Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Makes For Good Reading?

What makes for good reading?  It's a question that has both one million answers and zero.  If you ask one hundred people you would probably get several hundred different answers.  Imagine that in Family Feud...  I shall attempt to construct a formidable answer.

For a tale to read well, it must excel in the three main attributes of writing: setting, plot, and character.  If there are holes in any of the three the writing will either seem to be missing something, read awkwardly or read boringly.

Settings must be tailored to genre.  If you are writing fantasy, a good setting will include vast swathes of land with several kingdoms, each of which are broken down into cities and the villages and open land between them.  Any given novel does not need to explore a large portion of that setting for it to make for good reading, but the places should be there nonetheless.  If you are writing horror, the setting should either convey an ominous feel throughout or begin feeling natural so that you can snap into the horror, adding a sort of "shock value".

The plot of a novel can be further broken into pacing, arcs, and variety.  Each one is as important to plot as plot is to the whole.

Books should have a method to their pacing.  It doesn't have to be consistent, but there should be a reason why it isn't consistent if it isn't.  Thrillers have lightning-fast pacing throughout, while YA novels generally have fast pacing, and suspense and epic fantasy novels have very fast pacing.  It's normal for the pacing to quicken at the end of the novel, especially if it's at the climax or the convergence of several arcs.  If your hearts has begun to pound in your chest, it's probably a combination of increased pressure and faster pacing.

Arcs are progressions of plot elements.  Events progress in several arcs, one for each plot-line.  Each individual chapter or set of chapters may have their own arc, along with the standard arc for the main plot-line and each sub-plot.  Characters also have arcs.  They should change steadily over the course of their arc, either physically, mentally, or (preferably) both.

Variety refers here to a good mix of scene types.  A good book will have a sampling of action scenes, linking scenes, character development scenes (although characters should be constantly developing), and deep, intellectual scenes.  There are many other types of scenes, and good books are not actually required to have all of the prior examples.  Intellectual scenes may not be best in young adult thrillers, for example.

Beware of straw-men.  That is, your characters should not be flat.  They need depth, life, emotion, personality, etc.  As aforementioned, characters need arcs.  One of the strongest, most dynamic characters that I've had the pleasure of reading about was Ender of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Saga.  There is no specific number of characters that a book should have, but keep in mind that the shorter the work, the fewer characters the reader can handle.  If you try to cram three hundred characters into a forty thousand word novel you'll drive your readers crazy, yet Robert Jordan managed to make it work throughout the few million total words in the Wheel of Time series.

Everyone has their own tastes in what they like to read (if at all), but to make the best overall impression a writer must master setting, plot, and character.  If they do, they are guaranteed to present "good reading" to their hardiest fans.

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