Four Essential Elements in a Great Book
Writing a good book is something every fiction writer aspires to. Having a great story idea to start with helps. A satisfying novel is a combination of many key components. Here are four approachers that will make your book better.
1. A strong opening
Your story idea doesn’t have to be the most exciting concept the world has ever seen. Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway is about a woman planning and hosting a party. A simple premise. What’s made it endure (and be taught in universities) is its rich, complex grasp of character, among other aspects.
So readers may forgive a non-thrilling premise. Few, though, will forgive a disappointing first paragraph. Think of some of the openings of some of the best loved novels of all time. They create intrigue. George Orwell, for example, opens 1984 (1949) with the words: “It was a bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The reader immediately has questions: What clocks? Why thirteen, rather than the usual twelve chimes? Orwell immediately creates questions in the reader and anchors them in a key aspect of setting – time. Another example of a great opening is Toni Morrison’s first sentence in her haunting, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved (1987). Morrison opens the book with just 3 words: “124 was spiteful.” What is 124? Why is this mysterious number described as spiteful? The reader learns that it is the street number for the house where some of the novel’s tragedy takes place.
To test whether the opening of your novel is strong enough, ask yourself these questions: Does it have a hook that creates curiosity in the reader? Does it introduce a place, character or atmosphere that is important to the plot?
2. Satisfying, fitting style
What makes a good story? One aspect of this is style. Writers are often told to avoid adverbs (instead of ‘ran hurriedly’ say ‘sprinted’ or ‘dashed’, for example). This is not because adverbs are ‘bad’, necessarily, but because often more descriptive verbs are available.
Something more abstract is equally important in style: rhythm. Why is rhythm important? Because the cadence of words, the way they sound to the inner ear, is what makes some sentences more beautiful and memorable than others. Consider poetry: Besides striking imagery and metaphors, what gives poetry its ‘poetic’ quality is the rhythm the words create.
In a taut thriller, the rhythm of the prose may be fast and clipped, whereas in a lyrical historical epic, the writing might flow smoothly in long, ebbing and flowing sentences. A good understanding for how to use the rhythm of a sentence itself in interesting ways will make your writing more interesting to read. One way to develop this rhythmic skill is to read sentences and paragraphs aloud sometimes (even if it makes you feel silly).
3. Powerful description
Once you’ve hooked your reader’s attention, you will need to sustain their interest. Plot and character development are crucial. Yet to let readers fully enter your fictional world, you also need to arrest the reader’s imagination with vivid and powerful description. Forgettable books often have thin description, with the bare minimum indicating setting. By contrast, here is the rich description of the badger’s home in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows (1908):
‘In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.’
Grahame conjures an intimate and cozy dwelling. The verb ‘winked’ Grahame uses to describe the gleaming plates is well-chosen. It suggests a fitting mood of friendliness, familiarity and intimacy in Badger’s comforting home.
When writing description, remember to: Use adjectives and verbs that carry associations or connotations that strengthen the mood and atmosphere you want to evoke (like Grahame’s ‘winking’ plates). Use metaphors that enrich and add a breath of freshness to your descriptions. Describe (as Ann Marble suggests here) what your characters would notice. It helps characterization to filter scenes through your characters’ eyes. What will a painter notice in Badger’s kitchen, versus an architect?
4. The key to writing a good book: A satisfying conclusion
One of the biggest disappointments, many readers will agree, is when a writer lets a story peter out and does not do justice to the story’s central idea. Many writers use anti-climax to subtle effect. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s surreal novel The Unconsoled (1995), the reader is made to expect a significant event that never happens.
To make sure your ending is satisfying: Make sure you have followed through on questions you yourself have raised in the course of the book. Resolve important tensions that have built up in the course of the story, or use a cliffhanger to create anticipation for your next book
Need help writing a better book? Get help from a writing coach who’ll keep you accountable to your goals.