In Popular Fiction, Only One Thing Really Matters
by Paul S. Jenkins
August 10, 2000

Novels that sell by the truck-load -- call them popular fiction, call them bestsellers, call them what you will -- have one identifying characteristic that puts all other attributes into the shade.

If you read 'mainstream' or 'literary' fiction, you may have a pretty good idea about what you like in a novel. If you read genre fiction of any sort, you probably prefer one kind over another. I read various kinds of mainstream fiction, but I like to read science fiction as well. When it comes to military SF, however, I'd rather steer clear.

I also have other preferences about what I read -- for instance, as a writer, I like a novel to be well written.

For readers of popular fiction it's different.

The story doesn't have to be set in exotic locations (either real or imaginary), though this helps.

No need for the characters to be fully rounded, of a kind that readers will feel are based on real people, though if they are, the novel will be more engaging.

The main character doesn't have to be sympathetic, with a touch of daring, and an understandable flaw, who undergoes an unexpected transformation during the story -- but that would be an added bonus.

The narration doesn't need to be clever, or unusual, or show the distinctive voice of the author, though these are certainly advantageous.

The writing doesn't even need to be what is generally accepted as 'good' writing, though we'd probably say it ought to be.

The popular novel doesn't need any of these attributes in order to be a bestseller. If it has them, that will of course help -- but only if it also has the one thing that really counts.

If you don't need a fully realised setting, rounded characters, a sympathetic protagonist, or a distinctive voice, and you don't even have to write particularly well, what do you need?

If it isn't any of the above, what is it -- this magical, essential ingredient? What special characteristic do you have to incorporate, to elevate your novel to the realms of bestsellerdom?

Assuming the actual writing isn't a problem, that the words flow passably well from one to another, the thing that keeps people reading is one thing and one thing only: what happens next.

It's plot, and plot alone, that makes a story successful. Some of the most badly written trash gets read despite itself, because it has one redeeming feature. The reader wants to know what happens next, how things are resolved, how the characters will get from A to B. In popular fiction nothing matters so much as plot.

The next question, of course, is how do you incorporate this most important of ingredients into your story? Ansen Dibell devoted a whole book to this subject, appropriately titled Plot (Robinson, 1990), and in it she had this to say:

The common definition of plot is that it's whatever happens in a story. That's useful when talking about completed stories, but when we're considering stories being written, it's about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn't tell you how to make one.

How do you make your plot? That, I'm afraid, would take a whole book.

Copyright 2000 Paul S. Jenkins