- Karthik Narasimhan
We are just a day or two into the new year. The year that just passed was a year in which Agatha Christie hogged more or less all the limelight, even though she is not that hot. In two separate studies, scientists claim to have unlocked the secret of why her books are so popular, even though they feature protagonists we'd rather not drink tea with.
Scientists at the Universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick “loaded Christie's novels onto a computer and analyzed her words, phrases and sentences.” The results of the study show that
[S]he peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.
[Another] finding was that she used a very limited vocabulary. “It means that readers aren't distracted and so they concentrate more on the clues and the plots,” said Dr Pernilla Danielsson from the school of humanities at Birmingham University. [Link]
Christie used a limited vocabulary, “pleasing and gentle” language even though the plots were macabre, and repeated certain “mesmerizing” phrases over and over again to stimulate serotonin and other chemicals in the body.
Favourite words or phrases, repeatedly used in a “mesmerising” way, help to stimulate the pleasure-inducing side of the brain. They include she, yes, girl, kind, smiled and suddenly. Common phrases include “can you keep an eye on this”, “more or less”, “a day or two” and “something like that”. [Link]
Let's summarize the recipe for bestsellers: Repeating the same things over and over again, gentle presentation, familiar phrases, sixth grade vocabulary. And let's also state our opinion of the whole stylometric study: Duh! Just read any three books by Robert Ludlum, and you'll know. Familiarity sells. Familiarity and simplicity, we are convinced, are the key ingredients that make popular art so… popular. Actually, duh again. There is a whole industry in India, um.. I mean, South Asia that has been using the formula successfully for ages – Indian movies are all about familiar settings, dumbed down plotting and an insistence on making audiences feel good. The next time someone asks Ram Gopal Varma why he keeps remaking his own movies (and those of others), he should quote Professor Danielsson, stylometry, serotonin, Agatha Christie and Antara Mali. And Anu Malik – what can I say? I respect him a lot more now. Something like that.
The repetitive nature of Bollywood means titling movies is a hard, hard task. How many ways can you headline the same article? Guy beats up Bad Guys, falls in Love with Girl. Girl Falls in Love with Guy who beat up Bad Guys. Bad Guys beaten up by Guy that Fell in Love with Girl. Love fallen into by Girl and Guy who beat up Bad Guys. And so on. Which, by the way, is a great segue into the next Agatha Christie finding.
According to a statistical study commissioned by Lulu.com, Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder is the “perfect title” for a bestselling novel and John Le Carre is the most consistent producer of “good” titles. [Link]
Figurative or abstract titles, such as “Sleeping Murder,” or “Presumed Innocent,” produce more top-sellers than literal ones, such as “The Da Vinci Code.”
A title's length does not affect sales - contrary to publishingindustry wisdom, which decrees that bestseller titles be short. Another increased respect moment here. Remember all those Hindi movie titles: DDLJ. HAHK. K3G. Damn. These guys knew.
Through the Language Log a link to the statistical analysis tool used for the study. The Lulu Book Title Analyzer. Please don't forget to leave comments complimenting the intriguing figurative title I chose for this post.
PS: Agatha Christie picture courtesy The Free Library.