Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Makes a Good Book?

We here at the Book Lantern always like to be honest with you readers, so here's the truth: these days, it's tough to be a book reviewer – especially one who is not afraid to give negative reviews. (Now, I'm not talking professional book reviewer, mind you, but leisure book reviewer who posts reviews to a Goodreads page or a personal blog. YA book reviewers are especially receiving a lot of flak.) Vinaya raised the question yesterday about the difference between honest and harsh opinions. With all this tension floating around between authors and reviewers and even between fellow reviewers, there's a spotlight shining on questions of opinions, tastes, and degrees of “meanness” – but maybe we should be asking ourselves this question instead: What makes a good book?

I have to say that question has been popping up in my head quite a bit over the past few weeks, whether I'm reading or writing. Sometimes I find myself stopping writing only to reread what I've written and just think, “Okay, is this good?” Now, what is good? What defines good? Should it be my own definition, someone else's, or a consensus of popular opinion?

I think it's a legitimate question that all of us should stop and ponder from time to time. A good book. Like reviews themselves, the opinion of what makes a good book is almost entirely subjective.

Here's a little exercise: Think of an old favorite book that you could reread again and again until the end of time. Got that book in your head? Can you picture it in your head almost as if you had a copy in your very hands to open and start reading right now? Good. Now think about it for a while. Pick the story apart in your head and mull over it a bit. What made you love the story? What makes you keep coming back to it time and again? What makes your mind wander back to the story and just muse about it? What qualities of that book do you just love and cherish?

Now you have some idea of what made that book good in your eyes – but what about other books? Think about some more of your favorite books. Again, what do you love about them? And, when comparing with the first book, are there some similarities popping up again and again as you think about what you loved about them? If there are, then you're on the right track to finding what you look for to make a book good in your mind.

What are the elements of a good book for me? Well, I actually think a lot of these examples I list below apply to many readers. . .so, writers, take note!

5. Realism: Relatability Meets Believability

I've found that it doesn't matter whether I'm reading paranormal, fantasy, contemporary, or whatever so long as there are realistic and relatable elements to the plot and characters. No, realism may not apply to many realms of fiction, but elements of realism always should.

You know all those little gripes that each of us have about our daily lives? Well, characters even living in outer space probably have some of their own little gripes about their own surroundings and lives too. Nothing is perfect, not even in a utopian setting, because people are not perfect. The imperfections add a relatable element whatever story is being told.

Emotion is probably the highest relatable factor for me when I'm reading. No, I may never have walked through the Forbidden Forest or gone into the depths of the Phantom's opera house, but I know the fear of strange and shadowy places hiding secrets in the darkness. No, I may never have met a sparkling vampire or kissed a werewolf boy, but I know the tugs of love and the impractical and irrational thoughts and passions that come with it. The circumstances don't matter so long as readers feel along with the characters. It's a challenge for writers, yes, but does it lead to more of a deep and meaningful story? Hopefully so.

4. Plot: The Journey, the Suspense, and the Mystery

Plot. Commonly composed of small climaxes building to one large climax that slowly peters off to a resolution of some kind. It is the make-up by which all stories, no matter the format, are molded and constructed.

See, it's easy to define plot – but it's much harder to make it. Why do I say that? Well, I've read a lot of books with great premises and plots but very poor execution. Pacing is often a big issue. Filler is another. Sometimes less is more, and everything else will just burden a plot until it's boring. Unnecessary scenes that don't add to the plot or character growth in any way, shape, or form should be edited – or cut out completely.

Personally, I like when I don't know what's going to happen in a plot. Predictability is something I tend to dislike because, in my eyes, nothing kills a story faster than too much predictability. (Now, predictability in small doses is fine – but readers don't want to be right all the time.)

The best kind of plot is one that keeps a person reading because he's so engrossed and intrigued that he just can't put the book down. A tight-knit plot with mystery and suspense will often do this – but mystery isn't something only regulated to Agatha Christie novels or any other books in the mystery genre. For instance, let me give the example of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was a gothic romance, but it had the mystery element that made every reader ask, "Okay, what's up with Rochester's house? What's on the third floor? Who's wrecking havoc at night? And why?" Even while winding a bond between Jane and Mr. Rochester, Bronte succeeded at giving a bit of mystery and suspense that kept us even more engrossed in the story.

That is essentially the number one rule of plot: keep the readers engrossed in the book and invested in the story.

3. Consistency: Keep the Facts Straight and the Plot Flowing

Consistency. What do I mean by that? Well, storytelling needs to have a flow to the writing – and there's nothing that breaks a flow in storytelling like inconsistencies in characters, backstories, or the writing style itself.

Don't you hate it when you're reading a book that's keeping you guessing – only to hit a snag and get thrown out of the story completely because you read something that just didn't make sense? Whether it's clunky writing that could have been reworded or edited better or a development in the plot that came out of nowhere, anything that could potentially compel a reader to stop reading is bad form.

I think this all comes down to writers need to know their worlds, the worlds' rules, and the characters inhabiting said worlds. Nobody like a deus ex machina; readers will settle for the 'easy resolutions' but they don't like them because they don't reflect real life (which almost always bears struggle and conflict). Happily ever afters are sought after, true, but they're much more meaningful if the characters have 'paid their dues' to earn the HEA.

Another thing: writers need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Practice will almost always lead to improvement on the 'weak areas,' but building on the strong points can help make up for a lack somewhere in a story. Setting languishing? Build on the character development and interactions. Lack of action? Make up for it with internal struggle that can sometimes be just as suspenseful if done right.

Writing is a give and take kind of craft, so anything that makes a story better in the long run is always worth it (even if it takes a lot of confusion and second guesses for it all to come together in a neat little package called a good book).

2. Writing: Everything from Prose to Description

Confession: I often know a book will be good if I am envious of the writing. While that sounds like a weird thing to say, keep in mind that I am a writer myself. If I can read a first passage in a book and think longingly, "Wow, I wish I could write like this," then that's saying something, isn't it?

Though tastes vary on what can be deemed 'purple prose' (almost poem-like writing often heavy on metaphors, similes, and evocative descriptions), descriptions aren't a bad thing since a writing style can help give a book its own specific kind of atmosphere. The point, I suppose, is again less is more. Not many readers like to barrel through paragraphs of description, no matter how beautifully written, because it slogs down the story.

The number one rule of writing again? Keep your reader reading.

1. Characters: Heroes, Villains, and Everything in Between

I'm a critical reader – probably much more than I should be – but I always fall hard for characters. I look at it this way: why read about characters I don't like? Best case scenario when I'm reading about a character? I should want to root for him/her no matter what. I should want to stand behind him/her and his/her decisions. I should want to follow him/her on whatever journey is unfolding in his/her life.

Flaws. Ambiguity. They're necessary. Why did so many of us Harry Potter fans come out loving Severus Snape, nasty man that he could be? Because he was flawed and ambiguous only to show greater depth and emotion than any reader had likely imagined.

Now that I've given some food for thought for both readers and writers, I leave the question to all you Book Lantern followers: what makes a good book for you? Make it a big question of the day. Make it a discussion. Make it the focus because, honestly, isn't a good book what anyone is hoping for any time a he or she sits down and opens a book to read?


  1. I think, for me, the number one thing that makes a good book is characters, and the way they interact with each other. Plot, pacing, and action are also very important. Some of my favorite books are character driven, but I dislike most because action is important to me. Only if they are really well done can I read them.

  2. I'm more of a plot girl to be honest. I realised this when I read Divergent and Thirteen Reasons Why. I didn't particularly love either of the MC or connect with them (perhaps on another level with Hannah) but what won me over was the actual story. If you can make me think, really think and give me sleepless night which TRW did for me, then you are up there for me. I love to get emotionally invested because if you do that to me then I'm a goner and completely in love with your book. As long as I don't hate the character I can live with an amazing plot and ride with it. And of course realism and consistency are right up there. Realism probably more -so for me since I can get quite picky if I notice something here and there that doesn't fit and gel with me :)

  3. Heh. I read for mind. That is to say, for the mind behind the words. I'm looking for the author. I want to see a human there -- and the books I like best pretty much always have an interesting and visible (to me) human behind them.

    And I am fully aware how eccentric that sounds.

  4. Interesting post. While I have to admit, some of my favourite go-to books from childhood might not necessarily have the best or that well-written...I would say that a character can make it or break it for me. When I was younger, I definitely looked to characters and protagonists I could relate to on some level. There had to be a little quirkiness and humour, and a well-drawn plot that kept you hooked. And I completely agree with Point 2 and being envious of the skills of the writer you are reading! For me, that is a sure fire sign...every time I have read a book by an author where I thought, wow, I am in awe, those are the books that have stuck with me.