Ahh, do you ever just think about your favorite kinds of books and just despair because you realize your own stuff just falls flat? And yet, it's probably good to think about what works. I just finished revising a book and am now scouting around my WIPs to see what I will finish next, and how to blow it out of the water. So, here are some thoughts right now about what makes a book really go off the charts for me:
- Makes you feeeeeeeeel. This is the single most important element. If everything else is cool but it doesn’t make you feel, it strikes out.
- Makes you think. It has got to have a good plot that is logical and fits in retrospect, yet isn’t see-through and predictable as you go in.
- Early clues planted that have large plot payoff later on. Payoff, payoff, payoff! I love seeing weaknesses turn into The Solution. I love seeing casual background scenery come off the walls and effect major turning points. I love seeing characters we thought were not so important turn out to be. I love adding just a touch more information about someone/a situation that shifts the entire way you see it. It's like laying out all of the pieces of a circuit and then plugging it in.That lightbulb moment of awesome.
- Sacrifice. Characters have to sacrifice something they want for the benefit of someone they love.
- Well, love. All kinds—romantic, family, kindness. It’s the thing that holds the entire universe together, so yeah, it all sorta boils down to this one golden truth. People will make great sacrifices and effect great growth for love more than anything else. True love (of whatever sort) contributes to happiness.
- Therefore, you need some pretty big obstacles. You need a longing for some core principle (ie love or something comparable) that your reader can totally buy into—and then you make it impossible to actually get. (Uhh…and then as writer, you HAVE to find a way to it. The more twists and turns along the way, though, the better.)
- All of this means tons of character growth. It can't just be suffering. It has to be worth something in the end--to make the character more than they were at the start.
- The more serious stuff/core nerves you touch, the more you need to ensure some humor to balance out. This not only gives the reader a break, but it also provides a foil to the tension. If it is all tension all the time, the events start to cease to have impact/meaning. There are books with too much tension and not enough relief where I've actually set them down and walked away because it was like trying to eat straight horseradish. You need balance.
- More true heroines, please. Like, not just a hero and a love interest (or vice versa). I didn't realize until watching W how nice it is to see a female lead be heroic without having to be an assassin or reject all human connections. Just an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things, being smart, using her resources, and making intelligent sacrifices. I want the girl and guy to complement each other and be equally awesome together. I can't think of too many stories that fully pull this off. Maybe The Blue Sword?
- Characters need to feel fully grounded. You do this by adding in mundane, ordinary details as they walk through the world. You can’t take up too much time with them, but you need the reader to feel like they have a life outside what is immediate proscribed by the plot. Example: Do Yoon in W. He barely has any lines. But you know he used to do martial arts and trained Kang Chul. You can tell they’re best friends because of the way he keeps confidences, even when they don’t make sense, and by how he questions Chul. Or, attention to everyday details that sometimes heroes don’t seem to have to deal with in stories—like Yeon Joo realizing after being a couple weeks in the manhwa world that she is getting whiffy and really needs a shower. These real-world grounding details can also provide necessary comic relief in a tense situation.
- Really, the more heartbreaking your story, the more comedy you need. Think of Jordan Sonnenblick’s writing. You laugh even as your heart is breaking. I don’t know how to do this, but it is so, SO effective.
- Gah. I just want to write something that makes people feel and obsess and have it entertain but have the underlying fundamental universal truths in it leak out of the book into the real world and stick to people’s insides.