I toss aside unfinished maybe a quarter of the books I start. Today I was analyzing what keeps me reading. I’ve blogged about what one critic calls the four doors into a book (language, character, plot, and setting). My variation on the ways that draw me in would be theme, character, plot, and setting.
I like a book that’s about something, and for me that seems to mean a thematic element. Not a moral, i.e. not advice about how to live, because like Tolkien’s elves, I’m skeptical of advice. But a theme–something like the past is never dead; love is what matters; power corrupts.
My guess is that for most writers, theme grows out of the story they tell. They may not recognize it until they’re done and maybe not even then. But they believe that stories matter, that they’re a way to convey deep truths about human existence. I get impatient with books that seem trivial to me.
I also like a warm book, one that draws me close in to the character. I’m aware that this is just a personal preference. Not to long ago, for instance, I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is a cooler book, and I see the high quality of it, but it’s not likely to wind up one of my favorites.
A book that’s close to the character doesn’t have to have a single main character or be small in scope. Guy Gavriel Kay is wonderful at getting close to characters in books with very sweeping stories. I’m also pretty sure that I haven’t always gravitated to warm books, so I assume this preference changes with time and circumstances.
I prefer an active plot. I like character and theme embodied in the plot, so things happen because of what the character is like and the thematic claim about human existence unrolls in the plot. However, I’m not interested in action for its own sake. To me, that’s the equivalent of a movie car chase that goes on too long. It’s movement, not really plot action. I want plot connected to character and theme. I want it to mean something. Actually, when I think about it, for me, fiction is one of the ways I look for meaning in life.
Finally, I like an unfamiliar setting. I didn’t realize this until recently. Donald Maass says the readers like to be carried away to a new world and I had to think about that to see how it was true for me. A new world doesn’t mean just science fiction or fantasy, though to me, that’s one of the draws of that genre. It also means historical settings, or the different-to-me world of Victorian fiction, or even the world of some professions, a hospital, say. One of the reasons I like Bunce’s Curse Dark as Gold (a wonderful Rumplestiltskein retelling) is that the mill setting is strongly drawn. I’m not much interested in life in the suburbs, it turns out. I think this is connected to how I want plot and character embodied in the story. A different kind of setting gives a character different opportunities and drives, and that’s interesting to think about.
I’m not sure how my weighting of these elements compares to what other readers want. Thoughts?