A lot of my friends are reading Fifty Shades of Grey at the moment. Sales of the book and its sequels have grown to a stage where it’s now breaking records, yet some will claim it’s little more than Twilight Fan-fic. However, whether you love or hate the book, I think it and other breakout hits like it hold important lessons for writers.

I’ve not read the book so can’t form an opinion of it, but I suspect I’m not its target demographic. However, a lot of friends have read it, and I had to ask them whether they were just enjoying a mucky bit of filth (nothing wrong with that!) or whether they saw more in it? A lot of my writer friends are dismissive about the books, rolling their eyes at their mention or sale records but according to those who are reading and enjoying the books, after the first hundred pages and first bit of BDSM, it’s the characters and their relationships that are driving readers forward through the trilogy.
And herein lies an important lesson for writers
I firmly believe that books that sell in large numbers sell for a reason. Yes, there may be some gimmick or hook that brings people’s attention but for it to become a global multi-million seller, it has to have something more. Of course, you can be cynical and dismissive and say people are stupid, but before you do, let me tell you a tale.
Many years back when everyone was reading The Da Vinci Code, I read it and hated it. And I mean, really hated it. I felt that if someone had fallen out with a family member to such an extent that they’d never talk to them again, the reason for the falling out would be burned into their memory. It wouldn’t, as happens in the book, be remembered piecemeal at convenient moments. I could see the skeleton of a plot that story and character had been draped so thinly over it was like gossamer. It drove me mad and I think I ruined some people’s enjoyment of the novel by pointing this fact out.
But then I started to think, why were people enjoying this novel? I think, as much as I hate the book, Dan Brown is a master of pace. He carries the story along at breakneck speed, with some chapters as short as 300 words, so you don’t see the cracks, you just keep turning pages. If you want to learn about pace you could do a lot worse than read The Da Vinci Code. I still maintain it’s a shit book though.
I’ve only read bits of Twilight so my observations are based on a very narrow slice of the book, but I think its success is in factionalising its audience. The whole Team Edward vs Team Jacob thing engages the reader and instantly creates discussion and debate. It’s a classic story about first love, whether to go with the person measured and considered, rather than the reckless and exciting. I think at its core it’s very Jane Austen but with claws and fangs.
To be fair, watching interviews with E L James, she’s as surprised as anyone at the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve not read it but suspect that it might be the anti-romantic novel. All my friends mention how screwed up the guy in it is and that the relationship is more interesting than the BDSM (which I think is the hook that initially draws people in). I did think about getting the audiobook but agree with comments based on the sample I heard that the reading is terrible. I’ve heard, even from some of the books supporters, that some of the prose is terrible too. But you know what, I’m not going to slate it because it’s obviously doing something right.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from these mega-blockbusters as a writer. Whether you ultimately like them or not is inconsequential.