What if someone with years of experience analyzing literature took a dozen blockbuster bestsellers, broke the novels down to their component parts, and figured out what they had in common? Is it possible to reverse-engineer the stories to see what makes them popular? Can we predict what books will become bestsellers? Could you use the data to construct your own bestseller?
Hit Lit contains some of the very elements you'd expect to find in those blockbusters - a tantalizing premise, the promise of a secret revealed, some familiar stories, and the chance to learn something new.
James W. Hall, a university English professor, recruited a group of students to read (or re-read) twelve super-bestsellers, novels that sold millions even before movies were made of them (and movies were made of all twelve of these books). They analyzed the books the way they normally deconstruct Henry James or Jane Austen classics.
They found that the bestsellers were similar to each other in many ways. They were often small stories told against sweeping backgrounds (Gone with the Wind, The Hunt for Red October), and they featured heroes who acted without spending a lot of time thinking (Shakespeare's Hamlet could never be a bestseller, apparently).
Hall came up with a list of elements he says are common to all the books they studied, but it seemed to me that there were plenty of exceptions to the rule. (Aren't there always?) Though he claims to have found that little time is spent on backstories and references to the characters' pasts are few, some of the books are quite heavy on backstory and reflective heroes, such as The Bridges of Madison County. In the spirit of Hit Lit, I read first chapters of several of the books Hall analyzed and found that The Godfather, The Dead Zone, and The Hunt for Red October all relied heavily in the opening chapters on explaining the characters' pasts.
On the other hand, what we normally think of as "good writing," - elegant sentences and flowing prose - is not a requirement for bestseller superstardom.
So, as you may have suspected, there's no list of elements that can either describe all bestsellers or can lead you to bestsellerdom. Hit Lit will probably not make you a better or a more successful writer. However, analyzing the books along with Hall and his students may make you a better reader as you consider just what it is you like about certain favorites.