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the magazine for women who write

FEATURE: Each issue of the magazine contains up to six full-length features about creativity, publishing trends and other issues of interest to writers.

Anatomy of a Blockbuster

What if someone came up with a formula for writing a bestseller? Well, actually, two people have. Mandy Sutter looks at how some real-life literary and genre bestsellers match up to the models.

We've all read at least one - sneaking it out from under the bed when the partner's asleep, or reading it because we're on holiday; in hospital or the cat's died. We say we're reading it 'to see just how bad it is'; or that 'it was a present' or we just 'found it lying around'. We hold it flat to hide the red and gold embossed cover, hoping the sheer thickness doesn't give it away. The truly devious camoflage theirs with a cover torn from A Suitable Boy.

The technical definition of a bestseller, fastseller or blockbuster, is a title selling 100,000 copies or more. Of the 8,000 new novels published every year, only about a hundred - less than one per cent - achieve this status. A handful of these will sell millions. But not all bestsellers are fat and showy. Many works of literary fiction achieve bestselling status, too.

So how does a book achieve such enviable popularity? Is it possible to define a bestseller in terms other than sales? In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman has identified a useful list of typical blockbusting characteristics. These include the following: larger-than-life characters; use of a 'dramatic question' as an organising principle; high stakes (both for main characters, and the people they represent): multiple viewpoint; interesting settings; radical or outlandish premise.

It's easy to see how multiple viewpoint (the story seen from several characters' point of view - Zuckerman recommends four) might enable a wider range of readers to identify with the story, especially if the characters come from different walks of life. But how is this different from writing about a large cast of characters from a distant omniscient narratorial stance?

Zuckerman explains, citing Ken Follett's The Man from St Petersburg, 'Follett's action stays highly charged because in each scene we experience the action through the point-of-view character, the one who has the greatest emotional involvement, the largest stake in what's happening.'

Multiple viewpoint certainly is used by bestselling writers Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope. But is it used in more literary works? Yes, in the case of Louis de Bernieres' Captain Correii's Mandolin. The story is told mainly from the points of view of Pelagia and Captain Correlli, but there are also chapters written from Mussolini and 'LOmosessuale,' heightening the reader's sense of involvement in the military aspects of the plot before the war reaches Cephalonia.

Staying with Captain Corelli and moving on to Zuckerman's 'high stakes', the stakes in Pelagia and Correlli's love affair certainly are high. But they are not high for a wider group. Through the love story, we feel the war's effect, in the same way that John Updike's Rabbit series shows America through the microcosm of Harry Angstrom. But the central storyline and its resolution don't have a direct bearing on the lives of many, as they do in a genre novel like Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, where the future of the world is at stake if the dinosaurs cannot be contained. While high stakes in this sense are common in genre fiction, it's hard to think of literary examples.

A more complicated matter is 'high concept' - a radical or outlandish premise, closely allied to the dramatic question posed by the novel. This seems closely connected with 'interesting setting' and 'high stakes'. Science-fiction, horror and fantasy have a head-start. In Jurassic Park, high concept, dramatic question and interesting setting are fused: can a few right-thinking people prevent the inhabitants of a dinosaur park escaping into modern society? To pick a literary example, a novel like Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow uses a similar 'mad scientist' plot, which is undoubtedly high concept. Hoeg's writing shows all Zuckerman's criteria except multiple viewpoint; we are restricted to Miss Smilla. Having said that, the novel does cross into the thriller/adventure genre, a genre founded on the concept of the outlandish.

Outside crime, thriller, horror, adventure and science-fiction, it seems hard to name many high concept novels. But the waters are muddy. At first sight, in E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, the dramatic question - will Quoyle find love and happiness? - seems ordinary. But when we ask will Quoyle find love and happiness in a remote corner of Newfoundland, having not found it in New York, perhaps we could say that high concept is present. Then again, all novels need a basic dramatic premise - i.e., the set-up necessary to create tension. When does this become radical? It may be helpful to ask where a novel stands on a continuum, rather than talking in black and white terms.

The idea of 'larger-than-life' characters poses us with a similar problem. Zuckerman means characters who do extraordinary things, like Don Corleone in The Godfather. Celia Brayfield, in Bestseller, is less simplistic. She says that a bestseller's central character needs two well differentiated qualities, writ large across the storyline.

'The cardinal quality.., is an extreme trait which is both their curse and their blessing... the opposing quality is the trait holding them back... Hamlet is vengeful but indecisive. Shirley Valentine is adventurous, but feels she doesn't deserve her dreams.'

Brayfield's diagnosis applies in both genre and literary fiction. In Rabbit Run, Updike illustrates Harry Angstrom's cardinal quality - spontaneity - by showing him running between two women. His opposing quality - desire to do the right thing - is dominated by his cardinal quality, and destruction ensues.

Going back to Zuckerman, does this constitute 'larger-than-life' behaviour? Or is it rather the playing out of a character's internal conflicts in the novel's action - the basis of most drama writing? And where do we draw the line between life and larger-than-life? Again, it may be useful to think of a continuum: at one end, Don Corleone -at the other, Harry Angstrom.

Literary writers like Proulx and Updike celebrate the extraordinary as found in the ordinary. The use of high concept and larger-than-life-characters in the Zuckerman sense would run counter to this. The use of the dramatic question as an organising principle, though, acts as a focus. The love affair in Captain Corelli 's Mandolin focusses de Bernieres' illustration of war. The dramatic question - will the hero and heroine find happiness together - mirrors aspects of the relationship between the Italians and the Cephalonians.

High concept and larger-than-life characters are strikingly absent in most women's fiction. There is nothing outlandish in Joanna Trollope's Other People's Children. In Maeve Binchy's Evening Class, an Italian teacher sets up evening classes and a trip to Italy. The action does not affect a larger group, and the settings are domestic.

Zuckerman says of women's fiction that although the subject-matter is mundane, the stake is made to seem high. The writer imbues 'these heroine's lusts, longings and passions... with such fierce and unrelenting intensity that what is at issue for them strikes the reader as powerfully as mayhem, murder or national catastrophe.'

Yes. But surely the stakes are heightened not merely by focussing on the heroine (or hero's) emotions, but by contextualising them in the novel's action? So in Rabbit, Run, Harry's stakes are high because both Janice and Ruth are pregnant. One or neither, and the story would have less impact. In Trollope's A Village Affair, a lesbian love affair is made scandalous by the setting - a close-knit Cotswolds village. Perhaps the terms 'high concept' and 'larger-than-life' are best defined within the context of each work, on its own particular terms.

Brayfield calls bestsellers 'stories which broke new ground, which first put into words the ideas which millions of people already had on their minds.'

Bridget Jones' Diary and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity certainly helped to explore the modern phenomenon of singleton angst. Interestingly, in these two books, as in much other comedy, Zuckerman's criteria are reversed. Both have just one (amusingly myopic) close-character viewpoint and a narrow focus. But the dramatic question is a strong organising factor and the personal stakes are high. And the characters' cardinal and opposing qualities are written extremely large across the storyline.

So two of Zuckerman's criteria - high personal stakes and use of the dramatic question - seem to be present in many bestsellers, both genre and literary. His other criteria are useful, but come highly coloured by and dependant on each novel's individually created world. The issue is subtle and best approached using continuums rather than black and white statements. Brayfield offers interesting ideas, including the thought that bestsellers are a useful barometer of the times.

Overall, it seems best to talk about tendencies, not sure-fire rules. Is it too much like hard work to try and define 'bestseller' in terms other than sales? Perhaps. But while there's still big money to be made from writing one, we'll probably go on trying.


Binchy, Maeve. Evening Class, Orion
Brayfield, Celia. Bestseller, Fourth Estate
Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park, Random Century
De Bernieres, Louis. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Minerva
FIelding, Helen. Bridget Jones' Diary, Picador
Hoeg, Peter. Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Harvill
Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity, Putnam
Proulx, E Annie. The Shipping News, Fourth Estate
Trollope, Joanna. Other People's Children, Black Swan
Updike, John. Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, Penguin
Zuckerman, Albert. Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Little Brown

MANDY SUTTER realised while she was writing this article that her own novel is unlikely ever to become a bestseller, which means she will be carrying on teaching creative writing and journalism at the University of Leeds for the foreseeable future.

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