Art, entertainment, or fanciful elitist interpretations aside, what are the components that give a story an A in my book? To get an out and proud book nerd like myself salivating—ready and excited to whip out her hard earned cash and hit the buy button on Amazon, there are at least four features that need to be present. These are: complex characters; a blend of predictable and unpredictable elements; great dialogue; and authenticity.
The character part is obvious, as poorly written characters, immediately turn readers off to the plot. There is also the likability factor, especially in terms of the main characters, because if you do not like the character, or have too many urges to bitch-slap them, then most likely you will not enjoy the book. I also like complex characters, which for me means flawed—and in some cases, deeply flawed. Characters that are all good or all evil, tend to be boring, and in my opinion are unrealistic. Most people are various grades of both, with a penchant to lean one way or another. Even down-right evil characters, should be at least allowed to have their “moments.” This is what makes a story compelling.
In terms of having predictable and unpredictable elements, let me elaborate on what I mean. From a literary perspective, nearly all novels are predictable in some form or another. Usually you know who’s going to hook up; if something bad is going to happen (foreshadowing—an old time-tested technique); or at least some sense of direction, on where the book is headed. If you don’t, the writer is probably ass, which will immediately make you regret your purchase, and want to scream in the face of the author—give me back my money fool! Predictability is important, because you want to correctly advertise what it is that you are selling to readers. Like if I’m reading a sweet, sweet, love story, don’t randomly fuck it up, by turning the main character into Hannibal Lector. This is bad advertising—and again, makes me what to yell—give me back my money fool! It’s important to let readers know, what they’re in for. Also, predictability, allows the reader to feel smart—like oh, yeah I knew that was going to happen; I’m so good at this. This has its merit.
But now having said that, predictability should not be to the point, where you can figure, everything out. One of the best ways to keep readers turning the pages is by building this sense of curiosity about the end, and how things are going to turn out. There should be several viable possibilities. This is where the unpredictable factor comes in. Unpredictable elements can also be hidden within surprising turn-of-phrases, or subtle lines interjected, that throws the readers off-guard. I like this, and at times, try to incorporate this in my writing. A good book should keep you guessing.
The dialogue part is one I place huge emphasis on. If Quentin Tarantino ever decided to become a novelist, I’d be the first one on line to purchase a copy, because no one does great dialogue (or monologue—who can forget Samuel L. Jackson’s speech to his pitiful victim in Pulp Fiction) like him. Tarantino aside, I’m truly a sucker for great conversation, verbal slap-downs, and cheeky exchanges. The best part about writing is that you get to write things, and make your characters say things that you would never get to say, or do in real life. I love this, and in my writing, there are some characters that I go to town with on that. Juicy dialogue keeps any happy-go-lucky book nerd panting for more.
And last, but certainly not least, is authenticity. This part is perhaps the most crucial and one that can and has been easily screwed up. Authenticity basically speaks to making sense. Does the story make sense? Do the characters in that story make sense? Is the story consistent throughout, and thus make sense with what it presents? This idea is true for historical novels as well as sci-fi or fantasy based ones. Common sense may not always be that common, but a story damn well better make use of it, or else—give me back my money fool!!!