Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blockbusters

I have been reading Al Zuckerman's WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL. I am reading it not because I am attempting to write a blockbuster novel -- I don't think I have that capacity -- but because all aspects of my craft interest me. The question that Zuckerman, who for decades was the head of the literary agency Writers House, raises in his book is this: What sets a "blockbuster" apart from other novels that sell far fewer copies? In other words, what does the widest possible mass-market demographic want to read?

Without recapitulating the entire book, let me summarize. Zuckerman identifies a number of "blockbuster" characteristics, even as he duly notes that every single one has exceptions. The major characteristics are:
  • a clear protagonist, usually sympathetic, that we want to succeed
  • characters who are not Everyman, but rather are "larger than life," by which he means driving hard to get whatever it is they're striving for, whatever that takes
  • multiple point of view (despite having one main character) to "open up" the story and let the reader know more of what's going on than the protagonist does
  • a "big" setting: the Civil War, international espionage, the world of the New York Mafia, the million-dollar art world, Mars
  • very high stakes
  • personal as well as professional relationships among characters on opposite sides of the struggle
  • a lot of action, all building to a climax that changes everything for the characters
  • usually, victory for the protagonist

I must say that Zuckerman supplies convincing examples for his list: THE FIRM, THE GODFATHER, THE MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and various Stephen King novels. It's a 1994 book so he missed Harry Potter and Dan Brown, but they do match the pattern. In a comment to my previous post, the always insightful Mike Flynn pointed out that much popular modern fiction sacrifices depth, and Zuckerman makes clear that he's not after depth here. He's after identification of a certain kind of novel -- just as a bird watcher might want to name the identifying characteristics of a certain kind of eagle -- and in that task, he succeeds admirably. An interesting and knowledgeable book.

4 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

Writer John Dunning, who taught a class in novel-writing lo these many moons ago, told those of us in the class that we intended to write a blockbuster, and had scoped it out - much as Mr. Zuckerman did. In fact, the tattered fabric of my memory snaps out several of the same points. There is also the open-the-story-with-the-steamy-sex-scene bit.

Anyhow, he wrote DENVER, with high political corruption, investigative newsman, the impending KKK takeover of the state, and so on. It was a very good book, imho. But it did not become a blockbuster.
http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/d/john-dunning/denver.htm

He was, at the time he taught the class, working on a book about a Seattle State Ferry that disappears in sight of land because the Bermuda Triangle has shifted to Elliott Bay. He used it to illustrate all the elements of novel writing, but at the end announced that he had decided not to write it because fantasy was not his thing. Years later, I wrote to ask him if he had ever done anything with the idea. He wrote back and said no and that he "gave" it to me. It worked out well.

Richard said...

Your comment about depth is interesting. I recently dug out Look Homeward, Angel which I recall very much enjoying some quarter century ago. I put it down from boredom halfway through. At first, I chalked it up to personal changes, but then I wondered if perhaps reading "depth-less" books for the last decade or so had accustomed me to sizzle rather than steak. Perhaps as books lose depth, so do readers.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

That's all good advice, but incomplete. Zuckerman leaves out =luck=. I'm sure we've all read great books and wondered "why isn't this acknowledged as a classic?" Any performer will tell you luck is the biggest factor in success. (And aren't writers performers?)

For example, in sf--WE ALL DIED AT BREAKAWAY STATION, by Richard C. Meredith. An interstellar war novel if not quite the equal of STARSHIP TROOPERS or THE FOREVER WAR is certainly in the league. Yet it's forgotten, while the first two sell mucho big copies to this day. Why?

Luck. The twist of fate and the roll of the dice and the turn of the cards.

James A. Ritchie said...

I think Zuckerman is right on average, but there are, fortunately, more than enough exceptions to the rule to mean we can write a blockbuster without having to follow his formula.