Writing The Bestseller: Romantic And Commercial Fiction
Is there a great book in you? Or several great books?
Writing the Bestseller offers practical advice and wisdom from a dozen successful authors who have sold hundreds of thousands of books, experiencing all the ups and downs of the publishing industry. What to do, what not to do, as romance and commercial fiction have their own rules.
Writing the Bestseller doesn’t sugar-coat the work involved. Instead, authors who’ve been there tell you how to understand the genre and reader expectations. The rewards of writing a bestseller are worth the effort, and these authors share what they’ve learned over the years so you, too, can succeed in today’s competitive market.
Enjoy an Excerpt
Excerpt from C.J.'s chapter, The Importance of Conflict
Have you ever read a bestselling novel and been annoyed to find basic flaws with the writing, characterization or research? Why is this book, with so many shortcomings, climbing the charts and finding new readers every day? You can be sure there is a reason--because most books don’t become bestsellers by accident. And most of the time that reason boils down to this: conflict.
Conflict is the tool that is used to “hook the reader”—a catch phrase in the industry that means actively engaging the reader in the story. I believe building conflict into your story is the number one skill a writer should learn. And before those skills can be developed, it’s important to understand the types of conflict and how they are used in writing fiction.
I believe you can look at conflict from the perspective of your reader in two ways—story problems that tug at heart strings (emotional), and story problems that engage the logical, orderly part of the brain (intellectual).
- Emotional These types of conflict make readers care intensely about the characters. We want to find out more about them. We care what happens to them. We root for them to succeed. You may think this happens because of excellent character development, but when we dig deeper we see that this happens when characters have a gripping internal conflict.
- Intellectual The other primary way to hook the reader is to make them curious about where the story is heading, and how the central story problems will be resolved. When a reader’s logical brain has been engaged, they are turning the pages to find out what happens next, or to discover the meaning of something that the author hinted at earlier, or to see the ultimate resolution of the central story question.
- Both The very best books will hook readers emotionally and emotionally. This should be every fiction writer’s goal when they sit down to do their job each day.
Emotional Conflict Examples
Let’s look at some examples to illustrate the above points. I’ve noticed that many bestselling women’s fiction novels succeed when the main character’s inner conflict causes them to behave in self-destructive ways. The reader is hooked, wanting desperately for the ultimately loveable main character to come to her senses and start fixing her life. For instance, in Sophie Kinsella’s, The Shopaholic, the main character has a shopping addiction. She’s funny and loveable—but her trouble with spending is sending her life on a downward spiral. I couldn’t stop reading as I cheered for her to get her act together. I believe Shades of Gray also fits into this category—the main character keeps making decisions no rational modern woman would make in terms of letting a man control her life (including her sex life). Why? We keep reading to find out what happens. I call these “train-wreck” conflicts, and in order for them to work the writer must also create a lot of sympathy for the character who is making all these wrong decisions.
The above is one example. Here is another, a category of conflict I refer to as the “please let something good happen soon” hook. This works when the author creates sympathy for the main characters by putting them in a desperate situation, and then keeps making the situation worse and worse. I kept reading Angela’s Ashes because I cared so much about those starving kids. I wanted desperately for them to be fed a decent meal.
Of course there are many more examples of how to create an emotional conflict with your characters. Your imagination is the only limit.
Intellectual Conflict Examples
For an example of a bestselling book that succeeded on the basis of creating intellectual conflict, I point immediately to Dan Brown’s The Divinci Code. This book was a wonderful puzzle—a treasure hunt for grown-ups. The reader was willing to overlook cursory characterization, melodramatic cliff-hangers, and unbelievable coincidences because the general premise of the story was just so enticing. Who doesn’t want to find the Holy Grail?
Another example of a book with an enticing intellectual conflict was Gillian Flynn’s big hit, Gone Girl. In this psychological thriller, the reader is hit with several breath-taking twists and turns. Off balance, intrigued and curious about where the author is taking us, we just kept turning pages...and recommending the book to our friends.
I’m sure you can come up with your own examples, based on books that you really loved. Spending time analyzing how another author managed to hook you into reading their book is always a useful way to improve your own writing.
Whether you’re talking about emotional or intellectual conflict, the writer’s goal is this: is to put the reader in a state of tension as soon as possible...and keep her there. This state of tension should begin as soon as possible in the beginning of the story, and it should build to a point near the end when the situation becomes the most dire possible—referred to as the black moment—until the ultimate point of climax and resolution, when the story ends (or in other words, the conflict is resolved
At this point you might be excused for thinking that what I’m describing as conflict is really plot. But it isn’t. The plot is the road map of major story events that take the reader from the beginning of chapter one to the end of the last chapter. Conflict is a quality that is imbued into your characters and your story that makes them interesting to the reader.
So if conflict puts readers into a state of tension does this mean that writers of sweet romances and cozy mysteries don’t need to worry about including conflict in their story? Absolutely not. Without emotional or intellectual conflict, a book will be dull, characters will seem flat, and books will be forgettable. The author of sweeter, or more wholesome stories, does not need to forget about conflict—she needs to tailor it to her audience. To clarify this point, let me point out a second way to define conflict: Conflict equals the forces that are preventing your character from getting what they want.
In a sense, conflict IS story. After all, the story begins with the appearance of trouble (conflict) in the life of the hero and heroine and ends with the resolution of that trouble (in the form of a happy ending). When the conflict starts, the story starts. When the conflict ends, the story ends.
Um. Not always. Lack of conflict is a common weakness in even published manuscripts. If you ever put down a book in the middle of a chapter, or find yourself pushing to keep reading, I can almost guarantee that either the premise does not contain enough potential for developing conflict, or the author has squandered the potential in her initial idea—perhaps by revealing too much, too soon, or by having her characters sacrifice too easily and too quickly, their own self-interest in a particular situation.
Most writers do understand that conflict is essential to writing a page-turner. So what’s the problem? Why is injecting conflict into our stories so hard?
Well, I have a theory... The problem is that as people living our lives, we strive to achieve compromise and agreement. We mediate a disagreement between two siblings, we seek compromise solutions for problems that arise at work, we try to see the other side when someone we care about disagrees with us. Generally, we try to be agreeable in order to make life smooth and pleasant.
Unfortunately, when we turn to our writing, we don’t transform into different people. We can find ourselves working too hard to have our characters achieve compromise, when we would be better off encouraging them to be strong, to stick to their convictions, to care too deeply about their personal goals to abandon them without a struggle.
As writers, in order to create rich, compelling stories, we must fight this impulse to conciliate! We need to:
- Create stories based on premises that are rich in conflict;
- Begin our stories with a dramatic action or event that sets the conflict in motion;
- Ensure that at least one of our main characters has an emotional conflict that is preventing her/him from achieving what he wants/needs in life;
- Concoct plots that feed the conflict—don’t douse it;
- Build conflict in ever increasing increments;
- Layer conflict for rich, believable stories;
- Seek the original while striving for believability;
- Finally, we need to resolve the conflict with an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
So let’s talk more about how to do all of the above.
Choosing a premise with conflict potential
The single most important decision you will make as a writer is choosing which story you want to tell. Why not do yourself a favor and make your next story one that has a lot of potential for conflict? When it comes to romance novels, certain premises have become favorites precisely because they are rich with conflict potential. Let’s look at a few favorite premises and analyze them from the perspective of conflict.