What Makes a Book Great?

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We can’t help it as readers. We bring our own biases, assumptions, and expectations to the books we choose. Our life experiences and self-images cause us to identify with characters and situations, creating a unique read of the same novel, but are there fundamental ingredients that make a book objectively great? I’m not sure, so let’s explore.

Each book has these building blocks: story, characters, setting, dialogue, and pace. Then there is the writer’s style. The same blocks could be handed over to a different writer or even an editor and receive new treatment. The style is unique to the writer.

There are only so many stories out there, possibly only a handful. There are quests for the MacGuffin, committing to the elusive love, beating the villain and his minions, and through all the stories there are protagonists and antagonists overcoming obstacles and growing as characters. We’ve read them all and we know the moral lessons, yet we keep reading, unless of course the book stinks. Then we trash it and move on to the next one, yearning to experience another old story told new.

Characters and settings are also limited. Even with individual traits, we pigeonhole characters into stereotypes, partly because we need to have an understanding of the person, even if it is otherwise impossible for us to relate to their life. The same goes for settings. I’ve never been to France, but when a couple walks by the Seine I’m going to imagine them near an amalgamation of rivers I’ve seen with my own eyes, no matter how descriptive the words on the page. A poorly written book gets better with detail, but even with proper craftsmanship, characters and settings will have gaps that we fill in with our minds.

Dialogue is where a novel can stand apart. Yes, we’ve read similar conversations. We’ve heard or had arguments much like this one, though probably without such eloquence. Still, dialogue is where a book takes the familiar and creates something fresh. If it doesn’t, if we are bored by the interaction, anticipating the exact phrase to be uttered, then a book begins to fail. A decent book becomes a good book with the right dialogue.

Decisions with pace keep the reader going. It keeps us coming back. It keeps us from putting the book down, even though we promised ourselves we were going to stop at the end of that previous chapter. When it falters, even a good book can lose us. We never want to have to forge on only because we’ve invested so much time already. A reader should genuinely need to know how it all comes together.

The style of the writer is paramount in making the personal connection with the reader. It is the element most susceptible to scrutiny and the siren that will embrace the reader or scare them away.  All the building blocks may be brilliantly organized, but no style is ever universally loved. The voice of the writer will be both adored and hated, which ultimately prevents any book from being objectively great.

A great book is great because of the reader. Until we open the cover and settle in, a book can only ever be good. Good is where everyone can agree. It’s those classic stories that we’ve heard are good, highly praised throughout the ages, and when we read them, we nod with approval. Great is when the book touches us, makes us feel something, transports us from our own troubles by making us invested in someone else’s. We cheer for the hero, we marvel at the world, and we raise our eyebrows at the dialogue. When it’s over, we say, “that was a great book,” but it was our mental absorption of the text that made it so.

Go readers. Go and make a good book great!

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