In Review: The Four Essences of a Good Novel

First things first: the ever-awesome dynamo Shannon Mayer recently gave me a chance to pontificate interviewed me at her great site, Wringing Out Words. Interviews are a lot of fun because you get to discuss so many things that you wouldn’t otherwise bring up on the site. Scurry on over there and check it out.

Now, then. Maintaining a busy schedule has been wearing me down. As I told a friend yesterday, who knew starting a business was such hard work? But I mention this because I haven’t found myself with a whole lot of time to read. At least, not as much as I would like, and when I do read, I find it hard to take the author cap off. It’s probably why I started reviewing stories once I finish them. I’ve already posted one of these, and you can expect to see more if I think that the author could use a little boost.

Almost every book is a learning opportunity. These reviews help me to solidify the lessons that I’ve learned from that book. Of course, I could ramble on at length about a story, so I’ve had to distill my reviews down into examining four core essences; the things that are important to me in making a good book. So let’s take a look at these four essences.

  • Characters. This is first and most important to me. I’ve talked before about the differences between plot-driven stories, character-driven stories, and hybrids and my own preferences, but to me characters are paramount. It’s very hard for me to enjoy a book when the protagonist and supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. I’m looking at Dan Brown here. Yes, to some extent I could enjoy his plots due to their intricacy and that they pandered to some of my own interest in hidden history, but they lost their charm very quickly, with the #1 culprit being his characters. They have zero personality, and the protagonists are typically some amalgamation of a Marty Stu character and blatant self-insertion. That’s why I think it’s so important to look at characters first. The characters’ emotional timbre is the most important thing in the book. Those emotions drive the characters’ motivations, and of course those motivations shape the plot (or at least they SHOULD shape the plot). I’ve long contended that writing characters from a “logical” point of view is a damn near futile, and at best a very dry exercise. I mean, logic is important, but they need to be logical from the character’s perspective, not just an objective perspective. There needs to be some sort of emotional drive. A character can make all the “objectively right” choices, but if he’s not an inherently rational person, it rings false. So that’s why I talk about characters upfront in my reviews: do their emotions make sense given what we know about their past? Do their actions, given those emotions, make sense? Do their motivations jibe with what we’ve seen of the characters?

  • Pacing. From my perspective, an incredibly strong, interesting set of characters can overcome pacing problems. It’s a difficult task, but it can happen. Pacing problems, however, can sink a good plot. That’s why pacing is second on this list, and yet it’s probably the hardest thing on this list to get right. Don’t get me wrong, characters are very tricky, but pacing? Whew. It’s so subjective. Are you hitting your marks in a timely manner – i.e., is the build up to each “bump” in the story logical and constant? Do you have scenes that drag? This can just kill a novel for me. If I start hitting scenes where I’m begging the author to get on with it, it’s a huge problem. I’m not saying a book has to be an action movie. Far from it, in fact. I can appreciate a nice, slow burner. But that pace has to be steady and reasonable. If you’re writing a novel and intend to speed things up, don’t insert an explosive act out of nowhere. Build up to that moment – have character choices and events logically lead to that conclusion. I keep an eye on my interest level as I read a novel; if at some point I start to lose interest, I sit up and take the most interest, because I need to know why the book is losing me. These are incredibly instructive moments.

  • Plot. I puzzled over this one for a bit. My key question was whether plot and pace are separable. Eventually, I decided that they’re two different beasts. At least, from my perspective. Plot describes the events that occur, and pacing describes the speed at which they occur. A book can have a good, coherent set of actions that make sense within the universe and the context of the character motivations, and yet have terrible pacing. That indicates to me that it’s something other than plot. Once I’d figured that out, I also figured that plot belonged third on this list because, as mentioned above, bad pacing can kill a good plot. Sort of a rock-paper-scissors thing. An intricate plot does nothing for me if I get bored while an author pores over the details of the pistol that the protagonist is holding. This is why I’m not a Tom Clancy fan, but I would never argue that Clancy’s plots are bad. Implausible? Perhaps. But I don’t ding for that, so long as it makes sense within the novel.

  • Prose. Admittedly the most subjective of the four. Some people like their prose flowery, or filled with the afore-mentioned details about a gun, or with long-winded interior monologues. Those things aren’t my style, but I can acknowledge that they’re not inherently bad. Of course, there are objective problems with prose that crop up, as well: run-on sentences, head-hopping, poor spelling, and so on. I take both the subjective style considerations (within the context of the novel’s genre or narrator – long, flowery prose in an action novel is a no-no) and those objective issues that I encounter, and boil them down to some sort of useful metric.

Once I’ve examined those elements, I weigh them out and decide on a fair score for the novel. I try to keep my reviews to 500 words or less, so sometimes I may seem to focus on flaws in a novel that I overall enjoyed; this isn’t to be negative or mean, it’s to help both the writer find areas of improvement and for the reader to be prepared going in.

I offer a final impression at the end, as well, so that I can bring up any good points that I may have missed in talking about these essences.

I’ve only applied this process to three books so far, but it’s taught me so much about writing and what it means to write a strong novel. I share this list in the hopes of not only explaining my process, but also that other authors can start to pick up on these things and learn for their own craft.

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  1. Excellent post Jonathan! I love the four steps of breaking down a book for review. (I totally agree with you about Dan Brown BTW) I think I may just steal this for the next book I’m going to review on my site ;p Thanks!

  2. Brilliant. Insightful and detailed. Very helpful.

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