The words "I Have a Theory" in a black box superimposed on a bunch of cute bunnies. There's a subscript reading "It must be bunnies!"

I Have a Theory

by | Aug 20, 2022 | 0 comments

I Have a Theory

Finding new books isn’t hard. Finding new books that you will obsess over in ways that aren’t entirely socially acceptable is. I’ve read a lot of books in a lot of genres and I have a theory that might make it easier.

I think there are six things authors can do that will make a book interesting to readers:

A bar chart anchored at the left with six categories and blue bars indicating values. It's just a placekeeper. I'll put the real values in the alt text for reviews.
  • Characters
  • Scenes
  • Prose
  • Plot
  • World-building
  • Mysteries

I think some readers are more attracted to some of these than others. I think characters, world-building, and mysteries are far more important than plot. I have often wished book descriptions and reviews would include this kind of information, so it would be easier to choose.

Being a wiseass, I couldn’t wish that very often before I responded to myself that if no one else is doing it, I should start.

So here we are.

Whenever I write about a book—and maybe TV—I’m going to include a chart where I rate each item on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. You’re going to see a lot of 3s and 4s because I think there should be a differentiation between good enough, really good, and fucking phenomenal. Something rated a 5 should be one of the best ever for that category. Tolkien and Robert Jordan would get 5s in world-building for Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time.

You won’t see many poor grades because if I didn’t like a book, I’m not likely to take the time to write about it.

And a big reminder here that 3 is not a poor grade. 3 is good. It’s just not great. The grading system here is much more like a Goodreads rating than an Amazon one. It’s entirely possible that you’ll see me rate something as a 5 on Amazon while giving it 3s and 4s here. That’s because the expectations of the audiences are different.

That said, let’s get into the details.

Characters

Back in the day, I defended the “slog” in The Wheel of Time and couldn’t understand why people didn’t love them as much as I did. I think the reason is that I care more about characters than plot.

What I’m looking for in a character is depth. I want them to be good at something. I want them to be bad at something. I want them to have a coherent backstory. I want it to be clear that what they think of themselves differs from what others think of them, and that both things differ from reality.

Think Matrim Cauthon or Nynaeve al’Meara. They have a clear view of who they are, but often act in contradictory ways and everyone else thinks differently still.

To get a 4, you need to have this for all main characters. For a 5, have minor characters with the same depth.

Scenes

Scenes are the building blocks of story. They’ve all got to push the story forward a bit, but some authors can write scenes that become cultural touchpoints for their readers. If I tell you that none shall pass, or that Verin had a nice cup of tea, most of you are going to get the references.

The more of these scenes the better, and if you can have one scene that’s a major plot point in multiple subplots, you get bonus points.

Prose

Pretty prose is nice, but I don’t read for pretty prose. I read for stories which means the fundamental job of the prose is to not get in the way. Clean, utilitarian prose will get a 3. Prose that enhances the reading experience will get a higher score and the more of it, the better. I’d give Patrick Rothfuss a 5 for prose and Robert Jordan a 4.

Plot

The rules here are very simple. Don’t be boring. Don’t be predictable. Do be coherent. I want to see things I don’t expect, but I want them to make sense in retrospect. I want the climax to feel like nothing else was possible even though I didn’t see it coming. Murder on the Orient Express gets a 5, as does the first Mistborn novel, while the end of The Hero of Ages is what I’d like to avoid.

World-building

The lifetime of most characters is but a blip in the history of their worlds and I want to feel that. I want to know there were people that did important cultural things in the past. I want to know there are people outside the culture the protagonist lives in that believes different things. I want it to feel like a real world. I want to get lost in it.

Give me ancient ruins. Give me stories and legends whose origins are lost to time. Give me art and literature from exotic places. Give me holidays and feast days in remembrance of things that happened centuries ago. I want it all.

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are obvious 5s.

Mysteries

A book doesn’t have to be a mystery or a thriller to have mysteries in it. Every time you feel you’ve got to keep reading to find out who did something, or where something came from, you’re reading a good mystery plot. In particular, I’m thinking of the hours spent asking who killed Asmodean or whether Verin was Black.

Obviously, the great mystery writers get 5s here. So does someone like Dan Brown for The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. The Wheel of Time does this well, as do the first couple Mistborn novels.

The point of this site is to spread the love for geeky shit so we can all sit around and talk about it. I hope adding this to reviews makes it easier to find things you’re going to love.

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