I sometimes wonder if there is a “secret formula” or something that makes successful writing successful? Some people argue it has to do with structure, be it the 3 Act, 7 Act, or (insert number here) Act. Others would say it should come from the heart (me sometimes). Others still might say it’s about creating page turners and writing chapters that raise compelling questions with “hook” endings that readers can’t put down because they “just have to know what happens”. And finally (or not), others might say there is no secret, just write the f*cking thing and some people will love it and some people will hate it – kind of like music.
Is there a secret? Does it matter? What makes something successful?
What, at least, I think makes something successful is that the book/story/movie/screenplay/napkin scribble is something that people can relate to. One person’s “bible of amazing” could be another’s “worst piece of crap since
the actual bible O.J.’s If I Did It“. Whether Oprah or someone famous likes it may play a role because then you can factor in mass marketing and free advertising, et cetera, as well as, “sheep reading” as in – “oh, they thought it was good, then I just have to read it. For the record, I am, like everyone else to a certain extent a “sheep reader” (if you think or say you aren’t, you are lying to yourself as well as everyone else). I’ve read books because Stephen King or Nick Hornby has endorsed them. I like their writing and they are actual writers so I don’t feel like a total sheep, but a sheep I am nonetheless.
Ultimately though, if you write something that someone, somewhere (hopefully many people, many places) can relate to you have figured out the secret formula.
Now, relatability(sp?) is a broad topic. There is obviously direct relatability, as in I am “this” and the story and character are about “this” so I will like this book. Direct relatability is probably the most common reason people read, at least it’s why I do.
Then there is the hard one, but also the best when it strikes the chord – indirect relatability. As in, this story seems compelling and even though it’s about someone far away doing things I would never do I want to read about it because I think I will gain from it or it will at least be entertaining.
The best example I can give with respect to indirect relatability, books and success would be Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I know I’ve written about Coelho before and my love affair with his books, but I like them, so whatever.
How many of the approximately 65 million people who have purchased and read The Alchemist are, “Andalusian shepherd boy(s)” who have traveled from, “Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids” and along the way meet, “a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point” the shepherd boy, “in the direction of his quest”?
Maybe a lot because 65 million people is a lot of people, but at the same time there are no doubt tons of people who have read this book that have only seen the Egyptian pyramids in pictures (me) and seen Spain in their friends’ vacation photos (also me), but still find they can relate to it. Why? Because while on the surface (direct relatability) the book is about Santiago and his quest for this treasure, deep down (indirect relatability) the book is about “the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts”. And who out there, those of us with dreams and hearts at least, couldn’t relate to that?
I hope this made sense. I just sat down and started writing and this was what I came up with. Go buy The Alchemist, it’s awesome.
Also, all the quotes in this were from the back jacket cover of my copy of the book – which is exactly what a prospective buyer would read before purchasing the novel (I hope!).