The Formula of a Bestselling Novel

I decided to research my favorite authors and how they developed their stories. The question is, what is it that makes a novel successful? Is there a special formula? Here are the results for your enjoyment.

First on the list: CS Friedman, which is my first favorite because of her dark epic fantasy Feast of Souls

CS Friedman: Writes from an Outline, not a specific formula, but also follows the DM Rule for world building (explained later in the post). Her stories are inspired by history and mythology. The plot is solely based on a theme she’s trying to exploit. For example, her response to an interview question on a dark fantasy:

Q. So, since we now know all about Coldfire which other novels/series would you push for new readers and why?

A. My current project is the Magister Trilogy, beginning with Feast of Souls and Wings of Wrath. The conclusion, Legacy of Kings, will be published next year. This is a *very* dark epic fantasy in which magic exists, but the cost is so high that it transforms those who use it into something that is…well, I won’t ruin the story for you. As with all my works it combines an intense story line and compelling characters with an exploration of what it is that makes us human, and in this case the thematic question, “what price would you be willing to pay for power?”. I’m very pleased with the project, and fans seem to be very excited about it. There are some *major* suprises coming in Book III that I know no one sees coming, that will have everyone running back to reread Books I and II and saying, “Oh my God, so *that’s* what was going on!”

– Source:

To explain what is the “DM Rule” : Basically, if you set a gamer loose in your world, what would keep them from winning or hacking the game?

I encourage you read her essay on the DM rule, it’s very interesting.

Also other interesting interview responses that touch on her writing process:

CC: You mention that the Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, is an important book for writers to study. While it’s clear that a writer should have basic English skills, how important is it to pursue creative writing or other college courses? Is it necessary to have a degree in English?  

CSF: I’ve never taken a creative writing course and I don’t have an English degree, so I guess not.

As a matter of fact, I was turned down in college when I applied to join a creative writing course, because my writing wasn’t good enough. The piece I turned in later became a chapter in my first bestselling novel that launched my career. Go figure.

CC: How carefully do you plot out your stories, is every element conceived in advance, or do you write with a loose outline and let the story tell itself?

CSF: Both.  I plan things out in advance, but I do it in segments, working from a loose outline and then refining the section directly ahead of me. This allows me to add in stuff I developed as I was writing.

My story never “tells itself”. I control it. In this I differ from many authors, but I think I get the best ending out of a book if I am carefully planning all the hints and clues and plot devices that lead there. Letting the story take control means you don’t know where it’s going, so you can’t do that.

 – Source:

My next target is RA Salvatore, my favorite due to his Dark Elf Drizzt Series:

I won’t post his interview here since it’s long. If you’d like to read it check here. To summarize, he is a true “artiste” and “play-er by ear-er”. He basically crawled his way up the jagged mountain of publishing and just “writes stories”. My kind of dude.

And I like his advice on fight scenes:

My last target, Mercedes Lackey, my favorite because of her Valdemar Series, namely one about a firestarter in Brightly Burning:

She doesn’t even use an Outline half the time. Just writes the story. At least this seems to be the case for her earlier novels. Later, Lackey began to co-author and change up the writing style. While still good books, I did not prefer the co-authored works as I did her original Valdemar Series.

Spherical Time: Can you describe your process when writing a book? How much planning and research does a single work require before you start writing it? Aside from the 40-80 page outline that you’ve previously mentioned on your website, are there any other patterns that you follow when you write?

ML: The amount of research that is required by a book depends on the book. If it is a period piece I can spend months working up to it, getting the feel for the period I need. If it is made up out of whole cloth, as it were, notably high fantasy or contemporary urban fantasy, very little is usually needed. And occasionally I write a book without an outline just to keep my hand in.

Source –


So from my research, my favorite authors don’t seem to follow any special formula.  But actually, they do. Every bestseller will have a basic formula, just as a delicious cake will have a recipe. Just because your Nana was able to bake it without one, doesn’t mean it didn’t have a list of ingredients, bake time and mixing order.

Thanks to a fellow Scribophile member, I can introduce you to the 5 plot points of which will make up every bestselling novel.

1. Inciting Incident

2. “Lock In”

3. First Culmination (basically the SECOND biggest obstacle in your second act)

4. Main Culmination (the Climax)

5. Act III Twist (the thing in Act 3 that turns everything on its head.)

Roughly, the first incident is… first, the lock in marks the end of Act I, the first culmination is the middle of Act 2, the Climax is the end of Act 2, and the Act III twist is… well pretty obvious.

This takes it a step further than my assumption every novel is composed of a conflict, a climax, and then a resolution to the conflict. While the 5 plot points listed above also include this idea, there’s an analysis of the plot arc that is going to be present to make the process effective and engaging.

At the end of the day, I find myself agreeing with one bit of advice the most. “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham


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