Sunday, June 25, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 1 - Originality

I read a lot - an average of two books a week. Some of these are easy, quick reads - contemporary women's fiction, romances. After I've read a few "lighter" books, I go back to more "literary" books. But I've been thinking about what makes a book "light" reading, and what makes a book "literary." A very condensed definition of a "good" book is... a good story well told. The two elements to any work of fiction are the Story itself and Writing Style.

The story can be further broken down into several categories - these are not set in stone:
  • Plot - this is the "what" in a story; what happens to whom, when, why, where, and how
  • Characters - who is in the story? Characters are usually human, but they don't have to be.
  • Setting (sometimes called World Building) - sometimes the setting is to important, it's like another character
  • Tone - as Sebastian said in "Little Mermaid," "I need to set the mood" - what great old movies did with music, writers achieve with words
  • Themes - is there an overall theme to the story? It is about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, ambition, greed, indecisiveness, hubris....
  • Symbolism - do some elements have a deeper meaning? Do they stand in for something else? Is the snake only a snake, and is the dream just a dream?
The writing style is more illusive, but here are some elements:
  • Prose - how does the author put words and sentences together
  • Dialogue - is it realistic?  Does it add to the story?
  • Narrative - is it a page turner? Do you want to read more not just to find out what happens, but because the story is so beautifully told?
For this post I'm focusing on prose. What I have noticed in some of the books I've read lately, is that originality is vital to good writing. But it's not originality for the sake of being original. The originality in "good" writing has a purpose, and it draws the reader in - it provides an "aha" moment. The reader will think, "Yes, that's exactly right. I don't know why I didn't think of it that way before."
Here is one example:  

In The Sleepwalker, Chris Bohjalian writes about the mother who has gone missing, presumably after sleepwalking:
"She was, at once, never there and always there, as undeniable yet untouchable as the sky... And so there lived a hollowness in the heart of the house. The three of us were missing the semaphore that was wife and mother. We needed a new language and new rituals, but it was going to take time for them to evolve." (Page 63)

Oh yes, good writing also often includes words one has to look up - like semaphore.

Have you been reading a good book lately? Please share your own examples!


  1. Thanks Katie, good refresher on all the elements necessary for a good novel. I'll have to look up semaphore too...

  2. Thanks sis! It's much easier to identify the elements of a good story than it is to write a good story, but let's keep trying : )