What Makes a Book Good

Today’s post is brought to you on behalf of book review responsibilities. I’ve signed up to read several books for review and I’ve had one of them on my nightstand, reading a chapter a night for about a month. Or at least that’s what I shot for. Imagine my shock when I realized I was not even halfway through a comparatively short book! I’m afraid I find all sorts of reasons not to read it before I go to bed. It’s too late, I’m tired, I have to get up early in the morning and write my own stories. The real reason is, the book has endless chapters where nothing happens. This was brought home to me last week when I picked up a different review book to take with me while I’m on errands. This second book, “Hidden Voices,” (if you’re interested in music or Renaissance Italy, take a look at it. I will have a full review up within a week at Historical Novel Review, but not here because of the setting) is a joy to read. The characters are so well done and the author clearly knows Venice and music. So I’m faced with the juxtaposition of these books and I know why I dislike one and have devoured the other. But I enjoy other books for different reasons, which does lead to this week’s question:

What are must-have points for you in a good book? One of my best friends and I discussed this a while back. For one of us, setting was important, but another wanted stronger characterization. I wanted some sort of plot if either one of these weren’t a strong-point, but she didn’t care. For me to love a book, I need to identify with or admire the characters and be lifted up emotionally by them. So what draws you in?

Day 3: Janet Lane on Free Range Characters

This talk wasn’t just about characterization, but how proper characterization can become indistinguishable from plot.

Janet suggests plotting stories using Inner and Outer story questions, advice most of us should be familiar with by now, but we’ll go over it using the plot from Avatar because everyone’s seen it by now. Right?

The Outer story question is a specific, tangible action-oriented goal and the character must strive for (or against) it. In Avatar, the Outer Story question is: Will greed destroy Pandora?

The Inner Story Question must be stated as a question, involves the character’s need, each character has his or her own inner question that is resolved in yes/no fashion by the story’s end with a resolution that is satisfying to the protagonist. The inner story question DRIVES the Outer Story.

Avatar’s Inner Story question: Will Jake sell his soul and betray Neytiri and the Navi to walk again?

Now, how free are your characters? What are their turning points?

It’s only a turning point if someone acts. Most turning points are at the beginning of Act I and 2. (Sometimes there’s one in the middle to act as a buttress to your story arc.) Who drives the characters’ decisions?

In Avatar, the first Turning Point for Jake is when he abandons the scientists and the NAVI and joins the Colonel and the “Greed” team. He is motivated by his desire to walk again. The second Turning Point is when he defies the Colonel and the team and fights for the NAVI. He is motivated for a variety of reasons including love, revenge for the Colonel’s lies and the death of the NAVI, their spiritual center and the death of Sigourney Weaver’s character.

What are your story’s Turning Points and what are the character’s motivations for turning? In other words, who is driving the story? Are external events doing it, or are the changes brought about by your character’s decisions and motivations? Who is in charge of your character arc?

Another way of looking at motivations, is to examine what the character wants, why he/she wants it and why they can’t get it, their worst fear (which should probably revolve around the inciting incident) and how they accept the call to action.

See how this works for Jake: He wants to be accepted, believes “he’s just another dumb drunk”, he cannot get what he wants because he hasn’t yet claimed his life, his worst fear is that his naysayers are right and that he’ll never be more than a broken ex-marine, but then his twin brother dies, giving him an opportunity to fit in again. He accepts the opportunity and travels to Pandora. Do you see how most of that happens off screen?

Many thanks to Janet Lane and her exceptional handout sheets. I would never have been able to reproduce this for you without them. Make sure you check out Janet’s site as she was able to post on the part of the conference I arrived too late to see. This is my last blog on the Crested Butte Writers Conference. Thanks for joining me; we will now return to our regularly scheduled programming. ;D