There are certain books (and cars, and foods, and vacations) that somehow demand to be talked about. You know what I mean.
For the past couple of years, I’ve heard people talking about the hit television series Breaking Bad, which tells of a high school chemistry teacher who decides to start a meth lab. I heard enough about it, that last summer I finally decided to watch an episode—and found myself deeply hooked.
Obviously, as authors, all of us want to get great word of mouth advertising. It is easily the least expensive form of advertising—since it costs you nothing—and the most productive form of advertising, since it comes in the form of testimonials from people that you know, and trust, and who are more or less a lot like you.
So how can you get it?
If you look at books that have gotten great word of mouth, there are a few things that they have in common.
1) Story is more important than style. Most bestsellers aren’t stylistic masterpieces. Instead, the authors offer prose that is merely workmanlike. The prose doesn’t interfere with the story. Many great stylists are actually challenging to read, and their stories become opaque and obscured due to overwriting. Bestsellers on the other hand are usually easily understood.
2) The primary emotional draws, along with the age and sex of the protagonists, are well fitted to their audience. For example, young readers crave a sense of wonder, humor, horror, and adventure. So Harry Potter worked beautifully for them. When Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, he hit strong beats of adventure, intrigue, and horror—which worked well for a middle-aged male audience. (See my book Million Dollar Outlines for more on this.) The stronger the emotional power of the tale, the more that readers will feel the need to talk to others about it.
3) The story has heart. What I mean by this is that something in the tale shows that the author didn’t just write this, he or she wrote it out of love. The author has to be emotionally committed to making this work great. Tolkien loves languages and history, and it showed in his work. John Grisham loves tales about the law. I’m convinced that you need to be in love with your work, too.
4) The story transports the reader. It may transport them to another time or another place, but it also needs to transport the reader emotionally and intellectually, make them feel things that they want to feel, think about things that suddenly become important to them.
I have sometimes said that a story needs to be “remarkable.” By that I mean, that when people are in conversation and a subject comes up that is tangentially related to the tale, one of the speakers will feel compelled to say, “You know, that reminds me of.” The need to talk about a story comes about naturally when the reader has a profound emotional experience with your tale. So be remarkable!