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How to Write an Award-Winning Novel: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

December 26, 2019

Nobody I know hates All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few years ago and was a best seller for a long time.  Usually, there’s a large group of people who hate whatever book wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

For example, a lot of readers despised Empire Falls or were bored by The Goldfinch or thought A Visit from the Goon Squad was all over the place (there weren’t even any goons in it!).  But statistically very few people think All the Light We Cannot See sucks.

All the Light We Cannot See reminds me a little bit of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Nobody that I know of hates this book either.  We had to read a lot of books in school, and almost all of them were hated by a majority of students most of the time.  A Separate Peace was okay, but a bunch of my friends hated it.  The Odyssey was despised, even though it was Greek mythology.

Every book we were forced to read was hated to some extent, except To Kill a Mockingbird.  Nobody said To Kill a Mockingbird sucked.  At worst, somebody might have said it was overrated, but nobody said it sucked.

The same applies to All the Light We Cannot See.  Nobody says it sucks.  More importantly (from my point of view), I finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. That’s saying something about the book. I start a bunch of books but rarely finish them.  I finished All the Light We Cannot See and kind of liked it.

Whenever there’s a popular book that I really like, I try to analyze it (without overkilling it) and figure out a formula (something more than “it doesn’t suck).  If we use All the Light We Cannot See as a guide, here’s how to write an award-winning (and maybe even a best selling) novel:

1.  The Setting

First of all, it’s set in World War II.  That’s going to appeal to a lot of readers.  Everybody knows World War II. This story could have taken place in some form during just about any modern war, but everybody is interested in World War II.  Even though World War II was a dangerous time period, it’s a very safe setting if you want a book with wide appeal.

2.   Sympathetic characters

One of the main characters is a blind girl.  The blind girl elicits sympathy from the reader.  The other main character is an orphan boy.  Everybody sympathizes with the orphan boy.  It’s almost not fair to the reader to have a blind girl and an orphan boy as main characters.  It’s author cheating.  You’d have to be a heartless bastard of a reader not to sympathize with a blind girl and orphan boy.  I don’t want to be a bastard reader, so I sympathized with them.

3.   The villain

As if the dangers of the war aren’t bad enough, there’s also a Nazi gem collector who is looking for one of the main characters.  This antagonist felt a bit out of place, like a stereotyped villain from an Indiana Jones movie suddenly thrown into literary fiction, but this didn’t stop me from reading.  That NAZI villain probably made the book more interesting for a lot of readers.

4.   Short Chapters

This book also has really short chapters.  And the chapters almost always switch characters.  Sometimes the shortness of the chapter is a little distracting.  But I still kept reading.

There are so many short chapters that are so short that it almost reminds me of a James Patterson book. The big difference though is that short chapters in All the Light we Cannot See don’t suck.

5.   Limited stream of consciousness

Most literary fiction authors use really long stream of consciousness sentences somewhere throughout the book.  It’s almost mandatory for literary authors to overuse stream of consciousness.  To me, most of those seem like the author is trying way too hard to show off, and I roll my eyes at a lot of them.  This book had a few instances like that, but not so many that I rolled my eyes.

There was only one chapter where I rolled my eyes.  It’s the chapter “White City” on page 364, and as soon as the situation was set up, I thought, “Oh, c’mon, are you really going to have a scene like this?”  And, yes, there really was a scene like this.  Not that it was a poorly written scene.  It’s just that every war novel or movie has to have a scene like this.  To be fair, it did kind of matter later in the book, but it was still trite.

Looking back, the author of All the Light We Cannot See made a lot of safe choices.  The setting was safe, the characters overly-sympathetic, the villain stereotyped, and the chapters were James Patterson short.  Plus, there was just enough stream-of-consciousness to justify this novel’s classification as literary fiction. If you are determined to write an award-winning book with wide appeal, this is probably a decent template to follow.

Despite these minor criticisms, I’d probably recommend All the Light You Cannot See to just about anybody who likes to read fiction.  It’s literary fiction that doesn’t often feel like literary fiction, and to me, that’s the best kind of literary fiction.

  1. Yeah not an easy feat. I liked your post, very original.

  2. Unchaptered permalink

    I second Anastasia’s comment. It is very original and a different way of looking at bestsellers. Plus, your second point made me laugh: “You’d have to be a heartless bastard of a reader not to sympathize with a blind girl and orphan boy” 😂

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