A Formula For Best Sellers?

I’m #blessed. No for real. Thanks to the lovely Natalie C. Parker, author of BEHOLD THE BONES, I’ve been connected with some lovely  FAN-STINKIN-NOMENAL (it’s a word now) authors who are in the same stage of agented writing as myself.

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Novels by the wonderful Natalie C. Parker


This group of girls bonded almost instantly. We now refer to ourselves as the YAAMY Bears — it’s a yam thang — and find ourselves posting yam memes and GIFs at random. But best of all, we are sharing our journeys. This stage of writing can be awkward and lonely because you’re not sharing the same path with authors seeking representation anymore, but you’re not a published author either. Natalie has given us a tribe, shoulders to cry on, people to celebrate with, and I think I can speak for everyone in the group when I say…

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All that being said, I found myself typing out this long message to the girls on one of our many forums at 2:30 in the morning. It’s been on my mind since then, so I thought I’d see what you thought. Is there a formula for a best seller?

Writing the secret formula
I went to MidWest Writers this summer and attended a wonderful session on how to edit a best seller, and here’s what I took away from it:

The conference speaker talked about plot beats which, at the time, I knew nothing about. So, for those of you who were like me, beats are like the rhythm of a song. It’s steady, then it crescendos then it resolves. There is a common rhythm or set of beats found in nearly all the bestseller and blockbuster movies and the formula goes like this:

1. Slice of Life – This is where you start. You give the reader a sense of who the MC is, where they are from and what is meaningful to them. This can happen in the first few words. It can also occur over the course of a few pages. Giving your MC little obstacles to overcome (even big ones, though you don’t generally want to jump in with too much heart pounding action until the reader knows why they should care about the character) helps the reader to get a feel for how they react to things. Do they fume at traffic jams or are they chill? Do they cuss when they stub their toe? That kind of thing.

2. Inciting Incident – What is the thing that starts the sweater to unraveling (Oh Geez! Weezer’s sweater song is in my head now!) But IDENTIFY IT. Call it by name, for your own benefit. This helped me so much just to know what this was, because then I knew where it should fit in my MS.

3. Act 2 – Decision Time: This is when your MC has to make a decision about that Inciting Incident. Are they going to run away from home, get a divorce, find a new job? BUT in most best sellers, the FIRST response to that decision is no. No, I’m not going to do what I should, or what’s hard, or what makes sense. This helps build tension and sets pace! Then give it time and resolve it so your MC can be on his or her merry way with the plot.

4. Establish Flaws – This is where we see that the MC maybe doesn’t have it all together and isn’t quite as perfect as we all thought she was. You don’t have to give everything away, but maybe we start seeing some weaknesses or some unlikable things here. This way we’ve given the reader a chance to fall in love with the MC before we show her butt. Sort of like in dating and marriage. LOL This is also a great place to trickle in clues if you are dealing with an unreliable character.

5. Fun and Games – This is where I struggle, because I write such dark stuff. I don’t know how this bubbly preacher’s kid turned Edgar Allan Poe but whatevs. (P.S. if you write humor PLEASE do a post on that!) Anywho, fun and games doesn’t have to be bubbly or even funny, but this is where your romance typically happens. Your MC discovers they are in love. Or, if there is no romance, some of the lighter things in the novel are happening here. This is all for build and pace. Your chugging up the hill of that roller coaster, about to give your readers that my-stomach-just-fell-into-my-shoes feeling.

6. Mid-Point – This is the middle of your story. I know, deep, right? Things are starting to pull together and come to a head.

7. Bad Guys Close In – This is where your MC is getting backed into a corner by some situation or protagonist. They’re feeling a little hopeless here.

8. All is Lost – Giving your MC a situation they can’t possibly get out of is a pretty big theme in best sellers. There’s no way this can end up good for anyone as far as the reader can tell.

9. Dark Night of Soul – Things are moving quickly now. Your character recognizes that without sacrificing, there is no way out of this situation. Or maybe they don’t recognize it, but the reader does. This takes on all forms. In Jerry MaGuire, his career is on the line, in Twilight (forgive me) it’s Edward or Jacob, or Renesmee, or herself or Edward. Your MC can linger here for a moment to help solidify for the reader the stakes that are at risk. Remember this takes on so many different forms. Your story may be man against nature, or man against community. It still fits.

10. Climax — This is where the volcano explodes. The battle scene, the escape, the divorce, the throw down. The ugly.

11. Closing Image – Here’s your resolution, and my favorite: Bookends. This is where you take a theme that you started the book with, and you end with it. You give your reader a sense of closure with a profound idea, a loose end or a phrase used earlier and trickled throughout the book. In Jerry MaGuire it was a phrase: You complete me. In Twilight it was the theme that Edward could never read Bella’s thoughts and then she allowed him to.

For Pacing: The speaker suggested asking a beta reader to put a note in every place they got pulled away from reading to do something else by anything other than an earthquake or medical emergency. Those are probably your places where the book lulls. She suggested giving the character a minor conflict in those areas that doesn’t muddle up the plot or add too many new elements to the theme. It can be something she is already dealing with that happens to raise it’s ugly head again.

Also another REALLY  interesting resource is the Plot Library. Apparently, there are only like a few plots out there since the beginning of time and every story can fit into one of these plot lines. I thought it was fun to look through them and see which one my book and my favorite books fit into!

Is there really a formula for a best seller? Who knows. Most will agree that, like any art form, there’s no right or wrong way to write a book. But, that being said, even as an artist, I need to know how shading works. I need to know that if I’m trying to paint realism, if that’s my goal, then if the sun is on the right side of an object, the shadows will only be on the left side. This is a guide. It helped me organize my writing and identify the pieces that WERE ALREADY THERE! I don’t necessarily use this until I’m in the editing process. I don’t hold to this formula while I’m writing. I use it to sort it out afterwards. Maybe organized writing is the key to a best seller, maybe it’s something else entirely, but identifying these spots in my writing helps ME better understand it. I hope you can get something out of this too.