Write It Sideways

3 Classic Strategies for Writing a Bestseller

Today’s article is written by Dr John Yeoman.

What’s the first duty of a novelist?

To entertain.

We might have a thunderous agenda, as Dickens did when exposing the horrific plight of the Victorian poor. Or as Zola did in his condemnation of the death penalty. Or as Steinbeck did in his rage at the exploitation of immigrant workers.

But if our reader yawns, we’re dead.

Has anyone ever read in full the 30,000-word lecture on Objectivism that Ayn Rand drops shamelessly into Atlas Shrugged? At the end, a listener screams with inadvertent humour, “Let me out of here!” Quite so.

How can we pose as knockabout entertainers yet retain our integrity? How can we explore one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins—for nothing less will engage the reader—without descending into kitsch or pulp?

Ben Jonson knew the trick in the 17th century. He wrote his every play to appeal to three different tiers in the theatre: the ‘master wits’ in the gallery (cerebral wordplay), the gents and goodwives in the stalls (domestic drama), and the groundlings in the pits (ribaldry and jigs).

In fact, he pitched his stuff at three levels in the audience’s mind—intellect, emotion and carnality—and sometimes all three of them in the same phrase. (Shakespeare knew this trick too, and did it with less effort.)

That’s still a working model for a successful novel.

Our books will sell well enough if we pitch them at just one level—say, the intellectuality of Annie Proulx or the sensuality of Harold Robbins. But does a reader of The Shipping News buy The Carpetbaggers, or vice versa?

Instead of restricting our market, why not work at three levels at once? Then readers can find their own level. Reviewers, at every level of reader taste, will love us.

1. Writing on Three Levels

A classic example of the three-tier style is the British crime novelist Ruth Rendell.

She often blends carnality, low domestic conflict and highbrow intertexts, all in the same scene. In her early crime thriller The Best Man to Die (1969) her protagonist Inspector Wexford has just left a house that’s dark with intimations of adultery, murder and marital conflict. The tragic spirit of the couple’s handicapped son—abandoned in an institution—haunts their marriage.

‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child,’ Wexford mutters to himself. Perhaps only one in a hundred readers will recognise that quotation from Shakespeare’s King John. It doesn’t matter. There’s something in this scene for everyone.

Rendell’s three-level sensibility—a simultaneous appeal to each of the reader’s three minds—enriches all 23 of her Wexford novels.

2. Making the First Level Transparent

A novel has to work at level one before it can work at all.

A clever author will set out to write literature. Wordplay dances everywhere but the plot sprawls like a dead squid. (Thornton Wilder’s first novel The Cabala is like that.) But a brilliant writer is attentive to the groundlings. S/he keeps the story going. Jigs abound and slapstick too. Fisticuffs are optional.

Then the master wits in the gallery—plus the reviewers—can savour the intertexts if they wish, smugly deluded that nobody else has spotted them.

David Lindley’s first novel A Cold Mind is a masterful mix of sex, fisticuffs and sly scholarly wit. Amid the slaughter, he even finds time to drop in a riff on T S Eliot’s The Wasteland. It works.

Twenty years later, Lindley came out with The Rules of Silence. All wit has gone. The novel is as laconic as Elmore Leonard with a sore throat. Groundlings will love its grand guignole plot, a festival of atrocities, but master wits may yawn. There is nothing for their minds to chew on.

A novel has to work at all three levels to tempt the reader to read it twice.

3. Maintaining Structure

A strong sense of structure may redeem a slapdash style. Michael Avallone hacked out 1000 novels in his lifetime—27 in one year—and once wrote a Man from U.N.C.L.E novella in 36 hours. Amazingly, all were published.

But the reverse doesn’t hold true. Fine words, however many levels of the reader’s mind they target, won’t rescue a novel that lacks form. John Fowles discovered this with The Magus, a cryptic epic that’s designedly chaotic. The author never finished it. Nor does the reader.

The Perfect Balance

The perfect balance is a story that’s elegantly phrased, never loses the plot, and spurs the reader to turn the page.

Thornton Wilder finally got it right in Heaven’s My Destination, a masterpiece.

A.S. Byatt never learned the trick. Possession won the Booker prize but the first chapter hanger doesn’t occur until page 98. By that time, all but her fondest fans may have tossed Possession at the wall.

For all his clichés, Dan Brown is a master of the page hanger. Those hectic scene shifts, those endless Perils of Pauline, those micro episodes that blink out as soon as they approach a peak of drama. O O O O, that Shakespeherian rag! We snort, we laugh, but we read on.

If only Brown had A S Byatt’s sensibility, or Byatt could dance Brown’s jigs, we might—at last—have a Booker winner who would enchant us all.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course.