It has been proven to me time and again that very smart, amazing people have very different tastes than I do. And that’s okay. They might disagree with many of the things below, but this is my take on how to approach writing a book that is worth publishing.
Appeal/Setup: The story needs a strong foundation of something the reader will care about. This can mean many things, but in general, this means that you need to help the reader see themselves in the story. The breadth of appeal of your story will directly correlate to the foundational elements you include. You can control this. A few examples of variables:
- Characters for whom you give a backstory and/or page time: People want to see themselves in your characters. Diverse + deep cast of well-executed characters = broader appeal.
- Example: I believe that we love to read about believable villains because we like to explore our ‘dark side’. We see characters as believable when we could see ourselves taking the same actions they do, given the same context. That’s why it’s just as important to show why a villain does what he/she does as it is with your hero… assuming your story has some version of a hero and villain.
- Character motivations: this is easy. What are some common things people want in life? Power, wealth, fame, revenge, sex, drugs, freedom, safety, food, etc…
- Setting/Worldbuilding: This is tricky, but I believe that people want to experience a setting that is familiar, but new and interesting in some way. I’ll let you decide how to interpret that, but consider that the vast majority of earth’s current population lives in a major city/suburb setting. Familiar yet interesting could be a story set in the wilderness/countryside (something that is familiar, but yearned for), or it could be a unique twist on an urban setting.
- That this is why so many successful stories are set in some sort of school (but with some fantastic twist – be that magic, grandeur, or just a conveniently attractive and generally perfect romantic interest way out of our MC’s league that just so happens to fall for him/her). It’s a setting everyone, even adults, can identify with. We spend a good portion of our lives in a school, and then send our kids off to school just a few years after we escape.
I’ve run into a few writers that are really good at writing, but they write really odd stories that are hard connect with in a meaningful way (a matter of personal opinion, of course). Here are a few things (not meant to be an exhaustive list) that I think people want to see from a story, in loose but meaningful order:
- Character Internal Progress: Characters changing, progressing in some fashion – achieving an internal goal or milestone, usually becoming more (or less) capable at a thing and demonstrating it
- Relationships: Romance, friendships, alliances, rivals, enemies… humans are social animals, and we want to experience various relationships in our stories
- Character External Goal: also known as “protagging”. Usually includes a main character achieving an objective after struggling to do so at least a few times so it feels “authentic” and difficult (try/fail cycles).
- Conflict: between characters, leading to conflict resolution in some form
- Exploration: of setting, other unique aspects of the story (especially in SFF)
- Problem Solving: solving a mystery or puzzle, letting the reader solve it with the MC as it unfolds
- The Final Countdown: Achieving a final victory, usually after a seemingly insurmountable setback or hurdle
This could all be boiled down to “write good words”, but I’ll try to lay down some sub-categories that I pay attention to:
- Voice/Style: This may be the one element in this entire article that is difficult – though not impossible – to control completely, as it is a very subjective measure. I find that my written voice is primarily affected by:
- The characters I’m writing, and how well I “know” them
- My emotion associated with the characters and the plot of the story
- The stories I’m consuming at the time, both written and visual media
- My ability to make time not just to write, but to sink deep into my story as I write
- My own emotional/mental state
- Clarity: grammar, sentence construction, paragraph spacing, word choice, and description are all critically important
- Pace: be efficient with your words. Hit multiple story objectives with every scene.
- Flow: portray a constant, consistent narrative, as close to the subject as possible
- Repetition: repetition of “tags”, or common descriptions, can aid in recall and familiarity with important aspects of your story
- Consistency + Limitations: character actions should be consistent, settings/magic systems should be consistent, and all should be limited so as to force your characters to work for anything they achieve
- Write the damn book: this one cannot go unmentioned. Incredible writing talent is squandered constantly by those who just never sit down and write until a thing is done.
Write What You Love:
My final bit of advice: write the stories you want to read. You can easily do research on and arrive at logical conclusions about what kinds of characters and stories are likely to appeal to large groups of readers, but unless you are also writing what you love, it will likely fall flat. I’ve seen many a respected author claim that there’s no difference between works written with passion vs. those written through sheer force of will. I’m here to tell you that this is not true for my work, and I can absolutely tell the difference between someone who is writing for money or appeal instead of out of genuine interest in their work .
Patrick Rothfuss is one who (I like to believe) writes from a place of passion for his work. He’s obviously a talented writer and has many widely appealing elements in his story, but the level of depth and authenticity present in the Kingkiller Chronicles would be very difficult to replicate without caring about your work on a personal level.
It’s important to note that often, mass appeal and personal appeal are a spectrum (or perhaps a many-dimensional space with many axes), and the way to win this game is to find a point on the spectrum where your genuine interests align with those of a sizable target audience.