Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Elements of a Good Book

           I’ve been reading a great deal lately, mostly books within my own genre, but also some that are not, including young adult, women’s fiction, historical fiction and even some non-fiction.  Reading all of these has truly grounded me, reminding me why I enjoy thrillers so much more than the others.  I’ve never been accused of being a subtle person and so my taste in many things—music, food, pets, physical activities, cars, you name it—runs along similar strains.  I tend to be a little out there, a bit on the extreme side.  It’s not that I’m flashy or anything, because I’m definitely not.  It’s more because I seem to need more stimulation to really “feel” something, to understand and be connected to it.  I suppose it’s my way of buying into the whole bigger is better mentality I griped about in April.
When I tear it all down and analyze it, it’s easy for me to understand why.  For example, I like raucous, angst-ridden music because I am often both.  Big dogs are so much more fun to wrestle and hug than their smaller counterparts, not mention the intimidation factor when strangers come to my front door.  If I’m going to partake in physical activity, I want it to rock me to my core, because at my age, why else would I risk injury for a little fun?  After spending three years studying food and its preparation, I need something with a good punch, something that will make my taste buds sing.  And I don’t just think of my car as a means of transportation, but rather a form of entertainment, after all, anyone who knows me knows my car is my happy place.  (Yeah, it’s a damn fine car!)
When it comes to books, I can and do enjoy those that don’t knock me over with action.  As long as they have impact on a gut or emotional level, I’m probably going to like it.  But reading outside my genre did get me thinking about those parts of a book that resonate with me most and why I keep going back to those heart-thumping, emotionally draining thrillers I love so much.  So I thought I would tear apart the structure of a novel and see which elements I like most.
First and foremost, the story or plot needs to be explosive with gut-wrenching emotional elements.  I can look past mediocre writing if the story is engaging and entertaining.  And it doesn’t even necessarily need to be an original idea either, just told through unique characters.  Mostly, I need to be able to relate to the story in a personal way.  If the lead character has lost someone important in his life, I remember those same emotions from having lost someone myself and I can therefore connect with the story on an intimate level.  While I think themes can be important in the end, they should never be obvious and a story should never be forced around one.  Subplots should be used to make the characters more complex and draw a common thread through the main story line.  And I want to be taken on a journey, not necessarily to exciting new places I’ve never been, but rather on an emotional adventure.  I think, at its core, that’s why I read in the first place, to have an experience that would otherwise be dangerous or unwise for me.  I love bad boys, but I don’t really want to tangle with them in person.   
I would say characters are next in line in importance.  I love my friends and family, especially my dear husband.  He’s incredibly handsome and fit with broad shoulders and well-muscled through the chest and arms.  Dreamy really.  But we’ve been together for twenty-eight years and while we’ve recently rediscovered our passion, I sometimes need a spark from an unfamiliar source to ignite a fire in me.  This is why I almost always read novels with a male lead.  I need to fall a little in love with him so I know and understand him enough to be willing to go on a rollicking adventure with him.  This doesn’t mean he needs to be dashing and handsome, although that is never a bad thing as long as he’s not cliché.  What I do need is an internal weakness, a flaw or fragility that makes me sympathize and feel instantly connected to him.  I want to feel bad for him and understand his sacrifice, to root for him and hold his hand during his perilous journey.  I need to identify with him, to know I would have a similar reaction if I were in his shoes.  I don’t always need to like him or agree with his choices, but I do need to feel his fear and doubt.  I want his friends and family to give him a hard time and throw rocks in his way.  And I want his adversary to be legitimate in his opposition and to know that there is something strong binding them together.  While the opposition may be evil, I need to understand his side of the story and know that if I were him, I would likely do the same thing.  Characters need to be dynamic, rich and well-developed.  They need to jump off the page and change throughout the story, good or bad. 
Next up, the pace.  Even when the characters are charismatic and the plot explosive, if the pace is slow, I will lose interest and just give up.  I mean, the plot and characters may keep me there for a while when I otherwise would have thrown that book against the wall, but if the pace is a snore fest, I can easily forget how much in love I fancy myself and search for a new romantic interest elsewhere.  Each chapter needs to have its own hook, a reason to be drawn in and continue reading.  I need constant disturbance and conflict, action and reaction.  I need the main character to have a clear objective and know that he’s working hard in each chapter to obtain it, that a new obstacle will be thrown in his path every time.  And that a portal exists at the end of each chapter, one that will leave me so breathless that I want to step through it no matter how late the hour or how tired I am. 
I think I would pick the good use of dialogue next because ultimately, it is what makes the story ring true to the reader.  So let’s say you have a gripping plot, you’ve bonded with compelling characters and the pace is wicked enough to keep drawing you through each doorway.  If the voice and speech of the characters—used to show the action and not merely tell us what’s going on—is not authentic and timely, it falls flat and diminishes the effect of the message.  It tears away the layers of complexity the author has applied to the characters.  And it severely disrupts the flow and ease of reading the words, jarring the reader out of the narrative.  When I write, I say all my dialogue out loud, putting myself in the character’s position and let the natural responses come forward.  Dialogue has to be something people would actually say, in a way they would actually say it.  Most important, it must serve to move the story forward in some way.  No idle chit-chat.  Every spoken word must have a purpose and add to the momentum and stratum of the plot.  Nothing stops a story cold in its tracks like bad or stilted dialogue.  Yet on the other end of the spectrum, great dialogue is core to an even rhythm and flow. 
Speaking briefly about rhythm, I have an obsession with it.  I even dream about it at night with the sounds of words strung together in the fashion of a sentence continuously running through my head.  Not necessarily real words, but just the sound of them, how they flow from one to another and construct a cadence that feels and sounds like music.  I think this is important in writing.  Each sentence needs to feel as good on the tongue as it does to the ears.  Clumsy sentences can be jarring whether it’s dialogue or exposition. 
Lastly, for me anyway, is the writing itself.  Now, I love good writing as much as the next person, but it’s not the “be all, end all” for me.  In fact, I often find overblown, overwritten novels to be boring and telling.  They often exist for the sole purpose of good writing, a testament to skill and study, neither of which I give a damn about.  Just give me a good story, well-paced with interesting and real characters.  Tell me their story in simple, easy to read text.  I don’t have to or need to be impressed with a beautiful selection of words, as long as they are strung together in a clear, concise, and rhythmic fashion, I’m good to go.  I don’t really even want to be aware of the writing, only the story and characters and conflict.  


Laila Knight said...

Hurray for people who are "out there."

We're in agreement about the dogs. What type of car do you drive? It is important for characters to connect with our readers. I do love characters that keep you guessing. Just when you think you know them, they surprise you. It's the making of a great suspense movie.

I do the same thing when I write dialogue, read it out loud to make sure it flows. I think you should get paid overtime for dreaming about sentence structure...^-^...

I hate it when it becomes obvious that the author has spent the afternoon fawning over a thesaurus. While trying so hard to sound wordy and intelligent, they just ruin the story.

Anonymous said...

I can see why Greg Iles is one of your faves. Mine as well. He's got all of the above things pegged pretty good!

This is a great reminder of what (who) we should keep in mind as we write.

And I'm with Laila. Now ya got me wondering what type of car you drive. If it's more than three syllables, you have my admiration and jealousy. :)

Nancy Thompson said...

Yes, Greg Iles is probably my absolute favorite. And as far as my car goes, I guess three letters counts as three syllables. It's a BMW 330i convertible. Sexy and sweet! And thanks for commenting, guys!

Lisa R said...

This is an awesome post! I totally agree with you here. I personally really need some depth to the characters more than anything. I need to connect to them. I love myseteries/thrillers more than most kinds of books but I think if you have a good, well-plotted, well-paced story with characters I can relate to then I'll keep turning pages. And sometimes books written solely for the purpose of showing off the writer's fancy writing are really annoying. I hate getting halfway through a book and realizing that absolutely NOTHING has happened yet!

M Pax said...

I've found I'm most drawn to books with a lot of atmosphere. Studying published work is a great way to learn.

Kittie Howard said...

You hooked me when you said what you liked about a plot and the gut-wrenching emotions. And, yes, authors who sleep with the Thesaurus sound so phony. (You've got a really nice blog!)

I'm dropping in from the fest - nice to meet you - and am your latest follower.