If you make a living in publishing—or simply love reading books as much as I do—you start to notice some commonalities among the titles that top the bestseller lists. It’s not an accident when a novel starts to get a lot of buzz. After all, reading a book takes time, so people often rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from trusted friends before they take a chance on a new author. Thus, effective books almost always shine in five key areas. Here are the qualities all successful novels share:
- Memorable characters. Effective books have compelling characters that leave an impression on the readers. They leap right off the page because they’re interesting and well-rounded. Characters in great books are never trope or one-dimensional. In other words, I want to think about them when I’m not reading the book.
- Immersive worldbuilding. Readers want to feel transported when they’re reading, which is why building a compelling and detailed world for the story is crucial, especially for sci-fi. One of my favorite articles about worldbuilding, written by Chuck Wendig, explains that this concept goes well beyond mere setting to include everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, food, the various types of pets people have…you get the idea!
- A great hook. When I say hook, I don’t mean “plot twist” or “attention grabbing opening scene” a la an essay introduction. The overall plot for your book, the reason the reader is spending money and time on it, is the hook. Think of your plot diagram from elementary school: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The journey your protagonist takes should be one readers will invest themselves in. The YA novel THE HUNGER GAMES had an incredible hook: What would you do if you were forced into a game you had to kill to survive?
- Unpredictability. Here, I am talking plot twists. Surprise your readers! Gillian Flynn is well known for nailing this particular quality in her bestselling novel GONE GIRL. Thinking back on some of the books you loved best—the ones that made you say to your friends, “You have GOT to read this!” I bet they had a great plot twist or two that you never saw coming. Surprises keep reading fun.
- A strong start. Imagine someone comes across your book in a bookstore and picks it up. They ask themselves, Do I want this? They open it up, read one or two pages, and often, their decision has been made. Of course, each page of book is important, but the opening scene needs to grab the reader and pull them right in.
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