Thursday, July 7, 2011

What makes a great story?

I'm inundated with books to read for review. I can't read them all, and I don't review all the books I read. If it's a real stinker, I won't even finish it. If it's borderline, I may hang in there, hoping it will get better, or maybe to see how it ends (in spite of the sloppy delivery). If I can't find more good things to say than bad, I won't bother to write the review. Wouldn't you rather read a review of a good book than a skewering of a bad one?

I recently tried a book that had horrible worldbuilding. I don't know how it got published. A society would just never buy into such a crazy, illogical system. My plausibility meter (or PLAUSOMETER) was screaming for mercy. If I can't put myself in the author's world, there's no hope of enjoying the story.

I thought it might be helpful or amusing to share what I believe are the necessary elements of a really good story. I'll also give you the same number of turn-offs. I'm not including poor grammar and simple lack of decent editing as that goes without saying.

What I look for in a good book:
1) FOUNDATION. The world, society, premise and tech (or whatever fantastical element is present) must be believable.

2) CHARACTERS. The main character must be multi-layered and someone I can sympathize with on some level - even if it's a bad person (or being). The motivations of the characters must be believable without dumping half a chapter of back story in to convince me. And each character should have a unique voice. I read a book once in which even the aliens and humans sounded the same.

3) PLOT. There must be a unique plot that moves forward. I like action, but not just for action's sake.

4) DIALOG. The dialog must be natural.

5) INTEREST. The world, tech (or magic) must be interesting and unique. Or at least put together in a unique combination.

And here are the things that will make me stop reading (or even throw the book across the room):

1) BAD SCIENCE. Remember this can also apply to sociology. Would people really believe that? Live like that? You get the idea.

2) SCIENCE LECTURE. Is this a science book or a science fiction book? Okay, great, you're a brilliant scientist who knows all this cool stuff. But if you're not telling a story, you've lost me.

3) MEETINGS. This will definitely get the book tossed across the room. I don't like attending them, why would I want to read about them? Quit talking about it - just do it already. I love a lot of James P. Hogan's stuff, but I quit reading one of his for this reason.

4) BAD DIALOG. There's nothing like stilted dialog to yank me out of a story. Stilted dialog and those "As you know, Bob..." bits. This is from the Turkey City Lexicon. My critique group partners will find, from time to time, AYKB in red pen on their manuscript. It's a transparent device for delivering information to the reader which involves the character telling something to another character which that character surely already knows. And addressing people by their name constantly. Or slipping in and out of dialect.

5) CHARACTERS. If I can't relate to them or sympathize with them, I could care less what happens to them. I like character-driven plots.

I would love to hear from you about what YOU like in a good book. And what makes YOU throw a book across the room. Leave a comment and let me know. It will make you feel better.


MithrilQuill said...

lol about the meetings.

I agree with many of your points, especially about the characterization. I've read many books that had horrible elements, but good characterization kept me reading. On the other hand, some books have wonderful foundations and world-building, but the characterization fails to make me care about the story.

Personally, I would put world-building at the top of my list, but it wouldn't be combined with the "fantastical element" because I think they each deserve their own category and they both need to be well-done to keep me interested.

K Stoddard Hayes said...

I agree with most of these, too. But you left out the one quality most likely to keep me engaged, which is also the hardest to achieve, I think. A compelling narrative voice. I'll read almost any kind of story if it's told in an interesting way (Stephen King, Terry Pratchett or Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, could keep me reading an essay about household dust).

My biggest turn-off is large blocks of exposition that are not filtered through a character's point of view. I've given up on several very popular writers (ones that I was really looking forward to reading), because they insist on stopping the story every few pages while they insert an essay on the landscape, history or technology of their world.

M Pax said...

I love great atmosphere. I suppose that goes with world-building. Scenes that matter. If we're supposed to be on an adventure, I don't want to be in a room yammering then move to another room to yammer and yet never talk about the adventure or plot. ???

Scenes which aren't repetitive - escape, get caught. Escape, get caught. Repeat for 200 pages.

Abrupt endings which don't flow from the previous pages. No ending at all. ?

And I don't like conveniences. Ie, a device suddenly introduced that will get the character out of the jam.

Farrell Winter said...

A story that makes me feel as if I'm there, e.g. Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. This is the kind of writing to which I aspire.

Ann Wilkes said...

K. - I totally agree with what you say about the compelling narrative voice. And info dumps are definitely show-stoppers.

M. - I go on at length about bad or non-endings in a previous post. Or two. I think many have to do with writers writing under deadline. Like the shows that get canceled before their time, the writers have to wrap it up with whatever they have NOW because that's when it's needed. And then there's the whole trilogy thing. Can't we have stand-alone books any more? Or at least enjoy a book in a trilogy even if we never read the others and have closure of a sort? My favorite trilogy to date makes no effort to catch readers up who haven't read the previous. It's not as bad when the books come out closer together. It's a strain on my memory when they're a year or more apart.

Satima Flavell said...

What I like in a book are the following: interesting characters doing interesting things; clear, linear narrative; tight 3rd or 1st POV; immersion in a believable world and, of course, mastery of the basics of the craft of writing - good grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation, no head hopping, plenty of showing and only minor, subtle incidents of "telling".

alberto 1977 said...

Usually authors, always describe a future society as a mess. I think it is not necessary to be a mess the future to develop a story. I was reading a new book titled Genticks, I like the fact that describe the future society as perfect, but perfection is a trouble too, it is interesting. I think I see that is available on amazon.