First, novelist J.W. Hall tried his hand at this in his Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, where he analyzed a few of the bestselling novels of the past years, including Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather, Jaws, and The Da Vinci Code. Even though he didn’t find many similarities in terms of plot, characters, and settings, he says these novels share 12 different features, including protagonists who “act decisively” instead of “navel gazing,” and plots that waste no time setting up situations where readers are “drawn forward by the momentum of the unfolding story as one complication after another challenges the central character and the original dramatic question mutates into another question and another.”
Of course, he does say that his book won’t help anyone from writing a bestseller. How could it?
Maybe there are some common features, but there’s no formula for writing a bestseller. For once, trends change. Then, even though novels that have been selling very well in the past are doing so even today and will continue to do so in the future, current readers have different tastes than those in, let’s say, the 1980s. Political and cultural views are changing, and there are a lot of factors that alter the novel and force writers to constantly change and adapt the medium.
Let’s say, just for fun, that someone with an incredibly high IQ does spend years and years studying different novels, trying to find a sort of frame by which to build a bestseller. Let’s say he actually writes a good story. But then it all comes down to the one factor that is out of our control: luck. Even though sometimes chance isn’t the predominant factor, it does have a degree of influence on whether a novel sells or not.
But then again, the really interesting thing is that neither Hall, nor any of the other individuals who tried their hand at finding a formula for writing a bestselling novel, are bestselling authors themselves. Go figure.