Thursday, March 17, 2011

What makes a book great?

Before I get off on my topic, I want to remind you all that the Spread the Word Contest in which two Original Sin ARCs are up for grabs ends tomorrow night, so don't miss your chance!

Dovetailing off of Tuesday’s post about beautiful writing versus good writing, I’d be interested to hear who some of your favorite authors are, which of their books pulled you in, and why. Loving a book has to do with a lot more than the writing style. As many of you commented Tuesday, you want to be pulled into the story.

I judge the strength of a novel by how long after I finish it I’m still thinking about it. This definitely has to do with the writing style—if I wasn’t living the story because the prose pulled me out of it, I’m not going to feel the same emotional investment. In writing circles I often hear authors say, “I’m not feeling it,” about their own work when they’re drafting. I know I’ve said that about mine. That’s when I know I’m not done revising. I think that’s really it in a nutshell. As a reader, we want to “feel it.” Whether it’s a romance or a thriller, we need to feel invested in the characters and the plot needs to feel real. If any of that is missing, the story’s not going to resonate with us.

For me, that boils down to these components:

Characters: There needs to be memorable characters who are developed in such a way as to make us care about what happens to them.

Plot arch: Said characters need to be propelled through the story by realistic events (even in a fantasy), most of which are out of their control. These events cannot feel contrived or convenient (nothing drives me more crazy) but need to flow organically. (I explored this concept in my post about critiquing.)

Stakes: I did an entire post on this a few weeks back. Something important (to the characters and the readers) needs to be at stake. This varies greatly between genres. In epic fantasy, often the fate of the world hangs in the balance. In quieter contemporaries, it can be as simple as the fate of a relationship. Either way, if an author has done their job developing the characters and the plot, we’re invested.

And, once again, writing style: Did the author get out of the way and let me live their story.

A benchmark for me is how fast I rush out for a sequel (if there is one). If I read a book, and months later, when the sequel comes out, I still care enough to go to the bookstore on release day and devour it before bed that night, I know the author has done all these things. My only examples of this so far:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling (and a few of the earlier ones)
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I’ll put J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in here because I couldn’t stop reading until I finished all of them, and that was in seventh grade when I still hated to read.
And the next one will be Where She Went by Gayle Forman. (Now you know where I'll be April 4th.)

What does this for you? What is it about some books that leave you thinking about them days, and sometimes even weeks after you’ve finished?


  1. Most of my favorite books aren't series, so I can't use your test on them. I guess my tests are a.) the book I can read over and over and b.) the book I can't bring myself to read again. So far, that includes Robin McKinley's Sunshine and Living Dead Girl. Both of which definitely left me thinking.

  2. So true! I agree with all your elements. And with the books you were willing to stand in line for. The Vampire Academy series is another one, as is the Wicked Lovely series, the Abhorsen Series, the Mortal Instruments series, Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires series, Holly Black's White Cat series, I would jump on anything from Kristin Cashore and Leah Cypess. I'll be getting Original Sin too! :D


  3. Excellent post and a great reminder that "what's at stake" is a crucial element!

  4. Agree that the Mortal Instruments series and Kristin Cashore belong in the that list. And I am right there with you, lining up to get Where She Went just as soon as someone will hand it over!

    Thanks for the great post.

  5. What makes a book great: Hot boys!

  6. OMG Lisa, you need to read Divergent by Veronica Roth. I read it weeks ago and am still obsessed with it! Also, The Hunger Games was excellent, I really enjoyed Matched by Ally Condie and Delirium by Lauren Oliver. AND PERSONAL DEMONS!!!

  7. Lynsey newton, I thoroughly enjoyed matched, however I did not overly enjoy the second book crossed. Your thoughts?