The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book

The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book


What are the elements of a great book?

I used to do manuscript appraisals when I taught creative writing full time. I would never have been able to do it without teaching, though, because teaching taught me how to become a critical reader. I learnt to observe, to critique, and to improve my own writing.

Appraising a writer’s unpublished manuscript can be difficult, but it became easier when I broke it down into what readers and publishers look for when they read. The key to making it easier was thinking about the market. What are the elements of a great book? What works? What sells and what doesn’t? Why doesn’t it sell?
My appraisals were based on the seven basic elements of good novel writing, which are:

1. Plot

  1. Does the novel have a plot? Without a plot it is difficult to keep a reader interested. A plot involves a protagonist with a worthy story goal.
  2. Is this goal strong enough to sustain an 80 000-word long novel? We prefer to read about characters who have something to fight for and something to lose if they don’t. [Read The Story Goal – The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure]
  3. Is the plot introduced early enough? The story goal is usually set by an inciting moment that turns the protagonist’s life upside down in a negative way.
  4. Is there too much backstory? Readers are not interested in the detailed biography of your character. For the most part, they do not enjoy prologues.
  5. Is there opposition for the protagonist? Conflict is created when an antagonist is introduced to stop the protagonist from achieving the goal. [Read 7 Essential Things To Remember About Very Important Characters]
  6. Does the plot make sense? If it does not, we tend to include things which seem to have no reason for being in the story. A good idea can turn into a maze of irritation if the author does not know where the story is headed.
  7. Has the author used the setting to advance the plot? Descriptions should not be static or incidental. [Read 5 Ways To Use Setting To Advance A Plot]

2. Characters

  1. Do I care about what happens to the protagonist and the antagonist? If a reader fails to make me care for one of these characters, I will not carry on reading the book. Why should I? C.S Lewis said that we read to know we are not alone. If I feel no connection with a character, I am alone, lost, adrift in the story. I do not have to sympathise with a character, but I need to care. [Read Make Me Care – 9 Ways To Ensure An Unforgettable Read]
  2. Are the main characters believable? If the characters seem contrived or forced, we stop reading. I think a good way of looking at it is to ask: If I met these characters on the street (even if the story is set in a different universe) would they seem real?
  3. Are their motivations believable? Give readers good reasons to buy into their story goals. For example, most of us would not ruin our lives to wreak revenge without a great reason.
  4. Is the author masquerading as the protagonist? Many first time writers want to write their own stories, but don’t want to write a memoir. They try to turn their experience into a novel. This becomes problematic because they are too close to the story and they cannot see the character objectively.
  5. Does the name suit the character? Sometimes you read a book and you feel as if the author has not thought this through. The name may be out of date or too strange for the world the character inhabits. Here are 10 Things To Consider When Naming Characters
  6. Does their body language, clothing, hairstyle suit them? Sometimes it’s a good thing to suggest that a writer completes a character questionnaire so that the characters seem authentic. How a character moves, how he or she reacts with non-verbal responses show that the writer has treated the character like a real person. This cheat sheet for writing body language will help you.
  7. Do their emotions fit? A character may be happy, sad, or infuriated. A good writer knows how to show these emotions in the things the characters say and do. This needs to be filtered into the story in a believable way. [Read 37 Ways To Write About Anger]
  8. Do the characters fit into their surroundings? Alternatively, do they fail to fit in because of who they are? [Read Wherever I Lay My Hat – How Setting Affects Your Characters]
  9. Has the author used contrived ways to describe the characters? It is off-putting if a writer describes the character in detail. For example, ‘She had blue eyes, brown hair, stained teeth, and she weighed 60 kilos.’ A good writer will let this filter through and leave some of it to the reader’s imagination.

3. Viewpoint

  1. Has the writer chosen a viewpoint that suits the story? Most stories are written in third person past tense. For example, ‘He cradled the baby as Freda screamed.’  Most genre novels are written in this viewpoint. Memoirs are often written in first person present tense to make the writing feel authentic and immediate. For example, ‘I cradle the baby as Freda screams.’ [Read 10 Ways To Tell A Story – All About Viewpoint]
  2. Has the author chosen the correct character to tell the story? This happens mostly when we choose to tell the story through the eyes of the protagonist’s friend. This often makes the story sound forced because the friend cannot know what the character is truly feeling or thinking. It distances the most important character from the reader and there is more telling than showing as a result.
  3. Has the author stayed in the viewpoint character’s head? Many beginner writers head-hop between the different characters in a scene, and confuse readers. As a rule, you should only use one viewpoint per scene. [Read 6 Simple Ways To Handle Viewpoint Changes]
  4. Has the character revealed something he or she could not have known? There has to be consistency and a sense of continuity in storytelling.
  5. If the author chooses a first person narrator, is the character strong enough to bear the weight of a 360-page book? This might seem like common sense, but it’s a tough ask for one character who has to be interesting enough not to bore a reader. The character could be compromised, which is fine if you are considering using an unreliable narrator.
  6. Has the author chosen an omniscient narrator? This is so old-fashioned that it takes a truly exceptional writer to make this work. Modern readers prefer to be closer to the characters they are following in stories.

4. Dialogue 

  1. Is there enough dialogue in the book? I believe the book should have at least 50% of its pages filled with characters communicating. Being stuck in a character’s thought processes is agonising for long periods of time. Many beginner writers make this mistake, thinking that we will be intrigued. But it actually turns out to be the author who is stuck, trying to work through the fact that he or she does not really have a plot.
  2. Is the dialogue appropriate for the characters? Are you giving the characters the correct vocabulary and tone? Do their words suit them? [Read 10 Dialogue Errors To Avoid At All Costs]
  3. Do the characters sound too similar? This is a common problem for beginners. They use sentence structures and lengths that are the same for each character. Real people have distinct voices when they speak.
  4. Does the dialogue serve a purpose? Writers who include unnecessary conversations also have problems with plotting. All the dialogue in a book should move the plot forward, introduce conflict, or show us something about a character. [Read 10 Ways to Introduce Conflict in Dialogue]
  5. Have they included body language with dialogue? Real people do things while they’re talking. Here are some examples: 60 Things For Your Characters To Do When They Talk Or Think Including body language is one of the most important elements of a great book.
  6. Are the dialogue tags good? ‘Said’ is the best tag you can use. The way characters say things and the words they choose should tell the reader how they say it. I am annoyed when characters hiss, spit, cajole, ejaculate and sputter. 

5. Pacing

  1. Does the pace suit the story?  Books are made up of scenes and sequels. Scenes are faster than sequels and there are more of them. They are also longer. A good writer knows how to mix these up and how to get a rhythm that works for a story.
  2. Does the pace suit the genre? Thrillers will have more scenes. Literary novels are more leisurely and they will have more sequels.
  3. Is it too fast or too slow, and if it is, can it be fixed? Read The 4 Most Important Things To Remember About Pacing for excellent tips on how to improve problems with pacing.

6. Style

  1. Does the writer have a distinctive, engaging style? You can tell if a writer has this even if the grammar and spelling isn’t perfect. [Read 7 Choices That Affect A Writer’s Style]
  2. Can the writer write? Sometimes there are real problems with sentence structure, punctuation, and a poor grasp of storytelling techniques.
  3. Is there too much passive voice in the story? This leads to telling instead of showing and drags a story down with it.
  4. Is the tone appropriate for the story? A sombre tone is inappropriate for a light-hearted romance and a flippant tone is unusual in literary fiction.
  5. Are the readability statistics acceptable for a novel? I work on the assumption that a good book will have an 80% readability value. Novelists need to learn how to write difficult things in the simplest way. [For more, read Why You Should Care About Readability Statistics]
  6. Does the writer have an engaging voice? The best way to find your voice and nurture your style is to write. If you are struggling, read this post for help: How do you find your writing voice?

7. Beginnings, Middles, Endings

  1. Does the story start at the beginning? A beginning is a delicate thing. There should be enough action combined with a touch of description, a hint of backstory, and dialogue – if necessary. Is the hook good enough to make the reader turn the page?
  2. Is there a great inciting moment? I want to be invested in the story from the moment I pick up the book. There should be something to make me care. [Read The Importance of Inciting Moments] This is one of the most important elements of a great book.
  3. Am I entertained through a muddle in the middle? Is there enough suspense, tension, and conflict to keep the story going? Good writers make the middle work by setting a deadline for a character. They force the character to change, throw in secrets, surprises and even add a dangerous twist. [Read A Tense Situation – Five Tips To Help You Write A Gripping Read]
  4. Does the ending satisfy me? A great ending always completes your story arc, shows a change in your main character, and leaves the reader wanting more. [For more help, read: The Sense Of An Ending – How To End Your Book]
  5. Does it fulfil the book’s promise? Avoid surprise endings and contrived twists. Rather go back and fix the parts of the book that should have been set up properly to support the ending you want. [Read How To Write A Beginning And An Ending That Readers Will Never Forget]

In the end… 

If these elements of a great book are covered, and if they work, I find that a book delivers. The author naturally shows me the story instead of telling me what I should think or feel. I also find that a theme is revealed naturally with great plotting and good characterisation.

If you want to critique a book, you can ask these questions and make notes. At the end you will have a better idea of why you did or did not enjoy it.

Happy reading and writing!

Learn how to write a book. Join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Amanda Patterson

© Amanda Patterson

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This article has 5 comments

  1. Ali

    Really helpful tips, Ma’am! 🙂

    Is there a way to share my life experiences through a novel and stay objective as well?

    And, why do my story conversations always end up sounding philosophical rather than ‘dialogues’?

  2. Writers Write

    Hello Ali

    Yes, you can, but you will have to be objective and you will have to change your story to make it work.

    We find that most writers put too many irrelevant parts into a personal account. They also repeat scenes that are essentially the same although they may happen many times over a period of many years.

    A novel also dispenses with irrelevant characters and you will find your story is clogged by the number of people you try to include.

    Listen to the way dialogue is written in a film or a television series to help you with dialogue. Read this post https://writerswrite.co.za//10-dialogue-errors-to-avoid-at-all-costs

    Sometimes, it’s easier to write a novel using one or two of your experiences as inspiration for the story. Give them to another character and plot the story without limitations.

    Good luck!

  3. Ali

    Interesting!

    This has been quite helpful. Thank you.

    God bless you! 🙂

  4. Elmien Putter

    Very interesting

  5. Les Steel Smith

    Very helpful tips. thank you.

    I will go back through my novel and make a check list.

Comments are now closed.