Four Doors into a Book

Four Doors into a Book

 Readers enter a book in four ways: plot, character, setting, and language

A while back, I read an article suggesting that readers come to a book through four doors: plot, character, setting, and language. Any door can be more or less open, and different readers will prefer different routes. A book that appeals to a lot of readers probably has several door opened more widely.

Plot and character

For me, plot and character are easy doors to stroll through. Plot is what pulls me along from page to page. I want to know what happens. I want to see how things turn out. In our era, plot tends to be associated with genre fiction, and sometimes literature scholars scorn it. I think this is a mistake. As I said in December, plot creates a sense of order, a sense we crave.

While I value plot, though, it’s not what makes me love a book. That’s what character does. I want to read more about Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series. I want to cheer for and laugh at Bujold’s Miles Vorkorsigan. I don’t know what writers do to make me love a character. I suspect that’s different for different readers too. I prefer trickster characters, but that’s me.

Setting and language

The other two doors, setting and language, were, at first, harder for me to see as routes to a book. When I thought more about them, though, I realized I do respond to them.


At first, setting as a way in puzzled me, but I’ve since concluded I had too restricted an understanding of setting. Setting is not just description of landscape or a room. Setting is the world with which the characters interact. In a book with a wide-open setting door, setting is almost a character in the story.

It seems to me, for instance, that setting is one of J. K. Rowling’s biggest achievements in Harry Potter. Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and the whole magical world are dazzling. They’re alive and rich with details. Readers want to live there. Universal Studios can build Potter World and expect people to pour in.

And it’s not just fantasies in which the world matters. Another series I read is Louise Penny’s mysteries set in the Quebec village of Three Pines. Three Pines is an almost mystical place. It’s even hard to find, not on any of the maps. It’s old-fashioned, tolerant, sociable, inhabited by artists and writers. It’s deeply attractive. I think it’s a thematic representation of the world that murder disrupts. It’s one of the series’ main attractions.


Language as a way into a story is usually associated with literary fiction. It need not mean fancy language full of metaphors though. For instance, the stripped down language of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is part of what gives it its impact. The voice filled narration of Huckleberry Finn is a product of its language. My guess is that language is a weaker attraction for readers who prefer genre fiction, but that’s only a guess.

The point is that readers come to a book in different ways. The more ways a writer offers them, the wider that book’s readership will be.

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