8 Qualities of A Great Book

George R. R. MartinI like rules. I like knowing exactly what I need to do in order to accomplish something. It’s why I love to cook. There are a set number of steps that lead to an end result. While life doesn’t always turn out as well as my lemon pepper chicken, I’ve found that there are a few “recipes” that hold true. One of those is the recipe for writing a great book. It applies to short stories, novellas, novels, epics, poems, you name it. And, with the editing I’ve done and the writing I’ve attempted, I’ve found these things to be true across the board.

1. A polished work.

Basically, copyediting. In other words, no grammar errors, spelling issues, or tense changes within the story. The biggest pet peeve I have is reading a highly recommended author who has grammatical errors in their stories. (God forbid anyone should read my stories at this point with their grammatical pits and spelling sink-holes, but I’m aware of them.) If a book is not polished on the foundation of the piece, many will put it down.The grammar is the framework of your piece. It’s the bones, the flour of your writing. If you have crooked bones, your body will be messed up. If you have crummy flour, your cake will be messed up. If you have poor metaphors like this, your blog will be messed up. Alas, I digress. Grammar and its fellow compadres are the first of the most important steps to a great book. If I was to reading a book that read like this I woud get real frustrated and stop.

2. Clear Storyline.

I don’t know how many young authors I’ve sent back to the drawing board to reexamine their storylines. I personally start every story out with a rough sketch of what’s going to happen. The simplest form of this is the same diagram we all used in high school: intro, starting action, conflict, rising action, climax, conclusion. Because I am rather detail-oriented, I tend to go slightly more in depth. Several pages more in depth… But the point still stands. Without a storyline, the book becomes disjointed, haphazard, and unclear. You need to decide what Mary is going to do, what her end goal is, and how she’s going to get there before you start. (This prevents a lot of writer’s block as well.)

3. Gripping narration.

Have you ever read a book you thought would be great, but the narration was awful? The style the story is written in is a huge factor in the overall quality of the book. If it is a science-fiction book written with a very lax style, a reader might put it down. If it seems like the mood of the story is that of two girls gossiping, a reader might put it down. I was stunned one day when I suggested to a writer that they clean up their grammar, take out some of the slang, and make it a little more professional. Her response was, “Well, I wanted people to know that anyone could write. I didn’t want it to be perfect, because that’s not how most people write.” As a master craftsman of your trade, it isn’t your responsibility to sit at everyone else’s level. If I go to a Gordon Ramsey restaurant, I’m not expecting ramen noodles and Hamburger Helper. I’m expecting food I couldn’t made. It’s the same with your writing. People, when they open a book, expect to be whisked away into a different world where they can lose themselves in the story. If you have a lassiez faire manner of writing or a tendency to go into intense detail, they won’t be able to get into the story. Think about your favorite book or author and attempt to emulate them. For example, George R. R. Martin has a very refined manner of writing. He uses many crass phrases and has many vulgar characters, but his narration is flawless and almost formal. Leave the contemporary speech or the teenage tone to the dialogue and use the narration to keep the story flowing. (Side note: If your story’s style is contemporary or has a teenage tone, forget that last line. I’m speaking mainly to the people who have tons of “like,” cliches, and “OMG wow” moments.)

4. Vivid setting

If you’ve seen Avatar, you understand. If you’ve read the C. S. Lewis Narnia series or played World of Warcraft, you understand. As I said above, the reader wants to disappear into a different world. Make it believable. Really, this is one of the simplest (yet most complex…) of the 8 to do. Readers have a ready imagination and can usually push through even the simplest of descriptions. Take Hemingway for example. Still, as the writer you have to put in a fair bit of effort as well. If you’re writing a historical fiction, make sure your history is correct. Add minor details. If you’re writing a science-fiction, make sure your science is correct or that you have something to back it up with. Add minor details. If you’re writing fantasy, make sure to believe your own story. Get your religions correct (that you make up or use). Get your fictional histories straight. Add minor details. Setting is more about the small details than it is about how perfectly you describe the color of her eyes. On top of that, you have to believe it. If you have something unbelievable, write about it as if it’s every day fact. Harry Potter: magic exists and so do shriveled up old men that use other weirdos’ heads as their own. Insanity, but we bought every word of it.

5. Psychological depth

Most of you may be scratching your heads on this one, but think about it. Every book you’ve read has some moral or premise to it. Even children’s books have some psychological background. (Baby-baby books, maybe not.) Even if the premise is only to teach, that has a meaning. In the heavier, longer books (i.e. short stories, novellas, novels) the morals become more evident. Each successful book on the market has some psychological intuitiveness (George R. R. Martin), some good vs. evil moral (J. K. Rowling), or romantic element of true love (Stephanie Meyer). Take that and put it to use in your own story. Even if it is something incredibly minor, try to add psychological depth. Give your characters more than just a Good and Bad rating. Give the good guys some flaws. Give the bad guys a background. Make them relatable. Give the reader something to cheer for. Your readers will become so much more invested when they have a reason to read.

7. Hooks at the end of each chapter

I hate getting to the end of a chapter and thinking, “Ok, I guess I can stop here for the night.” I’m left feeling almost cheated. To go along with gripping narration, end each chapter as a cliffhanger. Pretend like each chapter is an episode in a series. Would you really end the episode with “She buttoned up her nightdress and went to sleep.” Probably not. Would you end a chapter with “She buttoned up her nightdress and went to sleep. He watched from the shadows, waiting.” Yes. Can you imagine if your favorite show ended with a mysterious someone watching your heroine? You’d be dying to watch the next show. Do the same thing with your book. Make them turn that page.

8. Use of literary tools

We learned about these in high school: alliteration, allusion, foreshadow, metaphor, simile… Use them. These are sprinkles on the top of a perfect sugar cookie of a book. They aren’t going to make or break the flavor of the cookie, but 9 times out of 10, people will choose the cookie with sprinkles. Use them sparingly. These can make the difference between a good reading and a great reading. To use foreshadow as an example, how satisfying of a feeling is it when you start guessing at a murder suspect and get it right at the end? You used the foreshadowed clues to determine who it was. You also probably kept flipping the pages to figure out who it was. Additionally, there is nothing quite like having a prophecy or a missed hint appear at the end of a book with a completely different outcome. Who would have guessed that (SPOILER ALERT) Jacob would end up with Renesmee? Foreshadow. ‘Nuff said.

So, now that you have the 8 qualities every great book needs, check out yours. Does it have these? Are there any books you’ve read and loved that don’t? Are there any books you’ve read and hated that don’t? And yes, my books are still severely lacking in many of these categories. Everything’s a work in progress, but at least I have the steps to get there!


About S. G. Ricketts

I am a dreamer. This page holds all of the dreams and desires and hopes and wishes of the first of my two dreams: to share my imagination with the world. For those of you who have read a book or written a book, these stories are not merely words on a page. They are living, breathing creatures, worlds so compellingly real that you can smell the sweat and feel the rain. This is what I want to share ...with all of you. Yes, becoming rich and famous would be fabulous. I won't deny that. However, it would be so much more satisfying to see my book in the hands of someone on the bus, hear my book talked about at a restaurant, see a cluster of fan-art. I want to inspire the mind to imagine different worlds and different situations. If I can achieve that, I will have achieved my dream.

Posted on December 7, 2011, in Musing, tips and tests, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I definitely agree with the points made, but I’ll also love to use this a checklist with my own work 🙂 Great post!

  2. Great list, I’ll definitely use this a guideline for my next book!

  3. apparently you’ve never read any galley prints. Most authors suck at proofreading. really really suck at it. Editing is a different skillset than writing — but it’s just as necessary for a damn good book!
    Don’t cliffhang all the time, it grows wearisome (moreso with Martin, granted, since you won’t get the resolution for a while) — but if your tension can’t pull the story along, don’t try to “artificially create it.”

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