Saturday, January 30, 2016

What Make a Good Read in Fiction?

Where I write books and book reviews. 
Books I love to read.
Today I was writing a book review (that you can read next door at my other blog, Victorian Scribbles) and it got me to thinking about what makes a good read in fiction. I read lots of books, and I review books in various genres, but the ones that stick in my mind seem to share certain characteristics, no matter what their genre.

1. Some kind of a problem to be solved. Yes, "the story problem" that creates the story arc for the protagonist, etc. The plot. Still, reading it that way, it seems so . . . pedantic. For me, "plot" or "story problem" boil down to some kind of a puzzle or challenge that needs to be worked out--one that engages the reader as well as the protagonist. You really want to know how it will end. One of the appeals of a good mystery is that you find yourself hot on the trail, trying to solve it along with the protagonist.

2. Interesting characters that can make me suspend disbelief enough to go along for the ride. For me, they don't have to be the p.o.v. character. Watson, purported teller of Sherlock Holmes tales, is the perfect filter to make me suspend belief regarding Sherlock Holmes's astounding mental and physical prowess, because Watson is believable, and he believes in his friend. Nick, in The Great Gatsby, pulls the reader into his awe of Gatsby so that a reader is invested in the outcome for this tragic figure. In The Lightning Queen, a YA novel about gypsies and Mexican-indians, the author, Laura Resau, makes us care about the dignity of both groups and their traditions, while pulling us into their world of fate and magic and healing through the eyes of two endearing characters.

3. A reader learns something they didn't know, even though it's fiction. This is true in all of the above. But let me add Cara Black's Aimee LeDuc adult mystery series, where every new mystery is a free trip to Paris, and Kate Morton's novel, The Secret Keeper, where a reader travels back and forth in time to unravel a dying woman's story behind the mesmerizing event witnessed years ago by her daughter--a secret going back to World War II. Right now I'm reading a gripping middle grade novel by Julie T. Lamana, Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, that takes a reader into the terrifying lead-up to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Many of us read about Katrina in 2005 when the storm hit New Orleans, but this book makes you live through it.

4. Emotional involvement. I love a book that plays on my emotions, and all of the above books do that. A special emotional aspect I enjoy, though, is humor--witty humor, not slapstick. For me, one of the simple pleasures in reading is to find myself chuckling, or even laughing out loud. The Sherlock Holmes mystery I reviewed next door--Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ruby Elephants--was one such book, but library shelves and bookstores abound with good, humorous fiction, and for those of you who write, I would advise you to find a way to inject a little humor in your story. It's almost irresistible to re-read a truly funny book.

How about you? What do you find the most important elements in a good read? Can you tell me the titles of some good reads you think I (and others) might enjoy?

27 comments:

Deborah Swift said...

Great list Elizabeth. For me, emotional involvement tops the list, but I also love a mystery to solve. I also like something unexpected, that jolts me out of my seat and makes me look at a character a little differently.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Deborah, thanks for stopping by. Yes, the unexpected hooks me in, too. I love to be surprised. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day.

Rosi said...

I think for me it is the unexpected that captures me. That can be in anything I read from picture books to adult novels. I like your list. It all makes sense for me. A book I read recently that has that quality is Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. It is stunning. But then I say that about every Gary D. Schmidt book! Thanks or the post.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Rosi, I realize I haven't read anything yet by Gary D. Schmidt, but now I'll have to. "Stunning" isn't a word I hear very often regarding a good read. Something new for my TBR stack! (Thank goodness i can walk to a library branch, because my bookshelves are getting too full! :-)

Carol Riggs said...

I think you're right about the focus on "problem" being the thing that makes things seem pedantic. Engaging the reader is a tricky thing, but talented writers can do it. They involve you in the characters and mystery, and you're off! Interesting you mention learning things too; in Cat Winters' IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, I learned things about early 1900s Spanish influenza, as well as the seances and spirit photographers that really existed in those days. Fascinating!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Oh, Carol, I'm so glad you left this comment! I have another book on my back burner that involves the Spanish influenza, and I love the idea of the seances! I'll have to get that book. Have a great day!

Tanya Lynne Reimer said...

That's a good list. Lately, I find myself looking for creative writing styles or plot twists that take me in a new unforeseen direction.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Tanya, do you find yourself looking into other genres when you do that? I know you have specialized somewhat in paranormal.

Kenda Turner said...

For me, it's emotional involvement that keeps me turning pages. One book I read recently was Patricia Reilly Giff's "Nory Ryan's Song." It's about a young girl struggling through Ireland's potato famine and subsequent voyage to America. So captivating, I had my daughter read it so we could discuss it! Thanks for these titles you've shared--need to add some to my to-read list :-)

Kate Larkindale said...

For me it's the emotion. I have to feel with the characters. But if the plot doesn't make sense, it can't be redeemed....

Natalie Aguirre said...

So agree with your list of what makes books a good read. You really nailed it.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Kenda, I read Nory Ryan's Song and was so moved by it. It broke my heart in places. How cool that you had your daughter read it so you could discuss it. Giff is such a wonderful writer. She wrote a companion novel you would like as well, called, Maggie's Door.

Kate, I agree. The plot is equally important, but it's the emotions that suck me into a story.

Natalie, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Have a great day.

Chrys Fey said...

Yup, yup, yup. I especially need an engaging plot with some suspense and a character I can like.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chrys. Put that way, I think suspense and a character you can cheer for are probably what make the plot engaging, don't you?

Mark Noce said...

Great points! I think a plot with out a problem to solve isn't really a plot anyway:)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

You are so right, Mark. After awhile the word "plot" feels so dry and too familiar as a story element. It really is the problem that creates a plot.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I was kind of horrified by The Great Gatsby in high school and have never had a desire to revisit that story. Now, Kate Morton books? She's amazing. I love the way she pulls us back and forth between the generations. There's something so compelling and her reveals can be gut wrenching.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Wonderful list! I agree with all of them - although I'm more of a quest-fantasy-sci-fi problem-solver fan than a mystery fan. I like a good mystery now and then, and I appreciate your reviews and mentions in this post.
For me, although I dearly love Watson, I am fond of POV characters who take an active role in their story - events don't just happen to them, they make stuff happen (even if it starts with something happen to them).
For mysteries, I'm not sure what I can recommend that you probably haven't already read.
Happy reading and writing!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Tyrean, loved your comments. You give me food for thought: It certainly is easier to identify with a protagonist who is the story's narrator as well as the mover and shaker of events. As far as mysteries I haven't read, there's oh, so many! I'm always on the look-out. I don't read that much Sci-Fi anymore. (I went through a phase where that was all that I read, but it's been awhile). But I just finished reading Peggy Eddleman's Sky Jumpers, a YA about a post-apolocyptic world, and she did some original world-building that hooked me in right away.

alexia said...

To me, it's definitely the emotional involvement, or as I call it, the human drama element. You've got to connect with the character and your emotions do need to be toyed with, at least in the best stories. I also like a pace that moves along pretty quickly; I get bored with slow books even if the writing is great. I need that sense of urgency to want to keep reading.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Donna, thanks for stopping by. I first read The Great Gatsby as an assignment in college, and, while I like the book and the way it moved along, I don't think I realized why it was such a masterpiece. When I started writing full time, I revisited it and was really struck by how perfectly Fitzgerald hit all the right notes, regarding story elements. His style-- lean and spare-- is so different from Kate Morton's, but I agree: She spins a tale that pulls you in and won't let you go. And her endings always surprise me.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Alexia, yup, it's that emotional involvement that hooks me, too, and makes me see through the character's eyes. I don't mind a slower pace, though, as long as the story is compelling. (But I have read stories that drag, and I used to plod along and finish them. In recent years, though, if the story is too slow, I put the book aside.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...


The characters and how they go about solving their problems or their quests are what make me enjoy a story. I want to feel what the character feels, see what he/she sees, be happy or sad, afraid, or brave. I want them to be smart, but also make mistakes, like real people do. I love dogs and/or cats in a story too.
Great post.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Beverly! Yes, for me, characters and their problems suck me into the story, too. A good case of characters can make me really hate to see that book end. :-)

Sandra Cox said...

Well said. You hit all the salient points.

Carol Riggs said...

Oh, great list. I can agree with all of these--they're very basic things. I love finding little tidbits to learn/share, whether I'm writing or reading. And emotional involvement is KEY, with characters who are solving some sort of problem.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Carol, yes, it's the emotional involvement. Well mental involvement, too, in the case of a mystery . . . but I suppose that comes down to emotion, too. There's curiosity about the puzzle, and you want the protagonist to solve it. (I have mysteries on my mind lately>)

Thanks for stopping by, Sandra. I'm glad the list resonated with you.