Thursday, September 17, 2009

Defining Good Writing (Possibly Sententious)

Child_lit was having one of its periodic discussions of about the definition of "good writing" this past week, so I wrote the bulk of the message below offering my perspective. Reposting it here, edited somewhat for blog form and further thoughts:

If you'll forgive some possible sententiousness on this question of judging good writing, there are five qualities I think about a lot when considering whether I want to acquire a manuscript:

1. Good prose. The sheen of the writing -- its quality on a sentence-by-sentence level. Sometimes this beauty is lyricism, sometimes it's personality (especially with a first-person voice, though that introduces questions about the character-building as well as the prose), sometimes it's just plain cleanliness (no redundancies, lack of awkwardness -- cleanliness is a great virtue). And also the movement of the writing, its sense of timing and pacing and flow in connecting those sentences together, turning them into paragraphs, and moving the narrative forward.

2. Character richness. Are they interesting people with some dimension to them? Do they show that depth and change as the book progresses? Do I care about them?

3. Plot construction. Do things happen? Why? How? Do the events make logical sense or do they grow out of coincidences and implausibilities? Are they surprising or utterly predictable? What's at stake?

4. Thematic depth. Is the writer interested in more than just telling a story -- is s/he trying to make that story mean or say something about being in the world (without hitting me over the head with it)? Is what he or she has to say original, or at the least a new take on an old thought?

5. Emotion. Can the writer catch me (and most readers) up in what the characters are feeling, particularly the viewpoint character? Or, if we're meant to have some distance from that character, get us readers feeling whatever emotion the writer intends us to feel? The emotion intended can vary widely, from sadness to terror to hilarity to peaceful quiet, depending on the story and characters; and it usually (but somehow not always) grows out of #1-4.

To be a literary success, a finished book has to be really strong in at least four of those categories, most importantly (to me) #2 and #5. It doesn't have to have equal strength in all of those; I read and reread Hilary McKay's Casson series more because I love the characters so much than because of their plot construction (although they ARE tremendously well-put-together in retrospect). And different readers will value #1-4 in different quantities depending on personal taste at different times -- sometimes I love a good plotty mystery and sometimes I like something with gorgeously lyrical writing. And having all five equals, I would say, masterpieces: the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass and Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes.

But a book can work solely as an entertainment, a page-turner, as long as it has #5; and if that emotion is strong enough and exciting enough, the reader will keep reading even if they recognize and care about the lack of everything else. (Which, I have to say, lots of readers don't seem to.) This is especially true if that emotion is a temperature-raising one, like violence (The Hunger Games*) or deception/betrayal (The Da Vinci Code) or sex (Twilight). Not that I think The Hunger Games is solely a page-turner or succeeds only at #5 -- it's terrific at everything else as well. But that compulsion to keep reading grows out of the way the characters and the plot and even the very structure of the sentences are all built for speed and conflict. And at the other end of the scale, as I've said before, Twilight gets a D+ at best in 1-4, and yet it somehow gets an A for emotion, in the way it's able to grab even readers like me, who are rolling our eyes at the flatness of the prose, characters, and plot construction, and yet we just keep reading on.

However it happens, the stronger that successful emotional reaction, the more likely the reader is to think that book good; the stronger the word-of-mouth from the editor onward, and the more likely it is that that book will become a bestseller.


  1. This is a great discussion. It helps explain why some books are "big" and some are great, little, quiet books that few take notice to. Maybe if those well-written books were a little stronger on #5, then they'd see more readers.

    Excelling at each of this is difficult, but my biggest challenges are #3 and #5. Hmm. Actually, they're all challenging, now that I think about it. My favorite parts to work on are #1 and #4.

    THE HUNGER GAMES actually caused my heart to race while reading it.

  2. Wow, what a great post, especially as I am currently writing a book and attempting to satisfy each of the points you listed. I think as a reader I respond most to #5. As a writer each holds its place of importance, though I think I also worry most about #5.

  3. I saw your original message on child_lit but I am so glad you reposted this here, so I can now point other people to this entry. I think you're exactly right about the role emotion plays in making good writing.

    I had never really thought of THE DA VINCI CODE having that quality, and thus had always been a bit perplexed by its success (and that of other similar books). I read it, and found it compelling, even though I didn't particularly like the characters (among other things). But I realize now that I was having an emotional reaction that had nothing to do with my empathy for the characters: I was becoming tense and eager, desperate to find out the next clue.

    Thank you again for posting!

  4. Hi :)
    Thank you for that great post.
    I love your 1 to 5 :)
    Have you noticed some writers are naturally gifted in one aspect over others?
    All the best,

  5. Really helpful piece, though I'm embarrased to admit I had to look up what sententious meant. And, like Amber, I also had the 'heart racing' experience with HUNGER GAMES. Occassionally, I have to explain to my kids that I did not mean to snap at them but was so tense while reading, I transfered it to them when I was interrupted. My son thinks I'm crazy. My daughter the reader is starting to understand.

  6. I think that #3 and 5 have more to do with each other than people usually think (I say this after realizing that a revision attempt just failed because I changed plot things that ruined emotional impact. Most go back and undo.) For a perfect intersection of plot and emotional impact, on the other hand, see Marcelo in the Real World.

  7. Great discussion. With so many books available, I am picky enough that I really desire 1-5 in a book. As a writer, I find 3 the most challenging and adore working in the depths of 1,2 and 4. I love the idea of breaking it down this way . . . an excellent check list in the revision process.

  8. Wow, I'm in the middle of revision, I happen to stumble on your blog, and this is the first post i read...thankyou so much, just what i need.

  9. I love your masterpiece picks.

    Great breakdown, although I had a hard time getting through Twilight because I kept hurling my book against the wall.


  10. You've nailed it. Emotion is crucial for me to read on. I'll overlook almost anything (Except for Breaking Dawn, tee hee)if the emotional stakes are high enough.

    If my heart is not with the characters in a book, I'll nitpick, looking for any and every reason to put the book down.

    This post is a keeper. Thank you!

  11. Cheryl, Thanks for reposting. Many times I miss the best of Child_lit because I'm responding to other things, and your post might be one of the best of the year! When I read, I seem to focus on #4, followed by #1, #2 and #5. Sometimes when I read a book, I become annoyed because it seems to be written for the movie rights--all plot, #3, no real theme, mediocre prose. I place Pillars of the Earth in that class, but my book club loved it. This may also be the reason that I will often skip around in a book as I finish reading it. Most people think it's odd, but I do think it's determined by the way one's brain is wired.

  12. Thank you! You've provided a clear and concise explanation to the essential challenges of every great writer! I know I strive toward these four goals (whilst always evading them) each time I sculpt my works-in-progress. I hope you don't mind if I share this post with my social networks!

  13. I'm filing this away with your post defining young adult literature. They're both wonderful!

  14. Cool post as for me. I'd like to read something more about this theme. Thanks for sharing that data.
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  15. Great post!!! I agree with the list and the novel used as illustration. I loved the Hunger Games like most had all 1-5 of the list. I think also with Twilight that the manner in which she paced the story had something to do with her success.

  16. Really great post. You really hit on all the important storytelling factors. When they all work together, it's magic!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse