Discussion Topic: Book Elements
Sometimes I read a book that utterly wows me...and then I discover another reader who was unimpressed. How? I think. How could you possibly not adore this incredible work? I’ve also noticed over the years how personal recommendations still do better than algorithms invented by big companies. Why? Perhaps because if you read a mermaid book the algorithm might suggest five other mermaid books for your next read while a bookseller or librarian will consider the book’s strengths and realize that particular mermaid book had a strong heroine or mindboggling worldbuilding or plenty of vivid sensory detail. The point is that readers seek out different factors. When a book blows me away it usually emphasizes my favorite factors. When someone else doesn’t like that same book, perhaps it’s because they focus on different elements when they read.
Today I want to break down what I consider the book elements: characters, plot, themes, writing, tone, worldbuilding, and setting. I’ve listed and will discuss them in order of my own preference.
First, characters. I’ve mentioned in reviews that I like character-driven stories. I recall reading a scene with nothing more than characters eating breakfast, but - because I care about these characters - for me it’s a riveting scene with characters eating breakfast. The reverse is also true: I can name books that had fast-paced, potentially gripping plots, but I found I just couldn’t care about all the carefully timed twists and revelations if I didn’t care about the characters experiencing them. I read in great part to understand and connect with other people. I like discovering motivations behind actions, whether real or imagined, and I love gaining new perspectives that I hadn’t considered. If a character’s perspective feels forced or artificial that drowns the whole book for me.
Second, plot. Because I do care about what actually happens in the story. Perhaps it’s because I write myself, but I’ll sometimes pause while reading a book and mentally demand an explanation from the author: But how is this moving the story forward? It makes me sad when I find a book with refreshing characters...but nothing’s happening to them. I don’t need lots of action, drama, or twists to hold my energy, but I do need to feel there’s some form and purpose to the story. While it’s true that life can feel random and meaningless at times, I definitely don’t enjoy novels that feel random and meaningless.
Third, themes. Sometimes we seek out particular types of books. Aside from reading and writing, my interests include animals (primarily dogs), Japanese language and culture, fitness, and women’s issues. With that information, it’s no surprise that my reading list from the past few years includes a book about women and working out, a mystery series narrated by a dog, and books like MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and SHOGUN. Our interests often overlap. While I have other interests aside from reading, I adore reading about those other interests. I would also classify genre as part of the themes element. Though I have quite eclectic reading tastes, I tend to particularly seek out fantasy and young adult novels - whereas someone else might prefer historical fiction, romance, mystery, political nonfiction, or memoirs, to name a few. Themes can also include issues and abstract questions. Like the issue of domestic violence or one of many abstract questions about death. Some people are drawn to specific topics and will seek out books that address those topics.
Fourth, writing. I toyed with whether this should go above or below themes for me. I settled on below, because - while I care about writing more than themes after reading a book - commentary on the book’s themes is more likely to make me read it in the first place than people raving about the writing. The problem with “good writing” is that it’s a subjective concept. The reason I don’t care much if someone tells me a book is well written is because I have read plenty of books that someone said featured noteworthy writing...and I disagree. For one thing, I think some people use the term “writing” to refer to the book overall rather than the specific word choice and sentence structure. So if they liked a book, they will say it was well written. The truth is I’ve read some books I liked while still thinking the writing was terrible. However, even if I don’t pay much attention to which books people are praising as a beautifully written, I love discovering one where I think as much. I often say in my reviews that I think there are two types of strong writing: the type that is so subtle and unobtrusive that you forget about the writing and only think about the story and the type that keeps making you pause to admire original and apt turns of phrase. Buzz about a book’s writing won’t make me read the book (because it’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same), but I do love when I open a cover and find myself unexpectedly held captive by a single sentence.
Fifth, tone. Is the book light or dark? Funny or serious? I read more dark and serious books, but I seek out more light and funny ones, probably because I need those palate cleansers so I can delve back into my heavier selections. However, I know readers who dislike books that are even remotely sad. My original point for this post was that we read for different reasons. I read, above all else, to think and, only secondly, to feel, but I let the author decide where to steer my thinking and feeling. Others might not pick up a book that they think will make them cry, no matter how much reviewers praise it. Maybe they want to laugh. Maybe they merely want to be entertained with something that doesn’t demand a draining amount of emotional connection. Maybe they want a sweet, unrealistically tidy happily-ever-after as a refreshing escape. Of all the elements, I think we vary - within ourselves - the most on tone. Funny, sad, heartwarming - what we want in terms of tone can vary depending on the day.
Sixth, worldbuilding. (For those not familiar with the term, worldbuilding refers to the fictional universe the author has invented. Fantasy and science fiction novels especially require a lot of thought about the politics, culture, language, food, clothes, architecture, etc. for the imagined world. Mainstream fiction might seem exempt from this element, but fiction authors are still worldbuilding when they make up a town or even plop fake characters into a real town.) I’m reaching the elements that I don’t care about as much. Sure, I find myself impressed when I start wondering how many hours an author must have spent brainstorming all this impressive detail for their world, but more often than not I find too much worldbuilding detail detracts from what I care about more: the characters and the plot. Yet I know readers, mostly speculative fiction readers, who would probably list worldbuilding as their favorite element. They want all that detail. They might not even care so much about who is doing what in the story, but they want a world where they can retreat, one that feels as real as our own. Worldbuilding also lends itself to fandom. Think of all the necklaces with iconic literary symbols, similar tattoos, or even drinks and dishes taken from the pages of a favorite novel.
Seventh, setting. I definitely care least about this one. In general, I care about the who the most, the what second, and the where barely. Oftentimes when someone raves about a book and I don’t understand their fixation, they will make a comment like, “But didn’t you love the description of the village? With the old brick building and the river and all those sycamore trees?” As strange as it sounds to someone who loves setting, I often think you can take the same story, relocate it, and I would enjoy it just as much. While occasionally I find myself impressed with setting description, I usually tie that back to strong writing. I do concede that sometimes setting is interwoven with another element such as plot but for the most part, I find setting description dull and skim-worthy and feel baffled by authors who will go on for pages and pages about location.
So the next time you’re reviewing or recommending a book, I suggest thinking about these elements a little. When you really adore something, it’s hard to understand how someone else might not feel the same way. Try looking at what elements feature the most in this book and what elements seem most prominent in the reader’s favorites.
How about you? What elements do you care about the most in a book?