21 March 2009

What Makes a Good Story?

Ask this question to five different people and you'll get five different answers. Writing is subjective; so is reading. One person's keeper is another's wall-banging dreck.

With this in mind, I've been soldiering through the stash of non-romance novels I bought lo those many months ago at Barnes & Noble. Most of them I haven't been able to finish, for one reason or another. The historical fiction piece set in China? Yawn. Too detailed, too precious, too boring. The Japanese crime thriller? Ick. Unlikeable characters, fragmented POV, gloomy setting and atmosphere. No hope anywhere. That, and the translation sucked.

Current read: modern, intelligently-crafted thriller with a morally ambiguous hero, intriguing plot, lush writing. Not a keeper, but head and shoulders above the others.

That got me thinking...what characteristics must a story possess to keep me interested?

1.) Likeable characters: If everyone in the book is an asshole with no redeeming qualities, forget it. Who wants to read about people for whom you feel no empathy, and you'd rather just shoot and put out of your misery? Feh!

2.) An interesting, well-paced plot: I have no interest in reading about the day-to-day minutiae of a Chinese girl's life in excruciating moment-by-moment detail. What purpose does it serve, save to stroke the author's ego and display to his/her writing peers that he/she deserves to be published simply on the depth of his/her knowledge of that subject/time period? To me, that's nothing but literary masturbation. Again, feh.

3.) Finely crafted language: Alas, even the most interesting plot and sympathetic characters can't save a book if the clumsiness of the prose keeps pulling me out of the story. It's like looking at a Degas through a smudged and water-spotted camera lens; you can glimpse the beauty beyond, but your view of that beauty is hopelessly obscured, and you will never grasp the true nature of what is depicted on the canvas. Talk about an exercise in frustration.

So there you have it in a nutshell - my benchmarks for quality. What about you? What do you look for?


LoreceFA said...

I know that misuse of languaage can ruin anything, most recently affecting my reading of non-fiction. Lack of logic will also ruin anything, fiction or non. A sympathetic main character is also necessary.