S. J. Kelley

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 1)

In starting this journey to Indie Authordom, my first step was “market research” — did the most popular YA novels share any common characteristics? My favourite pastime is reading, so it was a pleasure to go through these books to learn how to plot a compelling story. If you are into the YA genre you’ve probably already read these books, but I’ve included the one-sentence log-line for each for context (obtained through random googling). In this first installment, I will discuss three series that were absolutely extraordinary, in my opinion.

1) Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling (jkrowling.com)
Eleven year old famous wizard, Harry Potter, is sent to wizarding school to learn magic, but ends up solving a mystery over life and death all with the most evil of wizards, Lord Voldemort, trying to kill him.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Harry Potter ranks among my top favourite books of all time (followed by anything written by Brandon Sanderson). I predict that it will be a long time before any other book has the same rich quality of Harry Potter, but if I were to chose a few simple characteristics, these would be it:

  • Rich, descriptive, creative storyworlds you can get lost in
  • Groups within the storyworld that the reader can form strong positive or negative connections with (Houses)
  • Strong supporting characters
  • A strong series-arc as well as a book-arc.
    • An overarching enemy in the series, with individual lesser enemies driving the plots in individual books.
  • While romantic elements were present in the later books, they were tastefully set as a backstage to the main story line

2) Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (suzannecollinsbooks.com)
In a future North America, where the rulers of Panem maintain control through an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss’s skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.


While not as fantastical as Harry Potter, Hunger Games had a gritty, immersive, action-packed style that was helped along by Collins’ unusual choice of first-person present tense. The symbolism in this book was the best I’ve encountered in the genre. I also enjoyed how romance was integrated into the books: Katniss was very practical in her relationship with Peeta, and her goals were central. I felt the movie did the book injustice in this regard, because it looked like just another love story without the calculated maneuvering of the intelligent Katniss.
  • Rich culture and politics linked to and regularly influencing the main plot (in this case, oppression by the government)
  • Symbolism which drastically increased the quality of the book
    • Coal district is lowly, treated like dirt, but coal is also combustible and their district is where the revolution catches fire
    • The mockingjay
  • Realistic romantic elements which take a back stage to the main plot
  • Excellent character development: Responsibility, commitment, sacrifice
  • Gritty, realistic
  • Distinct groups of people (districts)
3) Divergent by Veronica Roth (veronicarothbooks.blogspot.ca)
Beatrice Prior, a teenager with a special mind, finds her life threatened when an authoritarian leader seeks to exterminate her kind in her effort to seize control of their divided society.

I felt Hunger Games was a more carefully crafted and nuanced read than Divergent, but Divergent had superb pacing. While the political setup didn’t feel as rich as in Hunger Games, I felt Tris’s internal conflict was more realistic, and I enjoyed the believable love story element, which was central to the plot.

  • The most believable relationship I’ve encountered in the YA genre
    • Show a connection between the romantic pair; don’t force by telling. It must have substance.
    • See Roth’s description of InstaLove! for her thoughts.
  • Internal conflict can drive many scenes
    • Tris debates what to choose for most of Act I
  • Again, the concept of distinct groups within the storyworld that different readers could relate to (factions)
  • Lean writing; a sense of urgency
  • Strong focus on character development, grounded in the characters upbringing and their new experiences.
Next week, in part 2, I’ll talk about series that were extremely popular and offer some good pointers, but were lacking in some aspects.

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