Friday, May 16, 2014

What Makes a Book "Good"

How many times have you finished a book, closed it, and said, "That was a good book."

Why did you say that? In what way was the book "good?"

My questions stem from a group discussion in a friend's living room this past week. This is a monthly book club that has been in existence about 40 years. I've only been a member about 25 of those years, and intermittent at best. This particular discussion made me think and re-think my ideas about "a good book."

The novel was about the wife of a real person in American history. Since it's fiction, we had a difficult time separating truth from fiction, and especially since we didn't know the full truth of the man's life in the public eye.

More than one member said, "I didn't like the book."
"It was depressing and he really was a cruel person."
 All right. But what about the story and how it was written? The member maintained her stance--"I didn't like the characters."

A few others agreed, and a couple said he was horrible to treat his wife the way he did.

I thought it was a "good book" and I was not the only one.
The story fascinated me, whether it was truthful or not. Even though it was depressing, I still maintain it was a good book.

The author is young, but she wrote a very good story. The book is published by one of the big publishers, hardback, etc., great cover, and not so long that it tired me to finish.

So, what does make a book good? Here are a few ideas:
The book is Good...
--If it has a satisfying ending--not particularly happy.
--If the hero is a good man and does the right thing in the end.
--If I can't put it down.
--If I learned something new.
--If the story is compelling.
--If I don't take anything personally.
--If it has nothing offensive, or at least very little.
--If there's an element of mystery that surprises me.

None of these ideas stand alone. We might make several statements to support our belief.

I've read novels with titles such as: Cutting for Stone; Germs, Guns, and Steel--the Downfall of Human Societies; Voices from the Dust Bowl Years; and came away saying, these were good books.
I've read romance novellas that were only 100 pages with titles such as The Cowboy and the Scarlet Woman, (I made that up, but you get the idea) and came away saying, this was a good book.

On the flip side, here's a list that makes me say, "This was not a good book."
--Poor passive writing--even if the plot might be good.
--Far too much narrative, page after page after page, that does not allow me to use my imagination. (I just finished one like this and wouldn't review it because it was so bad.)
--No emotion, flat dry drivel for conversations.
--Characters, both male and female, who were TSTL.
--Stiff dialogue with the characters doing nothing as real people might when they talk. He said, she said.
--Written in short choppy sentences.
--Written in long sentences with multiple ideas in one.

What element of a book makes it good in your opinion. What in particular do you look for? What just makes you grind your teeth in frustration?

Want to know the title of the book?
The Aviator's Wife. The story of Anne Morrow Lindberg.
By Melanie Benjamin

Thanks for visiting.
Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas


  1. Challenging question, Celia. There are a number of things that make a book "good" for me. First, characters must be strong; I have to care what happens to them. Second, the story needs to be fast-paced; the plot should grab me on page one and not let go until the very last word. Third, dialogue must be fresh and engaging, without the pages and pages of narrative you mentioned. Lastly, I do prefer a happy ever after ending. That's why I write romance. :)

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  3. Hmmm. Can I say one thing about what I don't like? I don't like cliffhangers at the end of a book. Though some of the big publishers think this makes people want "more"--it makes me angry. I want a resolution, and even if it might not be the perfect resolution, please don't leave me up in the air.

    A good book in any genre, for me, has to have an ending. And it has to have characters that I care about and am interested in how they GOT to the ending. I need to know I'm on a journey that is going somewhere. If it isn't a place I want to go, or if the "transportation" is too slow, I get off and read something else. I don't have to have action every single minute, but I do need to be wondering and interested in what's coming up. Good question, Celia. Food for thought.

  4. For a book to be good it has to keep me engaged. I have to want to know what is going to happen next. The ending has to resolve all the questions, but it does not have to be happy. Two of my favorite books, Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea, do not have happy endings

  5. thank you for the article. It was an interesting topic. Good luck with your writing.

  6. This has really set me thinking. My ten favourite books are SO varied in time-setting, genre, writing style: surely they must have qualities in common to make them, for me, "good books."
    I may be some time ...

  7. Good book: Characters I care about, a realistic storyline, a satisfactory resolution, and good writing (not just grammatically correct bur with a style that is smooth and not jerky)
    Poor book: Characters I dislike, or lack of characterisation (what I call 'cardboard figures), stilted dialogue - and too many 'convenient' coincidences.

  8. LYN--I believe you hit all the high points. Characters are usually the main thing that makes a book, and I hardly said anything about them.
    Every person who talks to me about my books here in town mention my characters. Sure, they like the stories and plots or they wouldn't buy the books, but characters, bottom line, make a good book.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  9. CHERYL--oh, cliff hangers! Lands, no, I don't like those, either. This is to lead to the next book, isn't it, like a sequel. And I hate sequels. I do love a series, but a sequel is just the same story continuing.
    I hadn't thought about cliff hangers..but yes, they are a no-no.

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  11. I agree with Lyn Hornee's comments, I write romance because I like happy endings, also if there is a sad scene it shouldn't drag on too long, and too much minute detail of scenery drags a story for me, once I have time period and location established all I need is brief descriptions to keep the story fast pace with conversation to advance the story Blessings Belita Renn

    Well said, that the ending had to resolve all the questions. I suppose romance novels are the only books that need a happy ending. I've read plenty of women's fiction novels that don't necessarily end happily--just satisfying in some way. Thanks for your input!

  13. JoAnne Myers--and thank you for visiting and leaving a comment. Nice to meet you.

  14. Shirley--Interesting. If or when you learn the common thread in the books which you find appealing, let me know. It would be a worthwhile study. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Paula--"card board characters." I know exactly what you mean. Stiff, boring, both male and female. I recently read a list of writing hints from Stephen King, and if we could all follow his lead, maybe we'd all be rich, too! Thanks for visiting.

  16. BELITA-I like some sad scenes, if it makes me cry. But like you, I do not want too many pages of it. I suppose every good book had something sad in it--none can be all happy. Weather is another thing to delete from a story--unless a storm is involved in the scene.
    Thanks! I appreciate your visit.

  17. Celia, I agree with your "what's a good book" list, but I have another thing to add. I know a book is a good one if immediately after I finish I start reading it again. I will have read the first time through for story. That second read is to try to find out how the author hooked me. Inevitably, I start enjoying the story again on that second read, so much so that I'll set it aside to read it again, later. Good writing draws me into the story wold and makes me forget about everything else!

  18. I know I've read a good book when it leaves me thinking about it long after I finish it. The best ones are the ones where I think, "I wish I had written that." LOL
    Characters that are deep, fully fleshed and working toward the deep desires, well developed plots that carry me away and that I cannot guess how it will end are satisfying to me.
    I don't like stilted dialogue, scenes that are not layered and characters who have shallow feelings and motivations.
    This was a particularly good blog, Celia. When we think about what we like and don't like in a book, it certainly makes us take a second look at our own work.
    Your book grouos sounds fantastic.

  19. Sarah--Yes, I suppose these kinds of lists and discussions makes us, as writers, take a closer look at the words we put on paper, and the characters we create.
    Every real person I know has a layered personality, each with his own set of idiosyncrasies, talents, and desires. To write about such a person is not easy, and too often I read a book in which the author has really not given me much of anything about his inner feelings and thought.
    I'm reading too much "stilted dialogue," and this makes me close the book--delete the ebook--and begin another.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments--I appreciate your words.

  20. Maggie--I don't think I've ever re-read a book immediately to learn what hooked me, but it's a great idea. I have re-read numerous books, those on my keeper shelf, old paperbacks that I will keep as long as I can. Some I have re-read at least five times. Now, I'm thinking I should re-read a couple of them again to see what hooks me every time.
    Thanks for visiting!

  21. When I read non-fiction, which I do a lot of, I want to think new thoughts or make new connections to other things I already know. I'm currently just ending an Anthropology binge and I'm now on Psychology books. Emotional Intelligence was a great book!

    In fiction, I want to care about the characters and their lives. I want to experience what they do along with them, and I want to vicariously enjoy being someone else. That's part of the reason I enjoy inter-racial romances so much. It's different from my life and allows me to BE someone else for a while. That's what I look for in good fiction.

  22. Fiona--I caught the word "vicarious." I believe you've hit on the reason we do love romances, and romances that differ from us and our own lives. We can experience "vicariously" what others may feel. I do understand this.
    Good fiction should transport us in some way to a new experience or feeling.
    Thanks so much--I enjoyed your comment.

  23. Great blog, Celia, and I enjoyed all the previous comments as well. For me, a good book is all about the characters. If I don't care about them, no plot if the world is going to make me like the book. Put characters I care about it a good plot and the book is perfect.
    I just lifted this quote from FB as it fits so well what this discussion is about.

    “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
    ― Ernest Hemingway
    Linda Swift

    Write a comment...

  24. Hi, Linda--we agree, don't we---it's the Characters, characters, characters, or said another way, "It's the Characters, Stupid!" How many books have I tried to read that featured those cardboard characters.
    I've never seen this quote of
    EH, but he had a way about him, didn't he, to even write good quotes.
    Thanks for taking time, SOL, to write a comment for my blog. We SOLs must stick together!