Like most books about writing, Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel doesn’t say much you haven’t read elsewhere. But some of that may be because he said it first; the original version was published in 1994. He also structures his advice in a way I found helpful.
Instead of rehashing the three-act structure, Zuckerman—a literary agent and author himself—analyzes several successful novels and zeroes in on what he thinks makes them work. His basic principles are that “big” books should have high stakes, a compelling dramatic question, high concept, multiple points of view, and an engaging setting. In the course of his deep dives, he points out how authors like Ken Follett (one of Zuckerman’s clients) implement these principles. I especially liked seeing drafts of some of Follett’s outlines and scenes. As Zuckerman says of the first outline, “Having read [it], you should feel encouraged. Here is the embryo of what grew into a book that enjoyed more than twenty weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, sold more than four million copies in two dozen languages—and you quite rightly may have concluded that it is not very good.” Seeing how a great author started with something half-formed and sculpted it into a blockbuster is a great reminder that you don’t have to (and probably won’t) knock it out of the park on the first swing.
Other good tips/reminders from Zuckerman:
Thread your descriptions with emotion. It’s more powerful for the reader to experience something through how a character feels about it than to see its attributes listed by the narrator.
Trim your cast as much as possible. If a main character can perform a role just as well as a secondary character, cut the secondary character so you can keep the main character on the page. The affected scenes will seem more relevant to the reader.
Keep the tension up by writing each scene or chapter from the point of view of the main character who has the most at stake at that particular point in the story.
Bind your main characters together with relationships that make their conflicts more intense. Family drama is almost always fascinating. Or if that’s too contrived for your story, see if you can plausibly have your protagonist and antagonist know each before the action starts, preferably through some sort of friend/rival dynamic.
Give your characters direction by making their goals apparent in both the larger story and each scene.
Advance the action by changing the characters’ circumstances (usually for the worse).
Only bring in backstory (via flashback or internal monologue) when it’s relevant to what’s happening in the present.
The marketing section is less helpful, even though Zuckerman revised it to account for how radically the landscape has changed since the book’s first edition. He’s also pretty dismissive of self-publishing, which has become a financially viable path for many indie authors. But overall, I found Writing the Blockbuster Novel a useful resource. Here’s hoping I can fulfill the title’s promise someday.