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Writers Tips #101: 17 Tips from Writing the Blockbuster Novel

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

When Albert Zuckerman wrote his acclaimed book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel (Writers House Press 1994), he made no apologies for directing this how-to-write book at those who want to pen the big story, the one that vaults a writer to the fore of his art, the script that makes movie makers drool. All novelists aspire to that (in the way all children aspire to be President), but few will achieve it. Nevertheless, the tips he shares serve every story well, even the niche novel that only appeals (though rabidly) to a cult of readers.

Here are the ones that caught my attention:

  1. create a character readers will readily identify with
  2. create a setting in a milieu people would like to visit rather than a poor working-class district of Englandwriter
  3. offer a big dramatic question that will engage the reader’s attention from beginning to end
  4. give the people in the story a past
  5. have a distinctive voice. It can grow “out of your own special affinity for the English language, out of the rhythms, tones and nuances you hear and weave into your own mind of people’s speech, out of your own highly personal and somewhat skewed vision of the world”
  6. have an eye for detail. This “is more instinctive than acquired. But not for all details, only the most telling ones.”
  7. “The great storyteller has an acuity of perception as sharp as that of a visual artist and can make music in words. Not only in dialogue, but in characters’ thoughts and emotions, in visual perceptions, sounds, smells, palpable sensations, visceral reactions.”
  8. “Create fictional characters deeply involved with each other… It’s only about such characters that readers care. And for a novel to become popular, and to live on, we the readers must care.”
  9. “Energy, willpower and grit are also qualities … that cannot be taught
  10. “The author who cannot set aside a completed five- or eight-hundred page draft and start all over from page one, throwing out scenes and entire chapters, altering and enriching relationships, characters and locales, intensifying conflicts and climaxes, is also unlikely to attain the high level of sustained drama contained in most best-selling novels.”
  11. “A crucial and unteachable … element in a leading novelist’s toolbox is culture, widespread general knowledge, rich and varied life experience”
  12. “In its essence… a novel is emotion.”
  13. “The first thing to note about a big novel is that what’s at stake is high–for a character, a family, sometimes a whole nation.”
  14. “The life of at least one major character is usually in peril.”
  15. “In many major women’s novels… the principal stake is not life or death but personal fulfillment.”
  16. “A second key characteristic of the mega-best seller is larger-than-life characters
  17. “…the book’s opine–the ongoing central conflict around which its major characters interact, the main issue that drives and unites its myriad scenes–couldn’t be more basic and clear-cut.”

Even if you aren’t writing that ‘high concept’ novel, these are good guidelines.

Time for me to create my checklist (I love checklists) and review my draft with an eye for this list of details. See you in a few days.

If you’d like to purchase this book from Amazon, click the link below:

Writing the Blockbuster Novel

To have these tips delivered to your email, click here.

More Writer’s Tips:

Writers Tip #98: 18 Tips on Grammar from William Safire

15 Tips for Young Adult Writers

Writers Tips #94: 9 Writing Tips From James Frey

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor of technology in education, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

45 thoughts on “Writers Tips #101: 17 Tips from Writing the Blockbuster Novel

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Writer’s Coach | WordDreams...

  2. What a fabulous list. I love all of the tips but the one that says a novel is emotion had me nodding. Yes!! Without it, we can’t empathize with characters and we have no real reason to keep turning the pages.


  3. I need to print #9 on a poster and hang it above my computer. I must have what it takes because I throw out a ton of writing. My friend told me yesterday to look at road blocks in projects as breakthroughs. It means you’ve got to figure out how to get past the obstacle which will in turn make your writing even better. It’s all in perspective.


    • Good one. I’ve tried to teach them, but no go. People see themselves as energetic, filled with grit, and strong-of-will when I’m seeing them as wooses. It’s all in perspective.


  4. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    This list shows how easy it is to become a fantastic writer! Okay, I’m being a bit of a smart-alec. I tried writing this evening and couldn’t do it. I’ve tried off and on over the past few weeks, there’s nothing there. I’ve lost my mojo. I’ll keep trying. I’m not ready to give up.


  5. Great post, Jacqui! Thanks for breaking down this one into the most salient points. First I finish my first novel, then I’ll dive deeper into this book. For now, your points are very helpful.


  6. Jacqui number three is one I am trying to place in my draft at the moment. Finding a balance where I don’t reveal too much too quickly is important. Love all of them though. Thanks for sharing.


  7. I take issue with #2. I think the place needs to fit the plot and the characters. A novel, even a blockbuster, is not a fantasy travelogue. Who and What must prevail over where. That said, I always have trouble with the novels where the characters are all rich, and they live the over-hyped lifestyle of the rich and famous. It’s not real, and it creates false expectations–even disappointment, with regular living.


  8. Here’s a comment I received via email:

    This is a new book recommendation for me, one I’ll have to seriously think about adding to my shelf. Seems I should. I note however, in a few of Zuckerman’s points that what he determines to be essential to a successful novel can’t be taught. Points 6, 9, and 11 are “instinctive,” “can’t be taught,” and are “unteachable.” Other points provide little strategy for attainment, though perhaps do exactly that in the book itself. You’re listing the high points of course, not reproducing the entire book. It appears the book is more a description for excellence in storytelling and a thesis for why most writers will not be successful in achieving exactly what the book claims it will show the writer how to do. I think this might be the most important aspect of the craft, that not everything is mathematically teachable; some parts are the result of innate skill. Literary genius maybe. As far as absolute success, that might be based on the current whims of readers as much as on mastery by the writer, and is unpredictable and not guaranteed. Of course, it implies that success, writing the blockbuster novel, is selling lots of books and becoming a famous writer. Success might be writing an outstanding novel even if it garners little attention. Success might be getting a novel completed, having it self- published, eliciting an outstanding review from a respectable critic, or the writer being invited as a local speaker. Zuckerman identifies many credible standards but how many does he teach in a practical manner?


    • And here’s my response:

      Zuckerman runs (ran) a highly-successful NY agency. At one point, he was interested in To Hunt a Sub (my book) and we corresponded back and forth. Ultimately, as with Havis, I couldn’t get the story where he wanted it. Reading his book explains why. I agree—he does think there’s an innate genetic ability to write the great novels that lots of people will never achieve. That’s OK with me. If I strive for his metrics, I’ll get maybe close enough to have success according to my barometer.


  9. I love that – in essence a novel is emotion. The tips are wonderful, as always, but that really stood out for me. When thinking about the books and characters I enjoy – they always evoke an emotional response from me; challenge me in some way. They make me care about the journey. Thanks for sharing😀


    • I agree, Melissa. Where I tend toward thrillers, which are less about emotion than literary fiction sort, when I get a novel that too much plot, I don’t engage as I do with others. Clearly, the emotion is important to me.

      Liked by 1 person

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