The Wow Factor

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Jim provided a great post yesterday on the reasons people abandon reading a book (mainly because, no surprise, it’s slow and boring!) and ways in which an author can make their own work ‘unputdownable’. Today I want to discuss what propels a book to the next level – what I call the ‘wow’ factor – those elements that take a book to a level where not only can you not put it down but you also can’t help but tell everyone about it. 

This is the essence of ‘word of mouth’ marketing, which can turn a book into an instant bestseller. Think about a book like Fifty Shades of Grey. Although I confess I haven’t actually read it, and no matter what you think about its subject matter or literary merit, there’s no disputing it created a buzz which encouraged millions of people to buy it. For me, the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series have it. But how to define that ‘wow’ factor? Surely if if was that easy, we’d all be bestsellers…but it’s not and yet, it’s the elusive element that every publishing house and indie author longs to create.

For what it’s worth, I think the ‘wow’ factor probably involves a combination of the following:

  • A startling, controversial or shocking take on a conventional topic or genre.  This is what made Fifty Shades of Grey the talk of the town when it was first release. I remember being in a boot camp class and being amazed at how many women were reading it, simply because it was so illicit and controversial (which was really why I didn’t feel in the least compelled to read it!). I think the same can be said for classics such as Lolita and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. If you get people talking about a book because it raises the hackles, insults somebody’s ethics or challenges their notions of propriety it’s probably going to generate buzz (both negative as well as positive). But that is hardly enough (I’m sure there have been thousands of books about controversial topics that have bombed…)
  • An uber-intense relationship between characters that appeals to the inner romantic in us all. Think The Bridges of Madison County or the Twilight series. Despite the writing style (or lack thereof) these books pulled at the heart strings. They managed to capture the yearning for true love and, as anyone whose ever watched The Princess Bride knows, true love conquers all. It’s hard to quantify exactly why these books manage to generate such an overwhelming ‘buzz’ but I think the ‘I will love you forever’  over-the-top romance was addictive.
  • A story that touches our humanity. We’ve all read great satisfying books and recommended them to others but rarely do we rave about a book to strangers, family members and friends unless it something indefinable that captures our heart as well as our attention.  I think if a novel makes people feel good about themselves, or raises our consciousness and humanity we feel compelled to tell others about it. This is certainly what happened to me after I read Schindler’s List and The Alchemist.
  • And finally, a story that totally transcends the ordinary… Which goes to demonstrate how important it is to raise the stakes, take risks and strive to transcend the genre in any book you write.  Think of a book like Life of Pi and you’ll know what I mean.


So what do you think helps create the ‘wow’ factor? What was the last book you couldn’t help talking about with everyone you know? 

20 thoughts on “The Wow Factor

  1. I’ll try to keep this short.

    I read a story decades ago about a man whose life was meaningless. He saw an ad promising a better life. He ended up in a barn, full of people, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for whatever was going to come and take them all somewhere wonderful.

    After a day or two he decided he’d been scammed and opened the barn door to leave. Immediately there’s a flash of light and he turns to see the barn, and everyone in it, gone.

    That has stuck with me for years and damned if I can find someone who can tell me the name of the story and the author. But what made it last was how the author conveyed the deep despair, then hope, then even deeper despair. Not a feel good story, but intense.

    I have never read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Pretty sure it hasn’t the level of intensity or the excellence of writing I prefer in a book. If I’m wrong, let me know. I’ll give it a shot.

  2. Amanda,
    Your comment about the book’s deep despair makes me think of my reaction to “The Road.” Is there a more depressing story in recent fiction? Yet I could not put the book down and it left me, finally and amazingly, with a sense of spare hope. I was in awe of Cormac McCarthy’s talent…

    “The Road” also then goes to your point, Clare, in that it had that “wow” factor. At least for me.

    • I agree – The Road had the wow factor for me too – though when I told people about it I warned them it was full of despair!

  3. Good additions to the Sunday post, Clare. I spent a wonderful day yesterday with a group of authors talking about just this thing, how to take fiction from competent to unforgettable. That’s the X factor, or “wow” as you put it, that agents, editors and readers are looking for.

    You rightly counsel to “take risks” and “strive to transcend,” and that’s what we spent a great deal of the day talking about, the tools and techniques that help us get there.

  4. I hope I can write something up-put-downable some day! All I know to do is write from the gut about what grabs me, which is all anybody can do. But a compelling romance, high stakes and lots of action always makes for a really fun book.

    I recently read The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. The MC is a ghost who may or may not be dead, trying to solve the mystery of what she and her sisters did seven years in the past to cause the state she’s in. It’s a really interesting mystery with some delicious shivers of horror. But the ending was hopeful and satisfying.

  5. Right now I’m on the Game of Thrones wave. I absolutely love Martin’s writing!! He makes me feel like he’s leading me in a dance where my feet aren’t touching the Earth. I’m totally seduced and romanced by him. I love authors that can instantly make me feel like I’m in the frozen tundra or scorching desert. I find myself taking note to things that the author has yet to describe, like the coarseness of a horses hair, because of the author’s attention to detail, I’m so deep in the scene I can use my imagination to fill in even what the author hasn’t written about. But I suppose I am not unique in this. 🙂

    • He is great, isn’t he – though I confess I found the first book a little heavy going on the world building front but I still thought it was great!

  6. A book that gave me the “wows” was THE BOOK THIEF. It left me crying like s baby. For me the wow factor comes from the visceral feelings it bleeds from me.

    Great post, Clare.

  7. I agree with Jeannette. I can’t get enough of the Game of Thrones Series. I’m not even a Fantasy reader, but that one speaks to me. Then again, the only sci-fi I will read is Vernor Vinge, but when I do read his stuff I can’t put it down. Fire Upon the Deep made me see the world in whole new ways.

  8. Over the weekend, my wife and I went to Portland, Oregon. We live in Seattle, but I’ve only been to Portland a few times and none recently.

    We had a great time exploring. We found interesting little shops and tasty cafes. Downtown still has narrow streets that add to the mystery. People in the street singing with a group called “All the Apparatus”. Then there’s Powell’s bookstore. Heaven.

    We were so excited to see what was around the next corner.

    To me, the WOW factor is when I find a book that gives me the same feeling. That’s the magic of Tolken and LeCare and Chandler and J.D. MacDonald and Patricia Highsmith and…

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