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The Formula: A Neurodivergent's Analysis of What Makes a Best Seller

I used to read a lot of romance. Eventually, I got burnt out, because although I understood I would always be getting a happily ever after (or HEA as romance authors have coined it,) I needed more variety in a story. The predictability meant that I could guess almost every move an author made.

I got on a sci-fi fantasy kick for a while, and eventually realized that the exact same thing was happening. I got on tiktok screaming and begging for an unpredictable story. I eventually landed on indie booktok, and found that when I veered into lesser known books, I found a divergence from "the pattern." For me, a person who craves variety, that was an amazing thing.

But going back to the pattern. I consider sometimes writing a book...before imposter syndrome and my need to be constantly editing instead of completing get the better of me. As a neurodivergent human (I was a gifted kid and am a gifted adult and it's my personal opinion that being gifted puts me on the spectrum - but I diverge from the point and that's a whole other can o'worms,) I have very good pattern recognition. Every time I plot an idea for a book, I follow this pattern. I've never been trained as a writer, but I've seen this formula repeat in thousands of books, and it's an easy way for me to outline a story as a hobby writer.

It occurred to me recently that I've never shared this with the world, and what is a blog but a one-sided conversation I'm having with myself in an effort to hash out my thoughts into words? So here it is: after reading thousands of books I believe I've outlined the pattern of a best seller in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

I. The protagonist must start the story in an incredibly, gut-wrenchingly unjustly oppressed situation.

II. An Inciting Event must occur which is very out of the ordinary within the world you've built. The event must remove the character from the oppressed into the world of the oppressor. They see how the 1% lives, but they've left a sibling, friend, or lover behind with the oppressed. This keeps them grounded in that world.

III. The protagonist only wants to help the person(s) they've left behind. To do so, they must subvert the oppressor. This is best done through some sort of game, schooling, or challenge.

IV. They meet another oppressed, or a sympathetic oppressor, an ally who will come along with them in their cause. This person can, but doesn't have to be, a love interest, especially of the protagonist left a love interest back home, leading to a "must choose" situation. No matter how you hash that out, the ANGST is the most important part. Don't flesh out the love interest too soon. This seems to work best when there are 3 - the protagonist, a love interest, and a best friend. Plus whomever they left at home.

V. In subverting the oppressor as an individual, they often generate a following and start a movement which gains traction, often to the detriment of themselves or their person. This usually occurs through a trauma in which they discover that the people they are competing with in the game, school, or test are actually also victims of the oppressor. (Think Cato in the Hunger Games or Nizha at the end of the first Poppy War book.)

VII. Here's where it gets a little detailed: you must create a divide within your fandom. This can be through the love interest ("team Edward" vs. "team Jacob") and/or through groups in the book that your fans can identify with, like the houses in Harry Potter, which are built on certain personality types. This generates discourse, which keeps your readership engaged between releases.

VII. Throughout multiple books, the protagonist fights battles against the oppressor, the first book being typically on their own, the second with a few allies, and the third with the revolutionaries they've unintentionally created. Your protagonist must always, above all else, be an unwilling hero. Each book must have a battle within the greater war. But each book should end on a cliffhanger. The end of the battle is decided, but now we have a BIGGER problem. (Think Katniss winning the Hunger Games, but now she has President Snow's personal attention and she must cooperate or her sister will be killed. Big yikes.)

VIII. As a reader, I really REALLY hate to tell you this part. But your protagonist has to lose something in the battle or it doesn't seem real. You have to bring it back around full circle. (SPOILERS!!!) Katniss loses Primrose. Aurora loses her powers (ick, what a patriarchal trope.) Trice loses her life. The protagonist must lose this to win the war, or in the process of winning it. Listen, don't be mad, I didn't make up the pattern, I'm just reporting on it...

Some examples that have followed this pattern and done extremely well:

  • The Hunger Games


  • Red Rising

  • The Cruel Prince

  • An Ember in the Ashes

  • Twilight (kinda)

  • The Bone Witch

  • The Poppy War

  • The Selection

  • Aurora Rising

  • Divergent

  • The Fourth Wing (haven't read this yet but I've been told it follows the formula)

Of course this isn't the only way to create a best seller, there are many many other ways to write a book. But this is one of the simplest outlines to follow. It seems to occur mostly in the YA genre, and I believe that's because the plotline doesn't require too much complexity. Simple, easy to follow, easy to love. There's nothing wrong with that. I adore many books that follow this pattern. It's like a trope. It's a tool, use it how you will.

There's a separate pattern for romance which is simpler but effective.

I. Protagonist A is unhappy with something in their life.

II. Protagonist B may also be unhappy in their life, that's up to you. But they come along and remove Protagonist A from their situation. Protagonist B often believes they are "saving" Protagonist A, though Protagonist A frequently disagrees with this assessment.

III. Protagonist A & B must act together to resolve a situation. Unwillingly.

IV. Third Act Breakup. Protagonist A & B are now physically separated. This is often done through a miscommunication, but I'm personally begging you to find another trope. I hate that one!

V. Angst.

VI. Protagonist A is put in an adverse situation and Protagonist B must save them. They make up, Happily Ever After.

(VII. Often a writer will add two secondary characters who seem to have a spark in order to rope the reader into the next book.)

I'd list examples of this pattern but I'd actually challenge you to find me a romance novel that doesn't follow this pattern!

I'd love to know your thoughts! What patterns do you see? Do you follow this pattern consciously, or possibly unconsciously?

Author's note: I recently made a similar rant on Tiktok about this subject and was introduced to Joseph Campbell and the theory of monomyth, the common template o

f stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed. He wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which I personally haven't read and don't plan to because I can't get into nonfiction, but as I pose a very similar theory here, I thought it worth a mention.

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