David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants--Predicting a Bestseller
Very often, authors will send me links to news articles on writing, and I have to admit: I’m a sucker for such articles, but I rarely comment on them.
My old friend Dave Doering sent one today, where researchers created a computer program to study stylistic similarities between books, to see if stylistic similarities can be used as predictors of success.
Here is the link:
The researchers found that books that do well tend to have a heavier use of nouns and adjectives than those that don’t. They also found that verbs that focus on how a person feels or what they think about a problem also do better. Both are valid points.
If you’ve been paying attention to my kicks for the past six years, then you’ll know that I’ve often talked about how it’s imperative to “create” your setting and your characters. In other words, giving us those niggling details, and getting them just right, is what allows a reader to become transported into a story. Hence, you need to use nouns and adjectives a lot more than if you are simply narrating your story.
In the same way, in order for at story to work, you need to get deep into the thought processes of your characters. You need to show what they perceive, what they are thinking, and how they feel about what is happening. This is called getting “deep penetration,” and it is one of the biggest advantages of books over film as a medium. Books allow us to penetrate deeply into the mind of a protagonist, and stay in contact with their emotions. Once again, if you simply narrate a story and don’t get into the interior of your characters, your story will almost always be weaker than it should be.
I do worry about some aspects of this study, though. Many of the bestsellers that the study looked at were bestsellers a long time ago. For example, A Tale of Two Cities was a bestseller 150 years ago. Writing styles change over time, and what worked in 1910 doesn’t work well today. (Writers in that era were more likely to write cinematically, as if they were filmmakers viewing characters through a lens while making a movie. Thus, they didn’t get deep penetration.)
If I were to do a study to figure out how to predict bestsellers today, I’d spend more time looking at the primary emotions that a book evokes, and how well those emotions correlate to the intended audience.
Perhaps I’d spend time looking at books and movies that create powerful resonance, and figure out what kinds of characters and subject matter will do well in the future.
Or maybe I’d look at social trends and history, and try to figure out what topics might capture the imaginations of a huge audience.
In other words, there are a lot of ways to predict success, but you need to study them all in order to get the really big picture.