5 Principles of Best Selling Books

Recently I sat in on a session by Joe Bunting – these are my notes that may prove useful for others.

Bestsellers = have a value in conflict at their core and everything else is built on that

What does that mean? A value can be:

  1. provision – getting the basics like survival from nature eg food, water, shelter
  2. safety – survival from others eg crime
  3. belonging – a sense of love and community
  4. esteem – i.e. looking and feeling good
  5. self actualisaion – personal growth
  6. transcendance – focus on something greater than yourself

(Sounds a lot like Maslow, eh?)

Bunting went on to explain the Value Scale – these are the points within which action can take place:

  1. provision = life vs death
  2. safety = a fate worse than death
  3. belonging = love vs hate
  4. esteem = accomplishment vs failure
  5. self actualisation = maturity vs immaturity
  6. transcendance = right vs wrong

Value Plot Types – taking value scales to plotting:

  1. life vs death – action/adventure
  2. life vs fate – thriller/mystery/horror
  3. love vs hate – romance, love story
  4. accomplishment vs failure – performance/sports
  5. maturity vs immaturity – coming of age
  6. right vs wrong – temptation/morality

He went on to explain eg The Hobbit is an action/adventure story about life vs death; Eat, Pray, Love is about self actualisation and maturity, same with Catcher in the Rye.

Key #1 – Best Sellers have these values …

  • life vs death, or life vs fate worse than death, or love vs hate, or accomplishment vs failure – a book can only have one clear value it addresses.
  • ‘Bad’ books have no values, and are unclear and ambiguous – they muddle values.

Key #2 – Best Sellers tend to have 2 or 3 plots …

  • main plot
  • internal plot
  • subplot

Example – fantasy/adventure – main plot is life vs death, internal may be maturity, subplot may be a love story; Eat Pray Love has a coming of age main plot, a love story external plot and a subplot of adventure; Twilight has love vs hate as main plot, no internal plot, and subplot of life vs fate.


On a worksheet note for one of your stories – (a) your premise (b) your value (c) your 3 plots

Key #3 Best Sellers move …

There has to be some movement that takes place via the value scale – draw your story’s arc.

Needs to be movement between love vs hate or the result is indifference.
Movement has to take place throughout the story, not just at one point.
This is the ‘double man-in-a-hole’ plot – two major negative values.
Example – Icarus (Freitas model)
Example – Oedipus: starts ok, then in trouble, gets out and up only to then dive.

Key #4 – 6 Structural Elements in Best Sellers

  1. exposition – world, characters, normal life
  2. inciting incident – something happens to disturb the status quo and bring values into conflict
  3. rising action – things get complicated
  4. dilemma – the main character has a difficult choice to decide
  5. climax – decision plays out leading to climatic conflict between values
  6. denouement – new normal ie there has been change from the beginning of the story

Every STORY has each element.

Every ACT has each element.

Every SCENE has each element.

Simplest outline – 18 sentences (see worksheet)

Key #5 – Perfect Structure won’t write the book for you:

  • Practice, practice, practice.
  • Use the tools.
  • Finish no matter what – not perfection, just done.


  1. Write out your premise, note the values in your story, and define your three plots
  2. Work out your story arc based on the values
  3. Write out a sentence for each of your structural elements for every scene

Then start writing your story. Whether you like to plan or prefer to follow your gut, this technique is one that may just help get you over the line from procrastination, pfaffing about and never getting a completed story down to having a finished story however imperfect. You can always edit and review once the story is done. So, get it done.

Note – found Bunting has written post on this topic which will be a good follow-up for you – check it out here – https://thewritepractice.com/story-arcs/. He also runs a few courses. The session I attended was promoting his 100 Day Book training. In that, he offers theory, process, structure, coaching, feedback and team all in 100 lessons. Might be worth checking out. No affiliation.


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