"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." –E.L. Doctorow
Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Hunger Games.
Let's face it. We all dream of hitting the bestseller list, even though it's an antiquated idea. What we really should hope is that our books go viral. Even that word has sex appeal. Viral. You know, the infectious Facebook-Twitter orgy where you, the author, need not lift a marketing finger because rabid fans are spreading the contagion for you.
Do you have what it takes to write the next great novel that everyone is buzzing about? It's possible. If Fifty Shades of Grey proved anything, it's that anyone—including self-published soft-core porn authors—can infect the global conversation. So how do we authors increase the likelihood of going viral?
Some would say you must be original to make that kind of splash, but that's not necessarily true. If you think about it, The Hunger Games is actually a rip-off of its much more violent Japanese cousin, Battle Royale. In fact, none of the concepts of the novels we just named is all that fresh, but they are all high concept.
High concept books resonate with a large section of the population at any given time. But how will you know if your book achieves that? Usually, you start by combining different subjects that make strange bedfellows. For instance, take this concept.
What if scientists had the ability to bring back dinosaurs from extinction using DNA technology? Jurassic Park. And Crichton didn't stop with the future-meets-past genetic manipulation of the T-Rex. He threw in a theme park and children-in-peril for good measure.
"Oh my," says George Takei. "That's a concept so high that it would make Woody Harrelson put the bong down."
How about this concept?
What if an FBI trainee had to interview the most dangerous serial killer ever known in order to apprehend a new killer who skins his victims? Did we mention that this trainee is an over-achieving female, who's dealing with the all-boy's club at the FBI? Silence of the Lambs.
Notice how the concepts of these bestsellers were easily placed into a one or two-sentence question? That is your elevator pitch. If your ability to pitch your novel to a stranger in the time it takes an elevator to move from one floor to another seems to excite that person, chances are your concept is high. The following examples of elevator pitches will not excite anyone.
"Well, it's kind of an autobiographical story about a good-looking detective looking for true love after being kidnapped and ending up in Dubrovnik."
"Actually, it's a paranormal love story with a literary pace."
"It's written to appeal to fans of Stephen King and Herman Melville."
Bored already? If you find your elevator pitch sounds anything like those, think about how you can ramp it up. Better yet, how can you ramp up your novel with concise, fresh ideas that will resonate with your reader? Do that, and she'll want to turn and pitch your novel to her girlfriend, sister, father, and her Pilates instructor.
You should know that although a high concept helps, it's not enough. The biggest driver of whether or not a book goes viral is character, and typically, bestsellers have protagonists that display two traits. They must be sympathetic and proactive.
If you think about it, character is actually what sets The Hunger Games apart from other dystopian novels. Katniss doesn't enter the games against staggering odds because she wants to prove she's one bad MF. She does it to save her sister. Her self-sacrifice makes her sympathetic, and it's also the highest of attributes that we as a society hold dear. The reader wants her to succeed and therefore turns pages to see if she will. She also happens to be terrible with other people. In this way, she isn't just a caricature filled with butterflies and rainbow goodness, but she's also believably human.
Your protagonist must also be proactive. That means you don't start your story with your character getting up in the morning, brushing his teeth, and looking at his handsome face in the bathroom mirror. Nor do you start it with your heroine in a plane, circling an airport, and thinking about her life. Give your protagonist her mission early. Right or wrong, she should be the kind of person who goes after her goals with every argument, dollar, friend, and weapon at her disposal.
Of course, there are always other ways to strengthen your novel and nudge it toward the bestseller list, but by far, a high concept novel with a sympathetic, proactive protagonist has the best shot of infecting the world.
For more information from Bonnie and Christopher about writing fiction in the digital age, visit: DIGITAL INK BOOKS