What Makes a Good Book Good

heartIt’s hard to figure that out, since every person will experience a book differently. We all have different tastes and preferences, and those things are influenced by a million factors. Some of us like fiction, others prefer non-fiction. Some of us like to read articles online and others like to read big clunky hardcovers. That’s why it’s so important to remember that no matter what you write, someone out there will want to read it.

When I read a book, there are a few key things that either make my experience a good one or a bad one. I can be difficult to please, and although I try to keep myself from despising a book because of a small thing in the story, it happens anyway. Here’s what I look for when reading, and what will make or break my love of the story:

1) Believability. I want the story to feel real, whether it’s fantasy or a NatGeo article. Even if the author has created a fictional world with magical beasts and magic and dragons, I still want events to feel like they could be possible. I feel like this is where a lot of books fail. Some writers feel that their stories have gone stagnant, so they will add something unexpected and ridiculously awkward to the story to revive it. As an experienced reader, I can generally recognize when this happens.

2) Emotions. Sometimes characters do things that you don’t expect and it’s wonderful. They show you that they are braver and more honourable than you had thought. Perhaps they are less selfish than you had expected, or they have a dark side that you respect. These are all wonderful things and they are part of character building. But what happens when a character behaves in a way that the reader just can’t understand? They question the writer. Take a lot of these teen dramas as an example. Many of them have teen characters that do really stupid things for their boyfriends/girlfriends. There’s a difference between romance and reality, and sometimes they shoot just a little too far.

3) World/scene building. It’s important for me to be able to form a visual based on what the writer describes. I want to know the tastes, smells, and textures of everything. I want to know what shade of red the carpet is, or how bright the green. But, I don’t want it to be told to me in list format or thrown at me haphazardly. I want it to be subtle and quiet, but loud enough for me to paint behind m eyelids.

4) Romance. I love romance in stories, but I don’t want every page to be about some kind of emotional turmoil between two characters. I suppose I prefer when the love story is wrapped up inside the story, not the other way around. For a love story to be intriguing, to me it has to be something that you hope for in the background.

There are a number of other things that can tell me if I enjoy a book or not. I’m quite picky, so if I don’t enjoy even one of those aspects I may put a book down. It’s harsh, I know, but I have read so much that I know my tastes well, and I would rather not drag myself through something that I know I won’t enjoy. That being said, I do like a variety of genres, styles, and writers. I may love one book from an author, but not their next.

The role of the publisher can be felt in some of the things that I don’t like. Perhaps the love story was rewritten and added to prior to publishing so that it would appeal to a certain group. Maybe the editor felt as if the story was falling flat and suggested an addition. Or perhaps the author wanted to try something new.

Although it’s impossible that every book suit our personal preferences, it’s still good to remember that there are a number of reasons why a book may not be of interest to you. It can also teach you many things as a writer. Take what you find irritating and avoid doing it yourself. Make notes of the aspects in stories that don’t work for you and think about how you would do better. It’s hard to learn from your own mistakes as a writer if you’ve never done it professionally, so learn from the mistakes of others instead. Your writing will be stronger and you will have a better understanding of the art.

What really turns you off of a story? What is the most important to you when reading? Have you learned to rework your writing from any specific books?


26 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Book Good

  1. I don’t like when characters are unrealistically slow to figure out what is going on. There is a fine line between the author trying to prolong suspense and completely discrediting their character’s intelligence.

    Secondly, I don’t like when a character does horrible things and then later explains they had a good reason which was previously not mentioned. If something in that character’s life has affected them so much, they will likely mention it before the very end of the book. It feels like an forced “tidying up”.

    And I will disagree about the romance. Well… it depends on the plot. But, romance is a genre, so it would be weird for those stories not to be about romance. I do agree, however, that I don’t like when it feels forced. Not every story needs a romantic encounter.

    • That’s a good one. I dislike that too, even though we as readers usually know everything before our characters.

      I also appreciate your second point. If you’re going to be evil, be evil. Don’t make me despise you only to find out that you had good reasons. That’s why I like GRRM’s books. Each action has a consequence.

      In terms of romance, I meant when it’s part of another genre, not the romance genre itself. I guess a good example of what I don’t like would be Twilight. A lot of romance around a small story.

  2. Anything contrived and the ‘Time’s Up’ buzzer goes off in my head.
    When I return to the same author over and over it’s because they’e learned to sculpt flesh and blood characters from words. They add heart and brains through dialogue, passion and purpose through plot, and never leave the story unfinished. A bad ending is still preferable to a lazy author who can’t be bothered to write a believable last chapter.
    Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are constant mentors.
    I don’t write fiction, but if I ever feel the urge I’d know these two ‘had my back’!

    • I can read some authors over and over and enjoy their different pieces, but not all of them. I suppose it depends quite a bit on the story itself. Authors can jump through different styles and tones depending on what they are writing, so it all depends for me.

  3. Thanks so much for your list!! Plus your advice about reading other writer’s work. Currently, I’m barely in the middle of the 1st draft of my story/novel. All the advice I glean from others I so need and appreciate, even the items I currently don’t think I need. Thank you, again!

    • You are very welcome, I am so happy to hear that you liked the post. 🙂 It’s good that you take advice from a variety of places, your writing will likely be stronger because of it.

  4. I recently read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera.” And while I really liked 100 Years of Solitude, I did not enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera. I really enjoyed the magical realism Marquez imbued the former’s story line, as well as the scene building he weaved into it. On the other hand, I felt that the latter was flat in comparison, and not as “magical.” It also didn’t help that I hated Florentino Ariza’s guts (the protagonist). Often, I come to dislike books and movies just because I dislike the characters and the story that surrounds them, either from an ethical or philosophical standpoint. (For example, what am i suppose to take away from Love in the Time of Cholera; that its okay to waste your entire life passively stalking another woman and hoping for the death of her husband just so she might change her mind and love you?) Maybe I’m just shallow.

    • I’ve wanted to read some of his stuff for a long time. I find that a lot of times I will hear so many things about a book before I read it that it either falls short or it goes over the top. Sometimes, I think, people just like books because they think they’re supposed to. Love in the Time of Cholera sounds like one of those books, but who knows, perhaps I’d love it.

      If you’ve accurately described the story, which I am confident that you have, I will likely feel the same after reading it.

  5. My favorite kind of book is fiction that has several layers and a decent time span so that the characters develop and represent something. I love when authors take this and add a layer of plot that’s bigger than the individual characters, and make it complete with themes that tie everything together. Some of my favorite books like this are Atlas Shrugged (even though the ideas are extreme!), Youngblood Hawke and my latest favorite, The Interestings.

    • I haven’t heard of those, I will have to add them to my ever-growing list! I like those types of stories too. GRRM writes like that, and Philip Pullman. Both excellent writers with great stories to tell.

  6. Haha, it’s funny you mention lists – I realize that lists aren’t a thing that bother me, although I prefer the scenery to be more subtle…but in reading some Brandon Mull with my husband – him reading it aloud to me – he’s complained about Mull’s “list fetish” more than once whenever we go to a new location so I guess you are hardly alone in that.

    I definitely agree with reality and emotions. Nothing drives me more batty than when it isn’t…real. Just because one is writing a fantasy does not mean one should not strive to write about the characters as if they were real. Although the first character that comes to mind as being weird in his reactions, thoughts, feelings, and therefore not real is Hope from Final Fantasy XIII – everyone hates that kid. I’m pretty sure literally everyone hates him. And it’s for just that reason. He doesn’t act like a…fifteen? year old, and he doesn’t act like a human being. He doesn’t handle his anger in any way that makes sense. I can’t stand it when I don’t feel like the person I’m reading about (or whatever) isn’t really a person at all because they don’t act like one, regardless of what it is that’s off.

    • I get that. I haven’t played those games, but I know what sort of character you’re talking about. It’s not even about disliking them because they act differently than you would, it’s because they are just so out there from basically what any human being would act like and the reasons aren’t explained or obvious.

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