June 10, 2011

the formula for a good book

What is about certain things that keep us coming back for more?

I own a good number of books, and most of them easily have the rereadability factor. The Lord of the Rings. The Harry Potter series. Howl’s Moving Castle. And many others I’ve only just read that I’m sure I’ll read again. I can’t quite place what makes these books so… awesome. They just are, and they keep me captivated long after I’ve finished the book. 

I have movies that are rewatchable. Spirited Away. Castle in the Sky. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Howl’s Moving Castle. Ponyo. (Practically anything by Hayao Miyazaki). Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Stardust. TRON:Legacy. Hero. Secondhand Lions. TV shows as well. Merlin. Battlestar Galactica. Avatar: The Last Airbender. LOST. Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.  

Is it the story that brings me back each time? Is it the feelings that they invoke?

As writers, we want to have that rereadability factor. We want our story heard time and time again. We want it to captivate someone so completely that they can’t bear to turn the last page. But what makes a book rereadable? What makes a movie or television show rewatchable?

From what I can tell, it’s a combination of the same things that make a book “good”. Plot. Characters. Setting. And most importantly… Execution (the actual craft of writing). There is a debate among writers on which aspect of a story is most important. For some, it’s plot. For others, it’s characters. And for a select few, it’s setting.

For me, it’s a combination, thinking of it like math: e(cp+s) = q … Execution multiplied by the sum of Characters multiplied by Plot and Setting equals Quality.

This way, execution can make or break a story. You can have a so-so plot, so-so characters, and so-so setting, and if the execution is phenomenal, you have a decent story. Say so-so equals 3. And phenomenal equals 10.

Plug in our equation: 10(3 x 3 + 3) = 120

But what about phenomenal plot (10), terrible characterization (1), and a nonexistent setting (0) with a so-so execution (3)?

Our handy dandy equation: 3(1 x 10 + 0) = 30

What about great on all levels? 7(7 x 7 + 7) = 392

Phenomenal? 10(10 x 10 + 10) = 1100 … but that’s a very high bar and in my opinion, it’s impossible to get everything perfect.

(Can you tell I’m enjoying this? Other interesting fact: I love math.)

This of course is my equation for a good book, and even then, my definition of a great plot or so-so characters can be very different from the next person. Let’s compare some books I’ve reviewed. A book I didn’t care for: Enclave, and a book I loved: Kat, Incorrigible. Both are debut novels, so this seems fair.

Enclave. Characterization: 5. Plot: 5. Setting: 10. Execution: 7. I gave the book 3 stars. Let’s see what the equation gives us. 7(5 x 5 + 10) = 245.
Kat, Incorrigible. Characterization: 9. Plot: 6. Setting: 10. Execution: 10. I gave this book 5 stars. It’s the best book I’ve read in ages. And the equation… 10(9 x 6 + 10) = 640.

Maybe it’s not fair to pit Enclave against Kat, Incorrigible. I’m predisposed to magical mischief, but there you go.

So in order of importance… Plot and Characterization are on even ground. One without the other will bring the value of your novel down. Execution is next in importance. Without good execution, the story is unreadable. No one will care about the plot and characters if they can’t follow the story. And last is setting. Some people will argue with me about this. The way I see it, setting is a beast of its own. It either adds to the story, or it doesn’t. It doesn’t detract from anything if it’s bad. But if it the setting is spectacular, it adds a whole new level to the story.

So what about you? How do you determine what makes a book rereadable? A movie rewatchable? And what are your favorites?


  1. okay lets add maths genius to your title of super blogger! I agree there are defn some books that i will re read. There are some - like Marianne Keyes and Sophie Kinsella that i read when Im stressed out and want a fun, enjoyable non-difficult read. But Im not sure i can really put my finger on all the factors that 'make' a story great. I'll just go with your numbers!

  2. I agree about needing a combination of plot, character, setting, and execution to make a good book. I'm not going to try to work out formulas or anything (I can do math but don't like to, and it's 12:30 a.m.), but yeah, there needs to be at least a 6 or 7 in most of those categories before I'm wowed. I think I'd like to add Theme as a category too, as an optional. The plot and characters can be so-so for me, but if the message of the book is something powerful, I may reread anyway.

    Of course, I have a second definition of 'good book': some books blow my mind in terms of plot, character, etc, but I know I won't reread them. That's a me thing, though. I remember plot far, far too well to reread a lot of books. I'll gladly plug those books at work though.