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Monday, June 13, 2011

What Really Matters in a Story

I've been involved in too many discussions over the last months, mostly with other authors. One question I've never resolved to my satisfaction is, "What matters in a story? What do the readers want?"

Authors will tell you that point of view matters. Sentence structure is very important. Grammar is necessary. Rhythm and pacing are important. Character, setting, and plot and all sorts of other technical aspects matter. And they're right. All of it is necessary. Good writing is the foundation and structure where you hang your story. If the writing is flawed, it's harder to create a strong story.

But one aspect I think gets lost in the discussion is that the main thing readers want is a story. They want characters they care about to take action and resolve problems. They want a story to carry them away. Most people read to escape. They don't care if a book is technically flawless. They care if the characters are likeable, if the story is entertaining.

Authors love to pick apart other books especially best selling books, pointing fingers at the flaws, at the terrible prose and weak descriptions and wandering dialogue. Readers don't seem to care about the technical flaws. If they did, the books wouldn't sell like they do. The authors wouldn't have rabid fans mobbing them.

So what do readers really want in a book? Am I completely off base in my assumptions? Do typos make you quit reading or can you overlook them if the story is good enough?

Here's the incentive to participate in the discussion: If I have more than twenty people commenting on this post in the next week or so, I'll pick a random commenter to win their choice of one of the books I've got on my shelf - Nexus Point (my SF adventure novel), Rotting Tales (a collection of mostly silly zombie stories), Wretched Moments Anthology (celebrate those moments no one wants to ever remember), How the West was Wicked Anthology (weird western horror stories), or Leather, Denim, & Silver: Legends of the Monster Hunter Anthology.

Comment away and tell me what you as a reader look for in a book.


  1. Characters that I care about! Definitely. Because if I don't care about them, nothing else matters.

    Oh, and plot is a very close second. Even if I care about the characters, it has to have substance. After reading a few books that friends loved that I didn't so much, I realized that "romance" isn't plot to me. It's a side story. I need me some actual plot!

  2. Me personally, I have to have characters I care about, as you said. Also, I want to be surprised . Keep me guessing . If I can figure out everything that is going to happen in your story , why do I need to read it.
    Jaden's Weaver, by Mary Robbinet Kowal is a prime example . I absolutely HATE spiders, yet she got me to care and in the end , even cheer for the beast. I knew the ending that I wanted and yet she managed to give me something even cooler. THAT is the kind of thing I want in a story.

  3. If the story is interesting enough, I can overlook all sorts of other things. Story involves the characters, the problems, the resolution. I have read things simply because they were so bad I had to see if it stayed bad. Sometimes things are so bad they are good.

    It is usually things like gratuitous sex, violence, rape, etc. that has nothing really to contribute to a story that makes me drop a book. If something bad happens, it needs to illuminate an aspect of someone's character, or be a starting point for a conflict or part of the process of the character growth. If it is in there simply because the author decided that people like it and so it will sell, then those are the authors I avoid like the plague.

    Bad spelling or grammar errors are more a problem with an editing staff that can't proof things properly or (even less likely) an author with such an inflated ego and enough pull that editors don't dare touch it much.

  4. I have to like that characters (at least one) and be pulled into a story that needs resolving in my own mind-I may be more forgiving of bad movies than novels and thus follow their own shorter timeline, all because I want to know how it ends...IF you hooked me with anything/something in the first place.

    To me~its the great books that have it all~Story, Character, Wonder, Emotional Resonance and Deeper Meaning.

  5. Thanks for the replies. I love hearing readers tell me what works and what doesn't. Not everyone is going to want the same things. This is part of my ongoing research to find out why some books with terrible writing become bestsellers.

  6. Mark Paul JacobsJune 13, 2011 at 7:28 PM

    I don't want to be bored. So many books I've read where I end up daydreaming through 3 or 4 pages, or a chapter....

  7. I completely agree that most readers want the story. As writers, we tend to pick at the flaws because we train ourselves to see them. I do think that a story can be BETTER for not having major flaws, but for most readers, small flaws don't matter.

  8. Basic writing skills are sort of like part of the blank canvas. Never really looked at (except by other professionals) and only noticed when it's flawed. Typos are rare enough that it's rather fun to discover one or two. Correct grammar and smooth flowing prose is more important as errors can breaks one out of the story when you stop to figure out what that sentence actually said.

    If you're aiming at a story that can be read aloud then prose is much more important. I really wish a lot of picture books authors paid more attention to this. Isn't as important in longer works as the length and age make private reading more prevalent.

    Pacing or plot structure is only well done when it doesn't draw attention to itself. Sort of like the walls of a room that are rarely looked at and yet define the space that you live and work in. I have stopped reading a couple series where the tightly controlled, formulaic pacing stuck out like bony nodules. It really give an artificial and contrived overtone. On the other hand I cannot make it through a Dostoevsky. And I have to skip exposition chapters in LesMiserables to keep track of what the story is.

    So what do I look for? Well, Believability is a major one. If I'm going to escape then I can't forever be glancing away from gaping plot holes, setting anomalies, or flat characters. I've grown to dislike Mercedes Lackley for her lack of integration of implications into her stories. Her frequent planting of current sexual and political themes into a feudal kingdom structure without planting any of their repercussions. Also, her magic structures are rarely well thought out and occasionally extremely flawed. I can't stand reading her companion series anymore (despite going through the 'ooh! magic horsie!' stage) just because how badly they hold together under analysis. Grrr!

    Also, as I read to escape I don't wish to escape to a place or group of people that aren't worth hanging around. I stopped reading Dune 2/3 of the way in because I just couldn't stand spending that much time inside characters heads that I didn't like. There are other perfectly admirable characters who have such hard lives in the story that I can only be with them if I have some emotional reserves.

    Anyway, my two cents.
    Hannah =)


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