“What do you think makes for a ‘good’ book?… Is it too subjective to define or are there specific and universal elements that make up a ‘good’ book? How can you pull the reader in rather than push them away?”
From a thread on Writers’ Cafe.
Obviously, tastes are subjective, be it about food, a novel, or whatsoever. Some judge a book by its literary merit, others by how engrossing or memorable it is. Writers and others interested in storytelling look for unifying elements in stories we (the generic readers) like.
In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain, a writer and lecturer on writing, tried to answer a related question: “What is the source of readers’ satisfaction with a story?”
According to Swain, a story is a record of how somebody deals with danger. And if it is told properly, it hooks us, because we are curious about other people’s troubles. A story starts rolling when a change plunges a character into jeopardy. Change causes fear, fear creates tension. And readers like to worry.
So, tension created at the beginning, builds up and intensifies in the middle of the story (all these turns and twists cause complications, to which characters must respond). Excited by the danger, we are tense and eager. The escalating tension carries us through most of the story. At the climax, it is focused sharply.
Is keeping readers’ tension sufficient to be counted as a “good” story? According to Swain, while excitement keeps readers turning pages, it doesn’t constitute satisfaction.
Readers need resolution, that part of a story that comes after climax, where the hero demonstrates that he deserves to win. There, fear is dissipated and the accumulated tension is released. Finally the hero is satisfied and happy. He/she can relax, and so can the reader.
I can think of classics and modern successful novels that don’t follow this pattern (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and of blockbusters and bestsellers that do follow this version of “hero’s journey”, but I’m not going to dwell on examples and counter-examples, because I think that Swain’s reasoning as to “Why this is so?” is way more interesting.
So, according to Swain, we turn to fiction for encouragement and reassurance, and in particular to experience through a story what we believe in but not necessarily encounter in our daily life. One of the things we yearn to see is a relation between “what we do” (the cause) and “how we fare” (the effect) and demonstrations of individual worth and individual reward. If a resolution happens due to accident or coincidence, many readers will feel cheated, because they’d rather like to see an outcome where man (the book is from 1965!) masters fate. Personally, I don’t feel that way – I wouldn’t mind if the Death Star was blown by some quirky accident, but let’s return to Swain’s arguments. First, we worry about the hero, gradually we are shown why he is worthy, then we take part in his triumph. Seeing the protagonist rewarded feels good, because it contributes to our sense of control and security, reaffirms the wishful thinking that a cause-effect relationship exists between deed and reward. Yet, seeing the courageous hero rewarded and the ruthless and selfish villain punished isn’t enough.
Fiction is a venue for escape from the everyday reality, from not being in control, from feeling inconsequential and unable to challenge the laws laid down by men, nature, and practicality. In life we are wary of change. In fiction we seek danger and boldness, and are turned off by a mundane situation and powerless characters. A story that satisfies readers’ emotional needs is populated with characters that fascinate us, characters whose experiences we share as they challenge the impossible (wizards, vampires…), the unattainable (hot twenty-something self-made billionaires…), the forbidden (serial-killers, pedophiles…), or the disastrous (raging nature, on Earth or beyond…). Reading a good story, we take part in an adventure we’d never attempt in life. While we expand our horizons through seeing different worlds through the eyes of heroes and villains, we also satisfy repressed desires and emotional hunger without risking anything.
Back to the initial question – what is a good story? I think that an answer is too subjective to define. But the aspects described above make a story widely appealing.