The best books are the ones that change you–the reader. They stay with you for a long time and lead you to question or think about either yourself or the world around you in a different way.
That is–those are the best books in my opinion. There are plot junkies out there who might say otherwise, but they may never have been shown how to find the deeper meanings in literature. To read closely. To probe. Once you learn how to do this, you don’t see movies, read books, or even listen to music in the same way ever again. You’re always searching for hidden treasure…and are sometimes disappointed when you find yourself treading shallow water.
There are so many facets or ways of looking at a good book that it’s really unfair to take it all apart. What makes it work is the symphony all those pieces create when they work together.
But If I were to start in one place and say, “Here is the heart of the story,” I would start with character. In order to create that depth of emotion and change in attitude so desirable in a well-written book, you need to be able to access the reader on a fundamental level. The only way you are going to get there is through strong characters. Characters are vehicles for the reader. We follow them as they themselves are tortured, defeated, learn, grow, and change. Build your book around a strong, multi-faceted character with flaws and goals. Put them in a situation that is really uncomfortable for them–that will force them to change. Raise the stakes and make their goals something they care deeply about. Then, hold that carrot away from them. What will your protagonist give up to achieve his or her goal? Their job? Their life? A piece of their soul?
Concepts in books can also be powerful, but they fall flat without a strong character to drive the plot. This is a mistake I sometimes see in the paranormal and sci fi / fantasy genres. Writers get so carried away with the CONCEPT that they forget about CHARACTERS and wind up with these wishy-washy protagonist stand-in who has no real substance or goals.
Say, for example, you decide to write a book about mermaids. You have a few ideas for scenes in mind and start writing an outline, including this really cool part where your mermaid chick sings the highest note ever and uses mermaid magic to create a giant tidal wave of awesome! Then you begin to write–forgetting to develop your character (or unaware that you should). As you draft, you put words into your protagonist’s mouth and force her to do things—not in order to achieve true change but moves that are completely (sometimes laughably) out of character. You force your character to do these things because you want something in the plot to happen just the way you had imagined. Really, it should go the other way around. Character CHOICES should drive the plot, and these choices need to be based on significant goals.
Let me ask you something. When a reader turns the last page of your book, do you want them to say, “Gee, such-and-such scene was pretty cool, and I really loved the magic at the end,” or would you rather hear them say, “OMG, that book really messed with me! I couldn’t put it down because I had to see what happened to (insert your protagonist here). It really makes me think…(insert personal insight here).”
Now I’m really interested to hear your thoughts because I have a feeling some of you will disagree with me. 🙂
Would you rather have a plot junkie as a reader who just eats up the cool stuff that happens or a reader who reads deeply and who might be changed for all time by your awesome writing?
Michelle Joyce Bond