As predicted, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an excellent read and very, very hard to put down. I finished it Friday, and have been wondering since then, just what makes a bestseller a bestseller.
1. Excitement: Pacing is key, there's no doubt about that...However, if you just write in a lot of end-of-chapter cliff-hangers, with no payoff, then readers will catch on; some would say that Dan Brown is the master what I call the "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." trick, but after "Angels and Demons" I began to find his writing pretty irritating, for just this reason.
2. Entertainment: To paraphrase the great Lou Stein (Read his Stein on Writing), we writers must never forget we are in the entertainment business. My problem with most post-modern "literary" writing is that it seems steadfastly un-interested in entertaining readers.
3. Characters we can relate to: That doesn't mean that we all think we are Scarlet O'Hara, or Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larson's "heroine") but that we can relate to some major aspect of her character (or his, in the case of Rhett Butler or Mikhael Blomqvist). Who has not felt they were an outcast in some way--or that they did not fit in? Who does not have one or more "issues" from their past they prefer not to discuss. Hence the popularity of Salander, a girl who we might all pass on the street without more than a disdainful glance. Larson had quite a full life, for one who regrettably died so young--check out his very entertaining website here.
4. Payoff: You gotta deliver! The thing that unites all bestsellers, from the run-of-the-mill to the brilliant is some sort of emotional payoff, a resolution, a wrapping-up of plot lines and stories. Not all good books do this entirely, and certainly crime novels (especially series) often leave a few sub-plot lines dangling and character dilemmas unsolved. But the ride has to have taken us somewhere, not just showed us great scenery.
5. Really good writing: Yeah, sure, you betcha...it's gotta be there, but it's number 5 outta 5 on this list for a reason. Great writing helps, but is not essential--and sometimes gets in the way. One of my favorite writers is Mark Helprin (not to be confused with Mark Halperin), someone who is a prolific writer of gorgeous prose, who has only briefly shown up on any bestseller lists in his lifetime. Winter's Tale is one of my favorite novels of all time--also A Soldier of the Great War. Do read them when you get a chance.