When Ernest Cline pitched his debut novel Ready Player One in 2011, it went to a bidding war, immediately sold novel and movie rights, rapidly advanced to bestseller lists, and ultimately signed Spielberg to direct the movie which releases next month.
The novel is set in 2045, a dystopian world where the only escape is to a virtual reality called the Oasis, created by computer game guru James Halliday. When Halliday died, players raced to win control of the Oasis by attempting to be the first to solve a series of Easter eggs (hidden gates) buried in the game. Faced with massive poverty, the desire to win – especially before a single corporate team does – drives players to devote their lives to the virtual hunt.
It’s easy to imagine the novel’s appeal to science fiction fans, as well as those who grew up playing the 1980s video games so many Oasis settings are based on. I first heard of the novel from my tween son who’d heard it lauded by gamers on YouTube.
But how do you explain a debut novel that blasts beyond its expected niche to stay on bestseller lists for months, to be included on major recommended reading lists, to win an Alex Award from the American Library Association and a Prometheus Award? What had this author done to create that kind of breakout?
If you haven’t heard of WU’s Breakout Novel Dissection group, we get together online four times a year to answer just this question about breakout novels. With a format compiled from Don Maass’s writings, we look at key criteria to determine what makes some books larger than life, rising to breakout success.
For Ready Player One, it’s tempting to think that attention from Spielberg fueled the breakout — but Spielberg didn’t sign on until 2015. Cline created his breakout with a novel that
- created a world that was new and larger than life, out of references that drew on geeky sentimentality in a way that was also new
- introduced characters who were complex and mysterious in their dual identities in the real world and as avatars
- established a high concept, high stakes battle by an underdog to essentially save the world
Warning: If you haven’t read the novel, know that SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT in shared excerpts from our dissection.
World-Building: What’s New About the Oasis?
Right out of the gate, Ready Player One hit the mark with these breakout questions: Does the novel fall into a category of high-concept with gut emotional appeal? Does it have a fresh premise or a new twist on an old idea? Is it a fresh synthesis of two stories?
The virtual reality of Oasis allowed nearly limitless possibilities: participants could create their own planets, and it was on these that creator Halliday had imbedded challenges from 1980s gaming and pop culture. To find the hidden gates, the main character, Wade, had to be first to recognize references from that 1980’s gaming and Halliday’s own life.
The novel was structured like the multi-level quests of a video game. Natalie Hart observed the book had “that same experience of wandering through a world, looking around, seeing what there is to see while on a quest, having the right tools and skills when you need them.” While some found the overall arc predictable, others saw it as sustaining suspense, with unexpected reversals and challenges posed by each quest. Seeing chapters as individual game quests was not a bad reminder for ensuring you have micro-tensions and desired outcomes for each chapter when writing.
The idea of a story taking place in a virtual world or game is not new: in discussions, we raised prior examples of Tron, Hunger Games, Jumanji, and Avatar. Even the idea of Halliday’s hidden contest within the Oasis had the familiarity of searching for Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. But Cline excelled at building a world that felt expansive and new. While Avatar, Hunger Games or Tron might introduce a single otherworld setting, it was impressive how often Wade entered the Oasis and discovered an entirely new world, with whole new sets of physical rules and powers. In some scenes — such as the planet where it’s always night and he floats above the dance floor, falling in love with the avatar Artemis — the novel earns its breakout status with memorable impact.
There is also something bright and optimistic about Cline’s world. Natalie Hart made the point that “One of the things that Oasis gives everyone is the opportunity to be a hero, complete adventures and have grand experiences and explorations, to travel in a way that wasn’t possible to average people anymore.” As the narrative builds toward Wade and a small band of his friends rallying others to rise up against the seemingly endless resources of the villain army, there is a breakout quality to that underdog resistance.
Character: Is it You or Your Avatar?
Among the questions we look at is, Did the characters ever seem larger than life, or did they ever have moments when they soared above themselves?
Cline creates an intriguing depth to characters, as the protagonist, Wade, and each of his friends have both real-world identities and the avatars they create for use in the Oasis. While Cline isn’t the first to use character avatars (the movie Avatar being an obvious example), the duality in character creates interesting complexity that he plays with in new ways.
Giving characters the freedom of choice in creating avatars is revealing both in what they choose, and how game rules still limit their powers based on what they can afford. Whether they make their avatar like or unlike themselves suggests interesting inner dynamics and intensifies the intimacy as they begin building friendships. All stories can build emotional intensity around the first time characters meet, but this was doubled in RPO as avatar-friends worried: What would the other person really look like? Would a friend reject you if they saw you as you really are? Cline made decent use of this to include some switch-ups in cultural and gender diversity.
In our discussions, Barbara Morrison also highlighted the importance of anonymity: “Being anonymous is a huge part of the lure to being online.” In RPO, anonymity (and even invisibility) was a useful tool in advancing through levels of the game. It added layers of uncertainty in friendships. And ultimately, real world survival depended on not letting one’s identity or real location be discovered.
While avatar identities is a unique quality of RPO’s setting within a game, it sparked thought about how this parallels the dual identities all of us have in the digital world. The idea of identity has expanded for modern readers, and may be something to consider in our own writing.
Story-in-Story: What Would RPO be Without Its Canon?
A thread that’s run through many of our discussions is how often breakout novels contain some element of a story within a story. The book Liesel treasures while learning to read in The Book Thief. King Lear in Station Eleven. The radio program and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in All the Light We Cannot See… In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, it was a painting, not a book. Though there is not a single reason why authors use this device, our discussions continually recognize that it appears in many of the breakouts we read, and lends an additional depth or level of mythology to the overall effect.
Similarly, the use of 1980s video games and pop culture as mythology throughout Ready Player One lent it the “sentimental” quality that many cite for its emotional impact. Main character Wade is almost exclusively driven by his knight-like reverence for this canon. Extensive knowledge of Halliday’s bio, game scripts, and industry secrets like hidden glitches or codes are the ‘superpower’ that enables him to first place in gate after gate.
In discussions, Tom Wood pointed out how appealing to this canon connects the novel across several niche markets, starting with young adult dystopia and litRPG (literary role-playing game, a form of science fiction): Ready Player One “could ride the video-games-as-reality wave. It has a geeky hero who develops a geeky crush, so there’s romance. And, the ’80s nostalgia thing added to the potential. Add all of those together and it’s touching a lot of bases.”
This still begs the question: how could ‘80s game references skyrocket a book to mass readership? Not all readers will get the nostalgia. In fact, in the film, game references are switched out to newer games. Some of our readers lost interest during individual battles. Still, when references are lost on a reader, it seems they appreciate the detail as evidence of Wade’s expertise, his commitment to the cause.
Jan O’Hara made this point: “I don’t typically read this genre and don’t know the canon, but even I could grasp that Cline’s wide-ranging detail and command of his material was extraordinary. The author loves this world and so does the main character.”
Overall, most found that the game and pop canon were a reason for the high-concept appeal.
“Breakout” Does Not Mean “Perfection”
In breakout dissections, while we are looking for ways the novel hits breakout criteria, we learn just as much from ways it falls short. We know that a novel needn’t be perfect to be a bestseller. No one found RPO perfect.
There was criticism of extensive exposition. We had observed something similar in the world-building exposition of The Martian, but found it more of a weakness in RPO. Cline spent pages explaining emotions, situations and ideas which were better revealed in subsequent scenes. Our dissectors found his engaging dialogue much more effective. This was a good reminder of how important it is to put characters in a room together and let conflicts play out – the book soared when he did so.
While the story was rife with high stakes and tension, many found flaws in what Christopher Blake called “too much just-in-time magic.” Some noted deus ex machina in the sudden appearance of a wealthy benefactor at a point when all was otherwise lost. And our dissectors generally agreed that the corporate antagonist lacked the complexity or surprising reversals of what we look for in a breakout villain.
In each of these points, we learned from discussing effective approaches. And one of the persisting takeaways from our dissections is that a novel can be massively successful without meeting every bar for “breakout” writing.
Ready Player One is a great book to read
- to observe the digital version of a quest structure. No matter your genre, it doesn’t hurt to be able to tap into game and game character structures.
- to consider the complexity and risk of multiple identities introduced by digital lives in the 21st century.
- to see that even dark, dystopian themes can be written with a light, optimistic touch.
- to consider how story within story might let you harness the power of cultural context or canon.
- to see the value of putting characters together in a room, rather than having a character just mull thoughts.
- to see the power of a writer committing to a concept.
Underscoring that last point, we’ll finish with this takeaway from Jan O’Hara: “I’ve learned that readers reward an author’s full commitment…It’s an extension of Don Maass’s principle, which is to eschew mediocrity when making writerly choices.”
What are your thoughts? Join in the comments to let us know that you thought of Ready Player One, or other recent reads that struck you as a breakout success. Are there certain breakout characteristics that make books more appealing to you? Do you consider these characteristics in your own writing?
Want to join in WU’s next Breakout Novel Dissection? Our latest poll just closed and we’ll be dissecting Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow for our next discussion series starting April 19th. Find the Breakout Novel Dissection group on Facebook  if you’d like to join in.
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