The first post in this series of three explored ‘tricks of the trade’ used by best-selling authors. The second post summarized five of James W. Hall’s twelve features from Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.
This final post outlines Hall’s remaining six features.
Feature #7 – “Bumpkins versus Slickers”
In most bestsellers, there’s a central character who sets off on a journey that takes her from rustic America into turbulent urban landscapes … almost as often, the heroes of bestsellers make an exodus in the opposite direction
Hall and others refer to this as the hero’s journey, a structure that has worked in endless permutations to leverage the ageless clash between city and rural values.
Question: is feature #7 the commoner versus the nobility in historical fiction?
Feature #8 – “God Sells”
Our twelve bestsellers all feature religion in prominent ways, consistently critiquing orthodox religious practice and the dangers of zealotry.
The secular world is juxtaposed against religion that has gone astray and people who claim to adhere to religious values while clearly committing contrary acts. False piety, says Hall. Common sense struggles against religious conviction, science against faith. Langdon of Da Vince Code fame is an example – a man of science clashing with powerful religious leaders.
Question – does religion have such prominence in historical fiction?
Feature #9 – “Americans delight in reenactments of our national myths.”
The rise from humble roots to become rich and powerful. A character struggling against injustice and, finally, triumphing over oppression. And we are also grimly fascinated by the flip side of these stories.
Hall illustrates: Mitch McDeere’s belief in the American Dream (The Firm), Scout Finch’s triumph over racism (To Kill a Mockingbird), Scarlett O’Hara’s example of the virtue of hard work (Gone With the Wind), exposing injustice (The Da Vinci Code), the freedoms of American society clashing against communism (The Hunt for Red October).
Question – is there an equivalent to America’s national myths in historical fiction?
Feature #10 – Rebels, Loners, Misfits and Mavericks
The heroes and heroines … are all rebels, loners, misfits or mavericks. They don’t fit in worth a damn, and that’s one of the reasons we love them so much
Hall explains that the “tension between mavericks and conventionalists operates at the core of the biggest bestsellers”. Heroes of these novels reject conformity and convention. They are strongly individualistic.
Feature #11 – “Fractured Families”
In each of our twelve novels, a member of a broken family finds an ingenious way to transcend his or her crazy stress.
A few pages later Hall states that “twelve of the most successful novels in publishing history and not a traditional, fully functioning family among them, yet all our heroes and heroines find ways to make peace with their extreme losses”.
Perhaps these novels function partly as therapy for readers coping with their own family distress particularly at a time when the traditional family model is changing (some would say has changed).
Feature #12 – yes this is the last one – Sex
In every novel on our list, one key sexual encounter plays a decisive role in the outcome of the plot and in the transformation of the protagonist.
Scarlett’s sexual encounter with Rhett Butler. The false accusation of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird. Unresolved sexual tension between John Smith and his former girlfriend in The Dead Zone. Raunchy sex just before a woman is eaten by a shark in Jaws. Mitch McDeere’s infidelity on a deserted beach in The Firm.
The sexual language may be toned down to broaden the books’ mainstream appeal, but copulation, both violent and extreme, still plays a crucial role in the outcomes of these stories … somewhere in our national consciousness we know that one good roll in the hay can change everything.
So … there you have it, the twelve features of bestsellers according to James Hall’s analysis. By the way, he has one final ingredient to add – personal passion. “Without this one last ingredient, a novel might easily contain all the recurring features but still remain a lifeless pile of mush.” There’s still magic involved.
Feedback – what do you think? Do these twelve features resonate in the stories of your favourite historical fiction writers?