Reflection: A Good Book

A discussion of the elements of a good book review triggered a conversation among my friends about what makes a good book.

What is a good story? As W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

Science fiction and fantasy—even romance, action and mystery—asks, “what if …?” To succeed, the author then weaves a tale which connects with the reader. Regardless of genre or style, the best stories touch who we are and what we experience. They tell us we’re not alone. Someone else has faced the same challenges, fought the same battles, felt the same heart ache.

To achieve this level of intimacy, I believe the story must achieve several things. It must be populated by people we recognize, if not identify with. It must take place in a consistent, recognizable setting—even if that setting is inconsistent and alien to the protagonist. (World building is important.) The action must be plausible. The outcome must be appropriate to the story, even if it’s a negative outcome.

Good stories resonate with readers. The best stories touch your soul and change you.

I’m still looking. Are you?



3 thoughts on “Reflection: A Good Book

  1. Even literary fiction has similar “rules” – worldbuilding, emotional depth, tension and attention to writing style. Some genre fiction also has these characteristics, some does not. I would say these two worlds are moving closer together, with good literary writers taking on more genre book themes- Margaret Atwood, Justin Cronin and Lev Grossman are good examples. Yet the argument, dialogue continues among writers. This is a good thing, it means that people care enough to debate the issue.

  2. “The outcome must be appropriate to the story, even if it’s a negative outcome.” I’ve heard it put that the protagonist has to earn the ending.

    Sometimes the trend in literary fiction is to sock the protag with an ending he/she doesn’t earn, the message being that life events are largely random, without sensible, neat, “book” resolutions. Good guys lose. That worked for me in Bel Canto, but felt contrived in Cold Mountain.

  3. Jean, you and I might be the only people in the world who were let down by the ending of Cold Mountain. I like that phrase: “Earn the ending.”

    Yes, despite all the trash out there, better and better books are being written. Finding them is a little tougher.

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