The Bestseller Code

by Larry Brooks

If today’s title rings familiar, that may be because there is a new writing book out by that title (with a subtitle added: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers) .

The title at first struck me as shamelessly derivative (what’s next, The Lovely Funny Bones?), but when I investigated further I realized that it is actually clever, since the book describes how novels like The Davinci Code achieve as they sometimes do, with over-the-moon success that everyone immediately tries to explain.

With — literally — a code, no less.

The Davinci Code is, of course, a gift to cynics — Dan Brown? A symbologist? An albino assassin working on retainer for The Vatican? Really? — but the numbers prove them wrong. Inarguably so. Sometimes when a novel breaks that big it can be explained — even cynically — as some happy confluence of social temperature, marketing budget and the unbreakable Tipping Point Code (not a novel yet, just a mystery we all strive to solve), rather that what it really is: an intense application of the forces of story that make novels work. Which include a conceptually-rich premise, dramatic tension, an empathetic hero in a world of trouble, more dramatic tension, thematic weight, killer scenes, and a passable writing voice… stir in a publisher’s commitment to back it strongly, then hope the media likes it as much as that pub committee did… then pray for a little luck and a big order from B&N.

But there is always a better explanation behind the numbers. And, even in this book, it begins with the list of story attributes I just described.

Writing is a lot like love, in that regard. The principles are simple, but the chemistry remains beyond defintion. And so we dive in, do what we can with our best choices, and keep hoping we hit the jackpot.

Writers of these iconic blockbusters have done something right. I mean, really right. Saying you aren’t impressed with the writing is like saying you don’t think that Cate Blanchat is good looking… it’s not the point. The explanation goes much deeper than what meets the eye and ear, and for the serious emerging author it’s worth pursuing.

The Bestseller Code is to writing novels what sabermetrics is/was to baseball, and to the novel Moneyball: The Art of Winning Unfair Game (Michael Lewis, 2003) that broke it to the public, and popularized it with a movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt (because yeah, all baseball GMs look just like that). It is an attempt to codify the aesthetics of storytelling that go ballistic in ways that transcend basic, commodity craft — not to mention logic — to reach people on a deeper level. It actually seeks to explain the numbers as a form of algorithm that can be analytically applied to raw manuscripts to access potential for marketplace success.

I’ve attempted that same explanation myself, in my book Story Physics, which covers the same elements of craft without the ones and zeros.

The Bestseller Code presents a case that I believe fails in its aspiration — that we can predict success based on a survey and quantification of story essences… while indeed landing on the identification of the core elements of dramatic fiction that tend to whip readers into a frenzy. The authors duly observe that books come and go that score high on that algorhythmic scale (as high as the home run titles) and achieve little notice, while some novels with C-level scores end up on bestseller lists without an explanation at all.

Proving what William Goldman famously told us in his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade: “nobody knows anything.” Including the 46 agents who rejected Kathryn Stockett’s manuscript called The Help a few years ago.

So I’m not here to recommend the book, per se.  Rather…

… just to flag it for you, and to suggest that you go to Amazon, click on the cover and read the first chapter (The Bestseller-Ometer, or, How Text Mining Might Change Publishing) shown in the Look Inside feature. It is a fascinating 1500 word read, quite well written, which circles around the drain of suggesting that success can be predicted based on which boxes are checked off (something us writing guru types like to echo), instead of the more easily swallowed rationale that to achieve massive success those boxes corresponding to issues of core craft must indeed be honored… the very thing this magic algorhythem seeks to digitize.

It’s finding a publisher and a handful of reviewers who notice that’s the real math of it.

Click HERE to give it a read. Chewy food for thought, indeed.


This is my last KZ post of 2016, before we break for the holidays to catch our breath and plan our assault on 2017. I wish you all a blessed season, rich and warm with family and friends, and may you arrive at the New Year story milestone refreshed, renewed and armed with a killer premise that will make Dan Brown wish he’d thought of it first.

See you back here in January!


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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

7 thoughts on “The Bestseller Code

  1. There’s a free chapter available on Amazon–the meatiest chapter, probably. All about the tropes that these mega-authors nail in their writing over and over. And how much readers love them.

    • Thanks Kessie. I think that’s what I said in the post, too… go to Amazon, click on the image of the cover to view the “Look Inside” feature, where the Introduction and the first chapter – the one I was writing about here – are available for a free read. Pretty interesting, and I agree, perhaps the meatiest (love that word!) chapter of all (though I can’t say, haven’t finished it yet).

  2. People ask me where I get my ideas. I always tell them, “Schenectady.” They look at me with confusion and I say, “Yeah, there’s this ‘idea service’ in Schenectady and every week like clockwork they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas for 25 bucks.” Every time I say that at a college lecture there’s always some schmuck who comes up to me and wants the address of the service. – Harlan Ellison

  3. Excellent post! If we only knew what might ingite the next reading frenzy. The blockbusters are so diverse, it will drive a writer mad trying to figure it out. I will be watching intently in case anyone manages.

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