If a writer writes a novel that is unquenchable, then he/she has reached the epitome of success. There's no denying it. As a reader, I am on a constant search for the next book that's going to have my undivided attention for as long as it takes to finish it. These books are few and far between. I've found that there are four types of books:
- The bad ones. For whatever reason these are the ones that we put down and never pick them back up. They are the ones with cheesy dialogue, unrealistic characters, and ones with plot holes the size of Texas.
- The ones that reach our limit. These are usually the ones that we are forced to read in college to "broaden our minds" or the ones that were strongly suggested to us by a friend that just won't keep asking if we've finished reading it yet.
- The okay ones. These are the "good" reads. They aren't bad because we can't find anything technically wrong with them, but they aren't great either. For whatever reason, the author failed to envelope us with the story. We're just mere onlookers to what's happening, not participants.
- The unquenchable ones. These are the ones that we read for! The ones that we can re-read over and over without ever getting tired of them. They are rare, treasured diamonds in our libraries. They are the ones that we only allow close friends, if then, to borrow (only after removing the dust cover, of course). No one could convince us that we weren't actually a part of the story. They become a part of our own story. We watch the midnight showing of the movies when/if they come out. We have the soundtrack. We have the posters. We have the author's website bookmarked. These are what we dream of!
So what makes them unquenchable? Here's what I think:
- Lacing the story with wisdom helps in building a relationship between characters and readers. Readers want to trust and relate to the narrators/characters. We want to feel like we know them. The better we know them, the more we feel like a part of their story.
- Keep it real. Even if we're writing fantasy, it's important to have something real about it. The Coleridge term "suspension of disbelief" comes to play here. Keep fantastical characters as real as possible by using dialogue and personality traits that we see in our world.
- Develop a language for each character. I've read a few novels lately that do real well with this, Tom McNeal's Far, Far Away comes to mind. In it, each character has phrases that only he/she uses. For example, one of his characters says "Zounds!" when she's surprised. We, as readers, almost expect her to say it, and that makes us feel like we know her.
- Keep it conversational. Stephen King's Joyland is a great example of this. An older man is telling a story from his youth. He interjects the story to say something that he's learned since then. There are no $50 words or posh language. It's simple. It's real. It's like we're simply having a conversation.
- Keep the mystery. It's sometimes hard not to reveal too much, especially if we're outliners. That's why I prefer an organic approach to writing. If I don't even know what's really going to happen, how would my readers? The King writes about this in his book On Writing. We must write with mystery. Imagine a veil between us and the readers. We want to make sure that the veil isn't lifted until a time (usually near the end) when they would say "What the?"
- Make every chapter a mini novel. After all, a novel is nothing except a series of short stories. Each, in my opinion, should have a intro, climax, and end. And when we end a chapter, it needs to have a hook - something that keeps the readers wanting to continue on. Leave them with something mysterious. Like, "That's when I fell into the darkness."
- Great novels have it all - love, conflict, danger, growth, friendships, disappointments, everything! Our central focus may differ, but it's important to keep a complexity about the world we invent. In real life, our readers deal with all of these things, and it's important to let them know that they're not alone. We all have complicated lives, even our characters.
- The most important part of a novel is arguably the end. Why? Because we had better make it worth the ride. Our readers have stuck with us and our characters through thick and thin, and we had better reward them with something that's going to have their wheels turning for days if not months. It's our job to make it unforgettable. We want our readers if asked ten years from now about our book to say, "That book was awesome. I was sad when it finished. My favorite character was ___, and my favorite part was ___." That's what we want, right? We want our stories to be immortal, not just in print, but in hearts too.
I'm in the editing process of my YA novel right now, and I've been constantly thinking about how to incorporate these things into my story. Success isn't about sales, it's about creating a story that someone can't get enough of.
What other things can you think of that makes your favorite novels unquenchable?
Oh yeah, if you're a Lord of the Rings fan, you may want to stop by The Literary Yard and read my article "Reflections on the Life and Works of J.R.R. Tolkien." Let me know what you think.
Photo by Favim.