What are the essential elements of fiction?
Depending on which literary critic, textbook, or Wikipedia article you read, you will get a list of elements from three to a zillion, usually including a subset of: Plot, Character, Setting, Place, Theme, Style, Action, Conflict, Symbolism, Chronology, Pace, Point of View, Dialog, and so on, many of these having subcategories of their own.
But for reviewing books (and deciding whether not I like them, and why), there are three elements I look at: Story, Characters, and Style.
These criteria are simplistic, of course, and a great book should excel in all three categories. Very few books can bomb in one but be fantastic in the other two. Great characters aren't much fun to read about if the writing sucks and the story is stupid. A really dumb story will make me toss the book even if the writing is lovely and the characters are interesting. And pretty prose with uninteresting characters and a dull plot is what we call "literary fiction." (Kidding!)
Naturally, we all want books with great stories, characters, and writing. But I think very few authors can rate five stars consistently in every category, and most authors have definite strengths and weaknesses. I have a theory that most readers prefer one of these three above the others, and that they most enjoy stories that are strongest in their preferred category, and are more willing to overlook deficiencies in the categories of less importance to them.
For example, I am a Story > Characters > Style reader. I want a complex but believable story with interesting (but plausible!) plot twists, above all. If a book has a compelling story, I can forgive flat characters and clumsy writing (though it's not likely to get 5 stars from me unless the characters and prose have at least a little sparkle). Books with great characters and dazzling prose will still bore me if the story goes nowhere after a hundred pages.
I believe my preferences also reflect my relative strengths as a writer. I obsess over my plots. What causes me the most anxiety and "writer's block" is when I discover a plot hole that I'm not sure how to get around, or when a resolution seems implausible or weak to me. I love my characters and their characterization is quite important to me, but I don't spend nearly as much time worrying about whether or not they are "in character," nor do I create pages of notes detailing every one of my characters' favorite colors and most important childhood memories. As for my writing style: that's where I probably devote the least effort. That doesn't mean I don't care about style; I work continuously on polishing my words. But I just don't spend a lot of time thinking about my own personal style or trying to establish my "voice," and I don't study other writers for their choice of words. I'll notice if I like a writer's style (or don't), but it's not what usually sticks in my mind. For me, "serviceable" writing is there to carry the story and the characters, and if it's good enough and the other two are great, then I just don't notice it.
This is also where I think decades of creative writing classes have done aspiring writers a disservice, putting too much emphasis on words. Which is why on writers' forums you see so many really bloody godawful writing samples by writers who have been taught that they need to write scintillating, dazzling words with many, many adjectives and metaphors. Hence you get long, descriptive paragraphs about crisp cerulean skies shimmering overhead like an eternal expanse of endless blue, or Broody McHawtness's dark, glittering orbs of deep amethyst spearing you with twin forks of electrically-charged intensity...
My preferences explain my love of The Godfather which is schlocky tripe but a great story, my fondness for James Bond stories (also schlocky, slightly better written), and my willingness to keep reading Neil Gaiman.
Most science fiction, if it's good at all, is good in the "story" area. Historically, characters and prose were secondary considerations, and character-driven sci-fi, let alone "literary" sci-fi, is a relatively recent trend. Fantasy has always been more character-driven, and coming from the tradition of myths and fairy tales, might have had slightly more lyrical prose on average, but still tends to mostly be about the story.
A lot of authors make their career just by being storytellers. Dan Brown is a terrible writer and nobody remembers his characters other than perhaps as a handful of descriptive adjectives, but everyone who admits to being a Dan Brown fan will cite the excitement and enjoyability and page-turning quality of his stories. Stephen King is ten times the writer Dan Brown is, and his characters are real, blood-and-guts-and-brains people, but he's still basically "just" a storyteller. Harry Potter has decent characters and weak-to-average writing, but it's the story, full of twists and clues and easter eggs and clever references and a long arc with a payoff at the end, that made J.K. Rowling rich.
But character-driven books are definitely popular in some genres, like romance. Does Twilight really have a plot? Does anyone care about the plot? It's the series that sold ten million "Team (Favorite Character)" T-shirts - 'nuff said.
And some authors (usually in the so-called "literary" genre) make a name for themselves with their prose stylings (Cormac McCarthy and John Banville, for example). If you read a lot of old classics, it seems that story used to be secondary to evoking emotions in the reader or drawing you into the lives of the characters. Jane Austen was a witty writer and every one of her characters was fully alive and she made you care about them, but let's face it, she basically wrote six versions of the same story. Wuthering Heights is all tempestuousness and stormy, brooding, volatile people; I don't think anyone can claim that the story is all that coherent if you examine it too closely. And oy, those Russian writers. Can they write brilliant, vivid, intellectual characters that examine every facet of human existence from all angles in deep, philosophical detail? Absolutely. Do I fall asleep trying to pick meager threads of story out of all that writing? Yeeessssss. Charles Dickens was exceptional in that he handled all three categories well (though he had weaknesses in plotting, in that his pace often dragged and he made too much use of coincidences, and his female characters were usually paper dolls).
What kind of a reader are you?
So, poll time. Of the three categories I have described -- Story, Characters, and Style -- which are the most and least important to you when rating a book? Yes, you have to choose. :Þ We'll take it as a given that everyone's ideal book would be Made of Win all around, and no one wants Suck in any of the three. Go ahead and elaborate in the comments.
What is MOST important to you in a good book?
What is LEAST important to you in a good book?
Previous Saturday Book Discussions.