Bestsellers Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel Review
The Bestsellers Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel
Today we’re going over one of my favorite books, The Bestsellers Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel. Let me use animated language to express my love for this book. LOVE SUPER LOVE EXTORDINARY LOVE LOTS OF LOVE. I almost love it as much as I love pancakes. There, now you know how much I loved this how-to book. Me and how-to books usually get along well because I find them interesting and informative.
Usually that is, but I found Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and the Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler hard to digest.
I’m never really hesitant to pick up a new how-to book. I enjoy them because they usually teach me so much. Well, Bestsellers Code didn’t disappoint. It was a big bonus that the authors were entertaining. I really enjoyed reading what Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers had to say.
Well, let me get on with what the book is actually about. It’s about stuff. HA! See, there is my humor getting in the way again, bad humor!
The Bestsellers Code describes exactly what it’s about. Basically, Archer and Jockers programmed an AI, (or Artificial Intelligence for those of you under a rock) to read, recognize, and it shifted through twenty thousand books. After years of I’m sure was backbreaking, eye bleeding work analyzing and measuring data, they found patterns in “best selling” books.
You’ve read that right and isn’t that AMAZING!
Here’s an actual-from-the-book-quote: “First, the machine tells us which topics exist in our collection and as part of that, which words compose each topic, such as those words seen in the bar and body topics. Seconds, the machine tells us the proportion of each topic in every book.”
Interesting, right? Well, it gets better.
“It turns out that successful authors consistently give that sweet spot of 30% to just one or two topics. To reach a third of the book, the lesser-selling author uses at least three and often more topics. To get to 40% of the average novel, a bestseller only uses four topics. A non-bestseller, on average, uses six. Telling the heart of the story with fewer topics implies focus. It implies a lack of unneeded subplots. It implies a more organized and precise writerly mind. It implies experience.”
Makes sense, right? Totally.
These guys can tell you exactly why E. L. James or Dan Brown sell so many books. Crazy right! I know, it’s like a mix of voodoo and LSD. They analyze words, and can tell you if your manuscript has the juice to make it a bestseller.
When I get my YA manuscript back from my beta readers, I’m totally submitting it to them. Because like how cool would it be to know I have a bestseller before it’s an actual bestseller!
Well, I’m sure you’re asking, how in the hell can they actually tell? For the complete answer you’ll have to read the book, and I strongly urge you to, because it’s amazing. But, I’ll give you the skinny because why else would I write a post on it? Right, right?
Let’s start this off with some numbers, but don’t worry, there’s no math involved, I hate math. Dan Brown’s novel, Inferno, had a 97.5% chance of being a bestseller. Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer had a 99% chance. Spoilers! They were both number one (in hardback) on the NYT (New York Times) bestseller list. JK Rowling came in at 95%, John Grisham was 94%, Patterson was 99%.
I’m sure you’re thinking, duh! They’re both well-known authors, but the AI didn’t know names! It’s only based on the writing itself. Bat shit crazy, right!!
Okay, let’s get into some meat.
The AI identified style as important, and since it’s the mechanism through which plot, theme, and character are presented.
“In the world of fiction publishing, especially as a new writer, it’s not so much who wrote what but how it was written that might change your life. The best writers- or those who will achieve the most readers- are able to establish this kind of presence from the opening sentence with tiny and seemingly effortless modulations in style.”
This is probably why so many authors emphasize developing a unique “voice” for new writers. But, prepare yourself, it’s about to get super interesting.
What’s your opinion on the word do?
I approve. HA!
The word do is twice as likely to appear in a bestseller than a book that doesn’t hit the list. So add that one to your do use. HA! I’m full of it!
Let’s continue. What’s your opinion on “n’t” contractions? I don’t know. Or I shouldn’t tell you. Maybe I couldn’t think of anything else? Yep, all those.
Well, get this! The contraction “n’t” appears FOUR times more often in books that are bestsellers. FOUR TIMES! I’m amazed also.
Here’s another direct quote from the book “Dropping letters, is a good idea in writing popular prose because it helps create that believable, authentic, modern voice that is essential to winning over readers. The narrator’s voice, be it third, or first person, has to stroke readers as real and appropriate if they are going to stay with it.”
It’s beautiful advice.
So want more? I’ll give ‘em. The contraction “-d” is twelve times more common in bestsellers, while “-re” is five times more common, along with “m”.
He’d pass out, they’re going to laugh, and… I can’t think of a “m” contracted word… shit… Ug.
Ug is also common! Yep, super surprising, right?
Okay also appears three times more often in bestsellers.
So let’s start a list. Right now we’ve found ug, okay, do, n’t, d, -re, and m contractions. This is coming together, right? And this is just the beginning.
Here’s my favorite part, characters in bestsellers as more questions. They found more question marks in books that hit the list. But, exclamation marks are a negative indicator for bestsellers. Who woulda guessed! And this is just a post about the book. The actual book is so much more wonderful!
So Let’s get into some nitty-gritty with some details.
“In bestsellers, adjectives and adverbs are less common, particularly adjectives. What this means is that bestsellers are about shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words. Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses. Their nouns don’t need modifying three times.”
Hence why you edit mercilessly!
Verbs are more common in bestsellers, but they shouldn’t be followed with a string of “really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly. Verbs are key”. Is that legal blending a direct quote like that? Oh well.
Now, regardless if the character was make or female, bestselling protagonist must have and express their needs. The protagonist must want things, and we have to learn about those.
The verbs need and want are the two biggest differentiators between selling and not selling. Which is super awesome. Because that reminds me of a good character arc, and the thing he needs and wants. Familiar?
But it gets better, bestselling novels contain a world in which the characters know, control and display their agency. The verbs they use are clean and self-assured. Characters often grab, do, think, ask, look, and hold. And, get ready for this, they more often love. This doesn’t mean they have to like themselves, but they must own themselves. They live their lives and make things happen.
Isn’t this stuff awesome?
Okay, this next bit, I will list out, since it’s basically a list.
Bestselling characters (male or female), tells, likes, sees, hears, smiles, reaches, pulls, pushes, starts, works, knowns, and arrives.
I’m sure you’re asking what in the hell? I’ll give you an example.
She told him she likes to see the ocean, hear bells, and gave him a smile. Then she reached for the bell and pushed the little button. See? It’s all about the words.
Here is the complete list of popular character verbs: Want, grab, do, think, ask, look, hold, love, eats, nods, opens, closes, says, sleeps, types, watches, turns, runs, shoots, kisses, dies, survives.
Here is a complete list of unpopular verbs: demands, seems, waits, interrupts, shouts, flings, whirls, thrusts, murmur, protest, hesitate, halt, drop, grunts, clutches, peers, gulps, flashes, trembles, clings, jerks, shivers, breaks, fumbles, flings, yawning,
Definitely have little hesitating by the protectionist.
And the lists go on!
Both men and women: spend, walk and pray.
But, male protagonists: kissing, drive, kill, travels, assume, promises, love, stares, worries, punches, die, survives.
Women: hugging, talk, read, imagine, stays, decides, believes, love, hate, see, screams, shoves, dies, survives.
So much good stuff! And this isn’t even the actual book! See you should go buy it.
Okay, I’m still going, because there’s so much good stuff in this gem. There are twenty-two verbs that appear significantly more often in bestsellers, and non-bestselling books had only eight repeated verbs.
There are four top verbs to describe the mental and emotional expression of bestselling character and they are need, want, miss, and love.
Here’s a direct quote, “On average, bestselling characters “need” and “want” twice as often as non-bestsellers, and bestselling characters “miss” and “love” about 1.5 times more often than non-bestsellers.”
Bestselling characters not only do the right things in the right way, but they also speak in the right way. “The data on dialogue tags tells us that if you are a reader of heroines, for example, you likely won’t favor her if she begins, speaks, accepts, remarks, exclaims, mutters, answers, protests, addresses, shouts or demands.
Isn’t that awesome?
When I read this book, I almost died because it made so much sense. So many of the stories I love fit this exact model. The protagonists are active and strong who solve their own problems, and these word lists fit that model exactly.
I know I’ve said it several times, but the Bestsellers Code is one of the best books I’ve read and implemented in my writing. I printed out the entire list of use and don’t use words. I taped it on my computer so I could reference it whenever I needed to.
Now, I don’t sweat it if I’ve got a few don’t or shouldn’t, because I want to be a bestseller!
Let me talk to you (at you? Which one is more proper?), about a little more of what the guys at Bestseller Code do. You can submit your manuscript to them and they’ll analyze it for you. They use over 3000 data points, interpret, and organize them into seven aspects. After they give the manuscript a set of scores in star ratings.
The seven aspects are:
1) Plot and Emotion: They create a visualization of your plot shape in two ways. First is the traditional three act structure, then they look for a symmetrical and rhythmic plot line that will make pages turn.
2) Topic and Theme: Top selling achieve focus and clarity by having three or four focalized themes that claim 30% of the manuscript. They use two proprietary thematic models on every manuscript.
3) Character agency: The algorithms study the way characters behave and identify characters who will move the plot. (Um that picture isn’t mine, I got it from the bestseller website).
4) Character personalities: Authors should create some contrast in temperaments in order to develop a gripping plot. They discuss how adding and subtracting key scenes in certain plot moments can help authors create better character personalities.
5) Style: Their metrics provide information about the way a manuscript uses language. They examine sentence structure and syntactical complexity and then compare the data from your manuscript to similar data mined from thousands of other books.
6) Setting: Editors like to know about the geographical setting when they are choosing books for their specific list. Their process identifies the most prominent places in a manuscript.
7) Ratings: Bestselling is about finding the sweet spot in many of these areas. They rate every category using a five star rating system.
You can even download a sample review! They also have different services you can choose from.
Like I said earlier, when I’m ready I’ll submit my manuscript for them to analyze. I love data, and I know that they can help me make the most out of my manuscript! Yay!
So there you have it, a compelling argument to go purchase Bestsellers Code, and if you’re so inclined getting them to pick apart your manuscript too!!
Now, go forth and write