or she can identify with the villain.
This is one of the key elements to building any story to its greatest extent, the villain may not be a person, and it could be a government entity, a monster, or an army. At the end of the day the most important factor is the emotional charge which the villain is able to elicit from the reader. Does the reader love him, hate him, and want him? As long as the reader remembers the villain and thinks about it when he walks away, the mission has been accomplished.
Element Nine: Nostalgia: We have all heard the sayings, “Life was simpler in the past,” since the times of the Romans this has been a recurring theme in all of the books and movies which have pervaded our culture. People dream of living in the thirties or the forties with all the glamour and the glitter of Hollywood in its initial heyday.
However, they conveniently forget the elements of World War II and a Great Depression which were happening at that same time. Any great manuscript will have a hearkening to the past to return the reader to a simpler time and allow that nostalgia to come alive with fanciful settings and detailed descriptions.
Element Ten: A Happy Ending: As much as we might like not to think it, at the end of the day the reader wants a happy ending. Or at least minimally one which wraps the manuscript at a complete closure with satisfying results for the reader. In order for the reader to feel complete and satisfied the reader must know what happened to all of the interests and aspects of the characters that they cared about during the course of the manuscript. Those that are the hardest to digest are books which leave the reader hanging on the edge not knowing the fate of the hero or heroine.
An example of this would be in Gone with the Wind when Rhett Butler steps away from Scarlet and says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” and Scarlet resolves to get back her man. The audience was left hungering for more to the point of desperation, and 40 years after the author’s death, another author took up Margret Mitchell’s pen to try and complete the hanging conclusion.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction the elements of storytelling are universal and the same across the board. The only difference here is that when writing nonfiction it is those tiny bits of unusual fact, gleaned from amazing research that paint the vibrant pictures of a complete and factual manuscript.