I read a lot of books. Always have. Lord willing, always will.
Some books I love, some are ok, and there are even a few I can’t finish.
So what makes a book great? What keeps me reading?
1. A story that keeps you guessing
Above all, I love a story with a unique story line. I want a story to take me someplace I haven’t been. I want to go along for the ride without knowing the destination. The best? If someone hands me a book and says, “read this, it’s fantastic” and I don’t even know what it’s about. The Time Traveler’s Wife was one of those stories for me. I really enjoy stories that mess with the time continuum because they are so unpredictable.
2. An interesting premise/story world
There’s a reason I don’t read straight romance novels. I don’t like formulaic fiction (a+b=c). If (a) boy and girl must meet in chapter one, (b) fall in love, and (c) end up together by the end of the book, then what’s the point in reading? Nothing, unless something REALLY interesting happens along the way. And that only happens if you have an interesting story question. What if she’s a vampire and he’s a vampire hunter? What if he involuntarily jumps through time (see #1)? What if she is sold as a geisha in pre-WWII Japan? In Memoirs of a Geisha, we learn about another culture where huge natural roadblocks prevent the guy and girl from being together.
3. Carefully balanced tension
One thing I hate is when characters are put through the most horrible things again and again for no other purpose that to create tension in the story. False tension is like junior high drama–who needs it? Grow up, already. Give me tension that’s natural to the plot and quit making all your characters jump through fiery hoops. At the end of the book, if I’m exhausted reading it, I’m unlikely to pick up another book by the author.
I’m sure some will disagree, but while there was a lot of dramatic tension in The Hunger Games trilogy, it didn’t come across as ridiculous. In a society that exploits children and makes them fight to the death in front of a televised audience every year, we expect the characters to go through life-threatening situations.
As much as I enjoyed the first three books Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, I couldn’t finish the series. I liked Clary and Jace but they went through SO MUCH to end up together at the end of book 3 that I was satisfied but exhausted. Then, in the fourth book in the series, the author started putting them through hell all over again. So guess what? I stopped reading. Why would I willingly choose to read about characters that I love being tortured again? Seems like gratuitous conflict to me. Stop, already, and find something new to write about. (If things repeat, they become formulaic and break rules #1 and #2).
4. Unforgettable characters
Characters make a series. There’s a reason why I read the Harry Potter books over. It’s because I miss Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the rest. I read again to go and visit my friends. When you can predict what a character would do, or when you see someone doing something and you think, “she’s acting just like Hermione,” the author has done something special. Same thing with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Who doesn’t like Aragorn, Gandalf, Bilbo, and Frodo? Who doesn’t miss Sam?
4. Something to root for
What’s at stake? What will happen if things go wrong? The stakes don’t have to be life and death, but they must be something that I care enough about to keep reading. Two of my favorite books have great stakes. The Blue Sword is good vs. evil. The heroine fights to keep the evil demon king out of her newly adopted country. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch fights society to uphold justice when an innocent and powerless man’s life is at stake. Who doesn’t love stories like these?
5. A satisfying end
A satisfying end will make a book memorable, and encourage me to share it with others. As my pastor said this weekend, we all want a happy ending. If the ending isn’t good, we aren’t going to recommend a movie/book/whatever to anyone else. And that’s the truth. Sometimes, things won’t turn out like you want or were expecting, but if the ending is satisfying, it is still a great book. I could have wished for The Night Circus to end differently, but the ending came full circle and I left an amazing read well-satisfied.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT MAKES A BOOK GREAT? WHAT KEEPS YOU READING?