Aim for the Extreme: What Makes a Blockbuster Book

Writing a book is not an artful craft in and of itself. Seriously, it isn’t. Anyone can put words down on paper. But what makes a work sensational, legendary, and sometimes even revered as a classic takes a serious amount of talent and skill that not everyone possesses. You have to know what the right elements are and exactly how to implement them. Writing is storytelling. Good ones make us adore, while bad ones make us snore (cheezy, I know, but I never claimed to be a master poet ;-D).

With such a competitive market for writing out there, publishers are looking for work that will be worth their time. Of all the books that make it on the shelves, there are probably dozens, if not hundreds, that don’t.

So what will ensure your work makes the final cut? Evan Marshall weighs in with some key tips to give you the edge you need.

His first bit of advice is to think BIG, and by that, he means to think in contrasting extremes. Allow me to share some examples from his article below:

“Three women climb to the summit of success, to find they’ve lost their souls in the process (Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann).”1 Here, all we have to do is read this one-sentence summary to see the extreme. Women strive for the greatest height to reach the greatest low. It sounds like such a roller coaster just thinking about it!

“A priest must exorcise the devil from the body of a young girl (The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty).”1 A godly man fighting the king of the demons. Spiritual warfare at its peak.

And then, of course, there’s always the “rags-to-riches” theme common in so many stories. However, my personal advice on the matter is to be as original as possible. Even too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. If you are writing a story with this or another of a myriad of famous themes, then ask yourself for a moment, “Is there an avenue I’m trying to explore that people haven’t walked (or read) a thousand times?” Remember, a good storyteller is someone who can make his or her story their own.

A good place to start would be with your characters. What drives them? How does this affect them when they come across obstacles they encounter in your story? How do they react if what they’ve been working towards throughout the book can’t happen for them?

“Inevitably, characters like these live in a state of perpetual high drama,” Marshall writes. “The strongest emotions motivate them: undying love, obsessive hatred, ambition, envy, ecstasy, vengeance, grief.”1

Marshall also informs us, “We never feel ambivalent about the characters in a blockbuster. We may hate them, pity them, envy them or adore them-but we always feel something toward them, and we feel it strongly.”1

Another bonus when it comes to blockbusters is that they help expand our horizons. Though our technology today is an invaluable tool for gaining information on pretty much anything under the sun (if you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google something like, “What does it mean if I’m dreaming about celery?”), being able to learn through entertainment is like killing two birds with one stone. Why not learn more about something while engrossed in the exhilarating plot of a thriller or historical fiction novel? But then again, who says the readers are the only ones to gain?

Marshall gives a good example: “Tom Clancy was neither intelligence nor naval officer, but an insurance broker who read a newspaper article about a mutiny on a Soviet frigate, researched Soviet-American naval strategies and submarine technology, and wrote The Hunt for Red October.“1 Yep, that sounds like the kind of thing to land a blockbuster to me.

Marshall advises, “Once you’ve done some basic research, ask [a] friend or relative for help; write to experts or to the public relations directors of organizations. Know the world so well we’ll think you’ve been part of it for years.”1

Marshall then moves on to tell us to be as succinct as we can be with our scenes. If you’ve been writing long enough, then scenes will play in your head like a movie. And while a book allows you to delve into more detail than an actual movie does, remember how important it is to strike a balance. Go into as much detail as your story will allow, and then stop there. A good place to start would be to consider what kind of story you’re writing. For example, stories that require a lot of world-building typically run longer because they have to provide a lot of background.

Also, think about the best way to move your story along. Some practical advice in this vein would be things like avoiding a lot of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (strong nouns and verbs are much better most of the time), passive voice, and the gerundive (verb which functions as an adjective-both of these lessen immediacy), as well as using “said” in dialogue instead of “inquired,” “demanded,” “stated,” “exclaimed,” etc.

Of course, as a writer, once you know the rules, you can break them, as long as you have a good reason for doing so and it makes your work unique in some way.

Marshall asked an editor of several of his novels if there was anything a writer should never do in a novel.

His editor replied: “A writer can break any and all of the rules, so long as he or she does it well. Is there anything a writer should never do? Certainly. A writer should never bore us.”1

Did you read that last part? Well, read it again. Breaking the rules is fine, as long as it’s something we’re not expecting. Don’t tackle something done a million times before without thinking through what makes it stand out from that million.

So, speaking of breaking the rules…

There are several examples in which writers found a new way to express an old theme. It’s how we get a lot of those memorable stories, as a matter of fact. I’ll list just a couple below:

“In his 3-million-plus best-seller Thinner, Stephen King…tells the story of a man who wastes away almost to nothing under a gypsy’s dying curse. Rule broken…: Don’t mix genres.”1

“Judith Mitchell’s best-selling Deceptions is the story of twin sisters, both married, who trade places-and then one of the sisters dies. Rule broken: Don’t use the twins-trading-places device; it’s a stale idea that reminds us of an old Bette Davis movie.”1

If you’re writing something with a common theme and you don’t know how to break out of the mold, then I would suggest reading stories that have. Then find your own new way to do so, because whatever John Doe did has been done before.

Think big. Research. Expand horizons. Break rules.

Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.

Information source:

  1. Marshall, Evan. “How to Write Blockbuster Novels.” In Thomas Clark, Bruce Woods, Peter Blocksom, and Angela Terez (Eds.) Guide to Good Writing: The Best Writing Instruction,  Advice and Inspiration from the Past 75+ Years of Writer’s Digest Magazine (pp. 283-290). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1994.
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