(4) All of the above…

I’ve been meaning to ask this question of y’all for ages, and today seems as good a day as any.  Quite a while ago, Harriet and I were discussing (in person, no less) how we ranked the three main components of what makes a novel good.  Of course, ‘what makes a novel good’ is subjective, and the answers are as many and varied as there are readers, but perhaps the criteria we consider when making this evaluation can be listed more succintly.  (Succint, me?  Yes, I know…)

Anyway, broadly speaking there are three things readers ponder on when evaluating how good a novel is.   They are plot, character, and writing style.

With me so far?  Are we all agreed?  Doubtless we aren’t, but let’s assume (for, ironically, the sake of argument) that we are.

Well, then – what order would you put these in, in terms of priority?  Ideally, a novel would have an engaging plot, well-drawn characters and accomplished writing style – but not every novel can be Pride and Prejudice, can it?  If you have to rank them… how would you rank them?

Long-term SiaB readers might not be surprised at the order I choose:
1.) writing style
2.) character



3.) plot

Yes, plot comes a long way third for me.  If I find a book to be badly written, nothing can save it in my eyes.  I could just about forgive a book for having lacklustre characters if it is beautifully written (this is my experience with, say, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves) but I can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens – so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.

All this, of course, requires sweeping generalisations… over to you, grab a broom, start sweepin’!

31 thoughts on “(4) All of the above…

  • October 7, 2011 at 12:08 am
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    Hmmm… well, plot is at the bottom for me as well, but I'd have a hard time choosing between characters and writing style.

    And when I say characters might be at the top of my list, I must add that the characters need not be likable. They just need to be interesting. Beautiful writing about people I find boring usually turns into boring writing.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 12:13 am
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    Writing Style
    Plot
    Character

    I can't read a book that isn't well written even if the plot is supposed to be good.

    Plot vs. Character was a hard choice but then I thought of Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro where the characters were not charming at all but somehow the plot carried the story. I later realized that Ishiguro meant for the characters to be that way because in the end you feel so much for them in spite of not really liking them that much.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 12:21 am
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    I support "well written". I savour words and those are the books which I keep.

    Helen

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  • October 7, 2011 at 12:31 am
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    I think #1 for me is character. I have to believe in them as people (even if they're aliens or anthropmorphic animals). I don't have to like them, or agree with them, but they have to live and move and have being in the story – and not just be convenient plot points for the author. Writing would be #2, and I'm with you, Simon, in that plot would be a distant #3.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 4:05 am
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    I agree with your list. For me, writing style incorporates a lot of the character element.

    Plot is less important to me, unless there is absolutely no visible arc. (THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman comes to mind)

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  • October 7, 2011 at 4:19 am
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    I would agree with your ranking, except for one genre: mysteries & thrillers. There, for me, it is writing style, plot, then characters.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 4:31 am
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    So hard to decide! I think I like your ranking… But there have been books where the writing style was indifferent but it didn't matter so much because the plot was so gripping. And there are plotless books that are still amazing because of the writing and characters.

    I think it really depends on the genre, but maybe I would end up (tentatively) saying Writing style, plot then character. Tentatively.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 7:22 am
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    Ah, the truth can now be spoken Si. Plot comes top of my list – which is why, to your great chagrin, I can sometimes be satisfied with an abbreviated version of a novel or even the film.
    Character probably comes second (in a novel) and writing style (unless it clearly abuses good grammar and conventionally acceptable English) comes third. In non-fiction writing style comes higher up the scale.
    OV

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  • October 7, 2011 at 7:33 am
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    I just posted yesterday something fairly similar regarding my approach to what makes a book good, but it looks a bit different – same general components but divided up differently. And in chart form! I'm curious to know what you think of it (http://biblibio.blogspot.com/2011/10/define-good.html). Personally (as you can see in my chart), I can't rank one of the three as being better than other… all are equally crucial in my mind.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 7:59 am
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    If you can't read the book because the style is so poor it becomes impossible to persevere plot and character become irrelevant!
    The choice between character and plot is, for me, a matter of the moment – sometimes I want a page-turne (hence my weakness for Robert Goddard) and sometimes I want to become utterly involved with the unveiling of character (e.g. Jane Eyre – just been re-reading St John's pursuit of Jane – very chilling!)
    So, as you would expect from the mother of twins – each has its place and its value!

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  • October 7, 2011 at 8:11 am
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    Absolutely with you on this Simon.
    TAlking about my taste in films someone suggested that I would be happy watching a film of paint drying. Absolutely if the paint was beautiful and captivating enough.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 8:38 am
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    Writing style has to be top – If that doesn't mesh for you, you can't enjoy the book however good the rest is. I tend to prefer plot over character initially, then change to character over plot as I think about it – and sometimes the other way around!

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  • October 7, 2011 at 10:28 am
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    I think I agree with Lisa May on this one. I've always known that character comes far above the rest for me – if I don't find the characters in a book believable and well-rounded (although they certainly don't need to be likeable) I simply won't be interested in reading on. I think this is because, for me, although not for everyone, the very point of reading fiction is to better understand others' worlds – so if the characters don't work, nothing does.

    After that, writing style, although I've always found it hard to rave about a book simply because it is well-written, for the above reasons.

    And far far below that (though I won't waste comment space by illustrating how far), plot…

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  • October 7, 2011 at 11:17 am
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    I agree with you, Simon; I place writing style ahead – far ahead – of the other categories. Whatever the writer wants to do, I think s/he can be engaging if it's well-written. I can enjoy nearly any book, in nearly any genre, historical period, or setting, as long as it's written well.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 11:44 am
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    Having already had this conversation, I'm not sure what to add — I certainly agreed with you at the time but I also agree with those people who say genre makes a difference. I can enjoy an Agatha Christie when I'm in the mood and there you have plot plot plot, with characters and writing style fighting each other for the bottom slot. But overall I do love beautifully written books (ie style), witness my recent remarks on Elizabeth Bowen, my current passion.
    http://harrietdevine.typepad.com/harriet_devines_blog/2011/10/to-the.html

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  • October 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm
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    Yes, I'm with you on this – don't really care about plot except for genre fiction where it is really an important aspect of form. The less plot there is, the less opportunity writers have to do something frightful with it that detracts from the enjoyment of their style – Ian McEwan, I'm looking at you.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm
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    I think for me it's *usually*

    Character
    Writing style
    Plot

    With the exception of short stories where writing style always wins. (And Magnus Mills.)

    I say this because I've read a number of very well-written books which at the end I just didn't like, and the reason was that the characters were bloody annoying or boring and I didn't care about them. cf the Time Traveller's Wife, The Kite Runner, Cloud Atlas, and everything by Ian McEwan.

    I was never going to laugh or cry over any of those.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm
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    I think it depends on the type of book and what you want to get from it. For example Born on a Blue Day isn't very well written, but it is written by a man with Aspergers, Savant syndrome and synaesthesia and is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read.

    Some of the best written books I've ever read are also the most boring. I wish more books managed to combine good writing with emotion and plot, but sadly books like that are few and far between.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm
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    Ideally books would have all three in synch. But if I had to choose, I'd say writing style first then a tie between plot and character. If I don't like the writing style, I may not get as far as the plot or the characters.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm
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    I'm afraid for me, writing style comes a long way after plot and character. A badly written book can keep me gripped if the other two factors are there, whereas I am usually bored by well-written books where nothing happens. I think I would put character first; if there is no character I can engage with, I don't really see the point.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm
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    Character
    Plot
    Writing Style

    As you say, 'all of the above' is the only sensible answer, as a book that is bereft of any one of these is not going to be much fun to read.

    For me, the key element that makes a great book is that I want to know what happens next, but that has more to with character than with plot, oddly. I don't really care if a badly written character dies, say, but I can be fascinated by a well-drawn character going for a walk.

    'Writing style', in my experience, is too often given as a redeeming feature of a dull book.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm
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    I can read a long way if the writing is good. In fact, that alone can at times carry the characters and plot if one or the other or both are weak.

    I know I have put books down because the characters bored me and I have enjoyed some books with a lame plot so for me I'd say writing, character, plot.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm
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    I definitely agree with you that plot can be sacrificed if the other two are well-done. But my best answer is: it depends. What kind of book and what am I looking to get out of it? I think character is awfully important. Plot can be very important too, in certain genres, like the mystery/thriller genre I love (as somebody else said). In other books, you don't need the plot so much. But I am a fan of well-drawn, complete, multidimensional characters in pretty much any book. Writing style and quality are awfully important too, but I will say – the writing doesn't have to be really really remarkably stellar (again with certain kinds of books), but in no case should it be bad. But mostly… it depends.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm
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    For me it's plot first, if I don't want to know what happens next, or how the obvious will happen I struggle to keep on reading never mind how beautiful the writing is – take that Virginia Woolf. After that it's a close run thing between writing style and character.

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  • October 7, 2011 at 7:59 pm
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    Whilst all of these are necessary for a classic, I think as some others have said that the importance perhaps varies between genres. Plot is paramount in a mystery, character in a romance, and so on. However, I have read many beautifully written novels that have left me yawning, and others with basic plots, characters and writing styles that I have galloped through. I think the chief characteristic of any good novel is a fourth quality – that the author has the gift of storytelling. This is different to writing style, and although people will like different kinds of story, without this quality no novel can be successful.

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  • October 8, 2011 at 4:12 am
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    Almost not a fair question ;) If the writing style is poor, then I won't usually last long enough to evaluate the characters or plot. Between these last two, I'd say it's a coin toss and depends on the book, with a slight leaning toward plot.

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  • October 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm
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    Writing style, character, plot but they all need to be as important as each other we me. Even a book that appears to have no plot has been plotted very carefully (which probably sounds like a cop out, or a plot out) but even when nothing happens, something is.

    I have just finished a book that had all three in wonderful equalness.

    Oh what about atmosphere for a choice, or readability, the last one trumps all with me.

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  • October 9, 2011 at 1:32 am
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    I agree in plot being last, but I would say Character is more important to me than Writing Style. If the characters don't resonate with me, why read the book?

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  • October 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm
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    Because I don't follow directions, I have to insert a fourth criterion, which is vaguely ethos, I guess? Basically, I want to laugh once in a while, trivial as that maybe. And I love a good romance that's ultimately despairingly tragic. Also I love a good farcical story. I think I can be strung along to think a novel is good even with crude writing, no plot and unlikeable characters so long as there's a joke/tragi-romantic overtones/irony.

    But answering the question, my list is
    1. Writing Style
    (ethos)
    2.5 Plot
    2.5 Character

    The latter two are interchangeable for me.

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  • October 13, 2011 at 4:28 pm
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    I feel so flaky giving this answer, but I can't choose between the language and the character. Some days call for me to get drunk on lush language, or to tense/calm down with seemingly simple prose. Some days I want to meet a character and become fascinated by him/her, maybe hate a little, maybe love.

    Then again, I do believe that one will be difficult to achieve without the other. That is, language brings us closer to the characters and their stories–or, even, simply, just how these people are relayed to us, how their stories are told. Character makes the language shine more, character makes the very book.

    Plot is dispensable!

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  • October 19, 2011 at 11:01 pm
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    I'm just about to enter a post on my own blog (www.hazelmchaffie.com/blog) prompted by your comments on this subject. Two weeks of thinking and lots of knitted hats later I've feebly concluded I can't separate out the three components. It depends on lots of things. So thanks for a thought-provoking launching pad. This week's comments in connection with the Man Booker prize were even more amusing because you had primed my brain to analyse what works for me. Hazel

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