3 Powerful Storytelling Secrets That Made Left Behind a Mega-Bestseller

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Left BehindDo you worry every time you sit at the keyboard that your story—or your storytelling ability—won’t be good enough to succeed?

Me too.

Even after penning the Left Behind series, which has sold over 60 million copies worldwide and continues to sell 21 years since the first title was released, I still have to stare down the fear every time I write a new book.

Why admit this?

Because I’m living proof that you can succeed in this game even if you’re afraid of failure. In fact, I believe fear of failure is a good motivator and should be embraced.

I’m going to suggest three possible reasons why the Left Behind series became a phenomenon, so stay with me.

But first, let me answer a question many writers ask me: “How do you write a bestseller?”

You don’t.

The reason writers ask that, I think, is because they believe such success would put to rest their fears forever. It won’t.

I’m grateful that it doesn’t. Humility is the most valuable piece of equipment on our writer’s tool belt.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

By now you should know that I will never promise a magic potion, a silver bullet, or whatever metaphor you want to use to guarantee overnight success.

If there were a surefire formula for monster bestsellers, 1—I’d have used it a lot earlier in my career, and 2—I would duplicate it every year.

There Are, However, Three Secrets…

…that, upon reflection, proved crucial to the success of Left Behind.

 

1.  Write from your passion

If you take nothing else from this post, get this: I did not set out to write a bestseller, and I never do.

If I had, I would have been tempted to follow all the current conventions, scour the competition, decide what kind of hero and villain work best, what kinds of scenarios, what to be sure to include or exclude, etc.

That’s a fool’s game. Fads, by definition, come and go. And if you’re trying to capitalize on one, it’s likely to be yesterday’s news by the time your book releases.

I wrote from my heart about something deeply important to me and which I earnestly wanted to share with as many people as possible. That compelled me to care about every word.

Hint: Be careful, if your novel is message-heavy, that it does not become sermonic. The story must do all the work, and if it does, the reader will get your point.

 

2.  Engage the theater of the reader’s mind

Ever wonder why so many say, “The book was better than the movie”? It’s because not even Hollywood—with all the CGI techniques at its fingertips—can compete with human imagination.

If you can get your reader to see your story in his mind’s eye, you’ll keep him turning the pages to the end.

Hint: That doesn’t mean describing everything in detail. You’re stimulating the theater of the mind, not doing its job.

See if you can describe an orbital character with one word: knuckly, oily, dour, peckish, dismissive, haughty… and allow your reader to see that person any way they wish.

The larger the role a character plays in your story, the more you can say about what he looks like. But still, refrain from spelling out every detail so you leave to your reader the fun of filling in the blanks with his own imagination.

From Left Behind:

Ritz was tall and lean with a weathered face and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair…

Notice that I don’t:

  • Describe how tall or how lean
  • Say anything about his teeth
  • Tell the color of his eyes
  • Reveal his age

Each reader can see this character any way they wish, and why not?

 

3.  Make description part of the action

Nothing stops a story dead in its tracks like a long passage of description.

If you’re poetically brilliant like Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’) or Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), fine. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

But the rest of us mere humans need to pull our readers into every scene without intruding and making them aware of our writing.

Rather than stopping to change gears and trying to paint a word picture of the setting before describing what happens there, make it part of the narrative flow, like this (from Left Behind):

One of my main characters, Buck Williams, is desperate to get out of O’Hare Airport in Chicago in the midst of a disaster. A young woman behind the counter at an airline club lounge tells him… 

“The livery companies have gotten together and moved their communications center out to a median strip near the Mannheim Road interchange.”

“Where’s that?”

“Just outside the airport. There’s no traffic coming into the terminals anyway. Total gridlock. But if you can walk as far as that interchange, supposedly you’ll find all those guys with walkie-talkies trying to get limos in and out from there.”

“I can imagine the prices.”

“No, you probably can’t.”

“I can imagine the wait.”

“Like standing in line for a rental car in Orlando,” she said.

Buck had never done that, but he could imagine that, too. And she was right. After he had hiked, with the crowd, to the Mannheim interchange, he found a mob surrounding the dispatchers…

Keep these three storytelling secrets in mind as you write, and you’ll pull your reader in like never before.

Which of these can you inject into your work-in-progress this week? Tell me in Comments below.

  • Heather Hemsley

    I think I probably have #1 down. I’ve never ever written just because I want to be on the bestseller list, because I just want to write from my heart and tell others a message. One thing I have to work on is probably describing my characters… :)

    • Meaning work on doing less or you don’t know how to do it at all?

      • Heather Hemsley

        I don’t know how to do at all… I just went into the story. So the reader is probably imagining every detail about them! Lol… I do not want that.

        • Actually you do want that. If you interrupt the story to describe someone you risk making the reader aware of the writer. Just let it emerge in the action: “His long legs made it hard to sit in the economy section of the plane, but First Class was sold out. He’d just have to suffer for a couple of hours.”

          “Welcome to Phoenix,” his sister said. “Tell me you’re dyeing your hair! It’s not fair that you’re older than I am and still have no gray creeping into that brown.”

          If a character mentions someone’s hair or eye color, it should never be their own. It sounds weird when we’re in a woman’s POV and write, “She ran a hand through her blonde hair.”

          • Heather Hemsley

            Mmm, that’s good. I will definitely do that! Thanks!

          • Ellamae

            This is helpful. In following what I had learned in the CWG course, I used a lot of dialogue but also description. Told to avoid narrative, I was surprised to find that the most interesting books were almost all narrative, especially older ones. I went back to reading a lot of novels the last year or so as I did growing up..

          • I love reading them too, but I can’t write them because no one is buying them anymore (just you and me apparently–publishers sure aren’t).

  • Laurie Kehoe

    I think its not what I need to add, it’s what I need to take out. Maybe less description. I need to try to make it part of the action (a piece of the action :))

    • Good thinking.

    • Debbi Vaughn

      One of the lessons I learned from reading Hemingway’s thoughts on writing was that often what a writer leaves out is more powerful than what he leaves in. I guess the challenge is knowing which to do (and when) for maximum impact of story.

  • Debbi Vaughn

    I really identify with writing from personal passion. In a lecture by the late Ray Bradbury, he taught that this is why many writers get stuck with perceived writer’s block. He said if you’re writing about something for which you have no passion, it will show…and not in a good way. I’ve never forgotten that.

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s helpful in keeping me focused.

  • Karen Crider

    I write from my passion as a poet. I have fun with children’s literature because it is largely imaginative. Passion brings the story. Imagination is the tracks it runs on. We are moving again in two weeks from our rental to MN. So my writing has been hindered. But when I am not pounding the keys, my mind is. Thanks for the info.

  • Par Tobiason

    Thank you, Jerry. I’m definitely writing with #1. I’ve written to create a story around issues I struggle with and finding answers to them, whether it be through scripture or people around me. After joining the guild, I am well aware that I need to work on #3. I often read my manuscript out loud to myself and it highlights the parts where I have too much description! I work on #2 as well; but don’t seem to have as much a problem with that concept as much. I appreciate all of your teaching. It has helped me to become a better writer.

  • John Tucker

    Writing from my passion means having an idea, a seed of an idea that I want to expand on. Then, as I write, I stop and think about the sentence I just wrote. Does it say what I’m trying to express? If so, I move to the next sentence. If it rings true with my mind and heart about the topic, I keep writing. I add or subtract in this way until I have a paragraph or more that speaks my heart. I do this when writing dialogue, and detail, trying to let the story tell itself, instead of me telling it. Sometimes the story pushes me aside and I allow it to flow onto the paper, trusting that the Lord is helping me let the story create its own conflict and closure.
    I still have to edit what I’ve written, but if the seed of the idea develops into something stimulating to the senses and captivating to the mind, I feel my heart is in it and others will be engaged by it as well.

    • Good, John. We each have to do whatever it takes, don’t we?

      • John Tucker

        Yes. Your lessons and secrets are making a difference in our writing. Whatever it takes and the encouragement from those, like yourself, who’ve gone before us. It’s great to be part of the Guild!

  • MarJean Quiring Peters

    I LOVE this article! I want so badly to write from my passion, engage the writer’s imagination, and learn to make description part of the action. But, I’ve never written or tried to write a novel. I write allegories, non-fiction, memoirs, devotionals, poetry, and Keynote presentations for teaching. I’ve lived in four states, two countries, and among different people groups. In 67 years, I’ve accrued experience in and out of ministry and learned things worth sharing.
    Since joining your guild, I’m wondering if it’s possible for me to write a novel. Life lessons I want to write in non-fiction could potentially throw myself and others “under the bus.” I’m thinking fiction may be more protective. I’ve studied personalities and brain dominance for many years and would love to try using it in fiction.
    However, I’m afraid I’m coming at this too late in life and I’m afraid of plot and dialogue. After listening to you, I realize I’m a “panser,” which gives me hope. I have a good imagination and think in allegories and metaphors. My Strength Finder results came out as: 1 Ideation 2. Strategic 3. Achiever 4. Relator 5. Futuristic.
    If I don’t try I’ll never know, but I hate wasting time. Do some people just seem to have a knack for plot and dialogue? I’m amazed listening to fiction writers at how their characters and stories become real to them. Do some people just need to stick with non-fiction articles? I would really appreciate some direction and/or encouragement.

    • Not many nonfiction writers do succeed at fiction, MarJean, but speaking as one who has, and who will be your age in September, I’d urge you to at least try. It’s never too late, and it’s so much fun.

      • MarJean Quiring Peters

        Thanks so much! I think I will. Some fun at this age is a good thing. I’ll let you know how it goes. :)

    • Ellamae

      MarJean,
      Wanted you to know how much I relate with your comment. I ask myself too often that maybe I am too old to spend time on this sort of thing. I have written a lot of nonfiction on the job (now retired) and one novel just out STARTING AGAIN IN THE PAST, but have few ideas on how to sell it. I fear I have wasted my time. I have gotten positive feedback from all who have read it, and that’s not many.

      Ella

      • MarJean Quiring Peters

        Ella,
        I’m amazed that you have it written! Good for you. The title sounds intriguing. Is it self published or did you find an agent? I’ll read it : ) It is good to encourage each other. This is not an easy process. Blessings!
        MarJean

        • Ellamae

          Yes, it is self-published. I didn’t try traditional publishing I heard you needed an agent and they do not take writers not published. Thanks for the encouragement. I am just learning my way around the groups. I have gotten positive feedback.

          • Agents don’t take unpublished authors? You heard wrong.

            And why pay to be printed when you can be paid to be published? :)

      • Ella, this would be a good place to keep looking for what to do next: http://www.jerryjenkins.com/guide

        • Ellamae

          I am not sure what this means. Do you mean in writing?
          I do enjoy writing and telling, but creativity does not mean selling. I take back what I said about wasting time. I am working on a sequel but have ideas for nonfiction brewing.

          • My bad, Ella. I missed the “just out” and thought you meant you had few ideas on how to sell your novel to a publisher. If it’s already out, you’re wondering how to sell it to the public. That’s the problem with self-publishing. You’re the publisher, so it’s all on you and the competition is insane. I like that you have projects in the work. i would turn your attention to getting those to the level where they could be traditionally published.

  • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

    Number #2 and a bit of number #3… I need to reduce description, just cut it down a bit. And keep writing from the heart too. Thank you Mr. Jenkins.

  • ohita afeisume

    I think #2 and #3 are the areas I should work on to make my writing better. I find your tips helpful. thanks a lot!

  • Keith Heron

    Thank you for your tips on writing, it is a help to me. I usually think too much about what I should write rather than write down what I am thinking about. I started a runner’s blog a few months ago. It keeps me writing about what I like to do.

  • Linda

    Thank you for these tips and all your emails. I am climbing out of a hole after caring for my mother and her passing in May. My head has so many stories, and so many questions, that I wonder if it could be a story. I have typed several pages of streaming thoughts, but not sure what to do next.

    • Sorry for your loss. Frankly, to me your book should be a memoir, so neither bio nor novel.

  • Dalene Bickel

    As a reader, I’m a huge fan of the Left Behind series. As a writer and editor, I loved your advice, “You’re stimulating the theater of the mind, not doing its job.” When helping clients with their life stories (autobiographies), they’re often tempted to overload the manuscript with details. Even in nonfiction, it makes for a better story if extraneous information is omitted.

    • That’s for sure, Dalene. And thanks of your kind comments.

  • Robin Melay Pizzo

    I love your articles and I get a lot from them in moving my writing forward. The advice you offered regarding entering contests has become a goal of mine. I am entering 2 a month, and yes I feel the pressure of the deadlines. But making the deadlines have given me a true sense of accomplishment. And honestly I don’t mind whether I win or lose, because I know with each one I’m getting stronger as a writer. I learned years ago the best competition in life is yourself. And it’s like Ray Bradbury said, “if you write everyday, the less chances that they’ll all be wretched.”

    I have a deadline for tomorrow, YIKES! And have written a short story that is a wonderfully flawed but I had a breakthrough with my critique group that it’s an issue with structure. Your number 3 to weave description throughout action I believe will correct the flaws. Thank you & with all the flash in the pans, here today, gone tomorrow writing experts, I’m glad I can trust your coaching because you & your work has stood the test of time.

    Thanks for your commitment to share!

    • Thanks, Robin. Yes, all those contests are good for you for the very reasons you state. Let us know when you break through and win one. As you seem to be learning more each time, that won’t be long.

      And thanks so much for your kind comments.

  • Thank you for the reminder,
    “I didn’t set out to write a bestseller, I never do.”
    This morning I was doubly reminded by this quote from author and researcher Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project,
    “The imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer.”
    Just write the book, Jennie.

  • Jerry, I’m writing a non-fiction book on how to survive a particular traumatic event. How do I transition from instructing the reader, to letting them into my head during those events? I’m sure that this is basic Writing 101 and that you will probably cover it in Writer’s Guild at some point, but is there a way that is commonly used to do this or a resource I should visit? I’m researching inner monologue for my memoir, but in a how-to book, how is it done? Oh and BTW you did not tell me that even the prologue of All Over But the Shouting would have me in tears! Loving it! Thanks again!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I would urge you, Marie, if at all possible, to not make this a how-to, but rather just tell your story and how you came through it. Is there more that a reader would need to know to get through it themselves? That way you take a come-alongside approach and don’t risk preaching while teaching. Of course, I’m generalizing without knowing the details, so take that with a grain of salt.

      Yes, Bragg is the best, isn’t he? Poetry.

  • S.E.Gregg

    Congratulations on all of your accomplishments.
    This is a wonderful article.
    I can relate especially to Secret #2 Engage the theater of the reader’s mind.
    When I was writing my book The Christian Olympics,I tried to use the right words so that readers could actually imagine themselves in a spiritual athletic competition.In order for them to see visually that they could be like athletes in a spiritual way.

  • patsy

    Good morning! Thanks for sharing your expertise with us emerging ones. I have children’s stories planted all over my computer and would love to see them in print. They are fictional, with a few facts thrown in. The writing part is easy for me, it’s the crafting of a publishable book that has me stumped. Just bought your Market Guide and I’m very excited to see what I can learn from that. Thanks again, you’ve been a blessing to me for many years.

    • The writing IS your part of creating a publishable book, Patsy. You submit a great manuscript and the publisher does the rest. Unless you’re paying to be printed rather than getting paid to be published. Then it’s all on you and a daunting proposition I wouldn’t recommend.

      • patsy

        Muchas Gracias…and I feel that must be true. I’m excited about the possibility of finding an agent, but scared too!

  • Jamie Jenkins

    I’m currently re-reading Left Behind (I read it once before about 14 years ago) and I’m really learning about description in a good piece of writing. I’m working on good description and cutting out needless words in my own writing. In the past, I wrote with too much description and then I went the other way and actually didn’t put in enough description. I’m working on achieving that proper balance in my writing.

  • Wow, I love the points you made here! (And I always appreciate insight of what went into Left Behind)
    I agree with what you said primarily about fads, how they come and go. I unintentionally started writing a book that is in line with a fad right now. (I didn’t know that at the time). I simply followed the story I was passionate about.(and published it in installments on Amazon.)

    With description, I usually try to incorporate it with the action. To be completely honest, when studying the art of good fiction writing, I turn to novels themselves, and it’s usually Left Behind, so I immediately recognized the lines you quoted above! :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Reagan.

  • Glenda

    I’m writing from my passion and taking a walk beside me(?) approach while working on a memoir and blog idea. Also, improving my skills and building my writing muscles at the Jerry Jenkins Writer’s Guild.
    Amazing place! :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Glenda, and we’re glad to have you. :)

  • dbbarns

    I have the entire “Left Behind” series on CD which is roughly 80 hrs. total in length and have listened to10 times min. I’m not a reader so this is what I do. When others would grab a good book to read. I site at my PC and become lost in radio theater.

    Anyway, the reason I’m commenting is to say I understand no one except the Lord Himself knows exactly how end time events will play out, but LaHaye/Jenkins did a great job w/this. I’m sure many aspects will be just like things were scripted b/c they followed scripture, and in that case you can’t go wrong. If I have a complaint, it’s how Chloe is portrayed (overall). She starts out rough, loud, arrogant, selfish… “in your face” (typical American), and ends up the same, (which caused her death), instead of changed into the woman described in 1 Peter 3 (as she should):

    “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing”

    We raised 3 girls and did all we could to raise them to be like Prov. 31/ 1 Peter 3 women or to say: everything the opposite that Chloe is in this series. There was 5-7 yrs. to grow spiritually in that area but she didn’t, and sadly, no one even spoke much about the issue either.

    Anywho, I love the series and LaHaye/Jenkins. I pray many ppl come to know Christ b/c of their hard work and vision. Criticisms from some organizations that I’ve read (which are unfounded), are to be expected b/c “facts are a stubborn thing” wouldn’t you agree? Till He comes!!!

    • Interesting take, db. I too was frustrated with Chloe–which I know sounds weird coming from her “creator.” But I’m a panster–I write by the seat of my pants and as a process of discovery. I try to put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens. Like you, I wanted to see Chloe grow into a more spiritual woman, but I try to let characters tell me about themselves. She was telling me that she wasn’t a fictitious character but a real person, and real people never quite achieve spiritual perfection in this life, do they?

      I know lots of believers–and I’m one of them–who are not yet what we will be. Interesting, as you say, however, that her independent spirit wound up costing her her life. Actions have consequences–so at least she wasn’t portrayed as a model to young women, unless they’re looking for a bad end.

      Thanks for your kind comments.

      • dbbarns

        I’ve been away for quite some time and forgot that I had posted my original comment on an email address I don’t use that often so I didn’t see your reply until yesterday. Anyway, to be honest, I’m somewhat baffled by your response. As the author you had the control how each character did/didn’t act hence me being baffled. I do understand your comments when you said: ” who are not yet what we will be”, but what I don’t understand is why she didn’t change at all in the area we’re talking about and why it wasn’t addressed by any of the leadership either. Dr. Rosenzweig, Rayford’s, Hattie’s and Chang’s failures/sin were pointed out and addressed but not Chloe’s and ironically, hers were the most consistent and problematic for everyone including your audience. Many younger girls/women have/are listening to this series which (to me), is more powerful than the books, and unfortunately I believe it’s possible that many of them may adopt Chloe’s traits b/c (in their minds), she a Christian now, this is about Christians, etc….That’s one of the things that concerns me; The impact on some of your audience. Anyway, I don’t want to get lost on this issue. I love the series. This “con” sits next to a LONG list of “pros” in my opinion. I only wish this part were different b/c for me it ruins the parts where Chloe acts that way. Have a blessed CHRISTmas. Till He comes, Dan

        • I hear you, but don’t you know Christians who behave that way? You recognized she was wrong, especially in the context of how the others grew and matured; surely even young women will be able to see it. And she DID suffer for it.

          You say, “As the author you had the control how each character did/didn’t act hence me being baffled.” But no, that’s not how I work. I’m a panster (writing by the seat of my pants, not plotting and outlining and arranging things in advance), so there should be no predictability in my stories or characters.

          In an ideal world, all the unbelievers would have become believers and all would live happily ever after. But that wouldn’t be realistic.

          Thanks for your kind comments.