The 21 Key Traits of Best-Selling Fiction

fiction writing | getting publishedDo you wonder want readers want? In today’s writing tip, you’ll discover the 21 key traits of best-selling fiction excerpted from The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr.

The 21 Key Traits of Best-Selling Fiction

  1. Utility (writing about things that people will use in their lives)
  2. Information (facts people must have to place your writing in context)
  3. Substance (the relative value or weight in any piece of writing)
  4. Focus (the power to bring an issue into clear view)
  5. Logic (a coherent system for making your points)
  6. A sense of connection (the stupid power of personal involvement)
  7. A compelling style (writing in a way that engages)
  8. A sense of humor (wit or at least irony)
  9. Simplicity (clarity and focus on a single idea)
  10. Entertainment (the power to get people to enjoy what you write)
  11. A fast pace (the ability to make your writing feel like a quick read)
  12. Imagery (the power to create pictures with words)
  13. Creativity (the ability to invent)
  14. Excitement (writing with energy that infects a reader with your own enthusiasm)
  15. Comfort (writing that imparts a sense of well-being)
  16. Happiness (writing that gives joy)
  17. Truth (or at least fairness)
  18. Writing that provokes (writing to make people think or act)
  19. Active, memorable writing (the poetry in your prose)
  20. A sense of Wow! (the wonder your writing imparts on a reader)
  21. Transcendence (writing that elevates with its heroism, justice, beauty, honor)

To sell your fiction, you must pay attention to the Key Traits of Best-Selling Fiction. FYI, the twenty-one traits are arranged in a kind of rough order.

  • Appeals to the intellect. The first five: utility to logic. To you, the writer, they refer to how you research, organize, and structure your story. These are the large-scale mechanics of a novel.
  • Appeals to the emotions. From a sense of connection to excitement. These are the ways you engage a reader to create buzz. Do these things right, and people will talk about your novel, selling it to others.
  • Appeals to the soul. Comfort through transcendence. With these traits you examine whether your writing matters, whether it lasts, whether it elevates you to the next level as a novelist.

Where do the 21 key traits come from?

They come from the most prolific, most complete, most accessible, most reliable survey of book readers in the world. They come from my study of the thousands of reader reviews on

Reliable? Yes. Why? Because most reviewers visit a page to write reviews based on their emotional reactions to books. They either love a book or hate it. They were either swept away by the characters and story and language. Or they felt cheated by the author. Either way, they have to speak out.

You can duplicate my research. I analyzed reviews of bestsellers, the good reviews, the bad, and the ugly. I found patterns in the way people responded and sorted reader remarks into categories.

Go ahead. Find the best-selling book in the area where you want to write fiction. Find your own patterns in the first two hundred reviews. I’d be astonished if they were far from my list. These are readers telling writers what they want—or in the instance of a bad review, what they don’t want. You can learn a ton from this kind of market survey. Give it a go.

Then get to writing to satisfy your readers.

Buy The Writer’s Little Helper for more checklists, advice, and instruction on writing!

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27 thoughts on “The 21 Key Traits of Best-Selling Fiction

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  5. Ailora

    James V. Smith, Jr. is wonderful. I bought a copy of The Writer’s Little Helper and I knew immediately it would become a valued reference guide to me. You should see my copy, all marked up with sticky notes and pointer tabs.

    This is a great list too!

  6. alanmorgen

    On the fiction list, it seems like certain genres are always most heavily represented. The main two are mystery and espionage. The other recurrent themes are a troubled past that comes back to haunt someone–usually a women and chic lit. Looking at new fiction, the number of MFAs on the list makes one wonder whether books are chosen by publishers based on story or based on pedigree. Another theme in new fiction seems to be any story about people in or from India.

  7. Lily Ranger

    du_puy, I think the utility aspect is quite important in fiction. Don’t you think it’s essential for the reader to take away from a novel how to: kill people with pencils, lie to a cop, or seduce (enter authority figure here) to improve their lot in life?

    No? I’m kidding.

    I was wondering the same thing, then re-read this: “Appeals to the intellect. The first five: utility to logic. To you, the writer, they refer to how you research, organize, and structure your story. These are the large-scale mechanics of a novel.”

    Which tells me that the first line, “Utility (writing about things that people will use in their lives)” was possibly not stated clearly. Maybe the writer might have said, “writing about things that people recognize as something they might actually use in their lives.”

    Maybe. :-)