Good Books vs Successful Books: Is There A Difference?

09 Jun

Earlybird Spoiler: Yes, absolutely there’s a difference. Or perhaps ‘distinction’ would be a better word. There are qualities in a good book that don’t necessarily have to be present in a successful book. I thought I’d try to identify some of them–the qualities of a good book, the qualities of a successful book. This is, of course, all just one person’s opinion, namely my opinion. I don’t have anyone else’s to offer.

So then! What makes a successful book? I think, in a word, ‘tension’. Not necessarily story, that’s a different thing, not even plot, that’s separate too. Tension keeps the reader reading. It might be that they want to see if the girl gets the boy, or which boy she ends up with, or why the MC can suddenly hear people’s thoughts, or just who or what is behind all of these mysterious disappearances, or ANYTHING so long as it holds the reader’s attention and keeps them turning those pages. It’s interesting to look at the wildly successful books of recent years and identify the tension in them–for example, not to get too deeply into criticism, but the Twilight books are huge and ponderously written and suffer from a near-terminal case of “Plot? What Plot?” and yet people DEVOUR them. Why? TENSION. For whatever reason Stephanie Meyers has connected with readers and drawn them into her book, found a way to make them care what happens even when nothing is really happening at all. There’s little conflict in her books, and that which is there is handled in a clichéd way–and yet still people care enough to keep reading to the end and then demand more. This suggests to me that a lot of readers don’t care about clichés, or good writing, or even story–they just want something to keep them turning the pages. As long as they have that, nothing else matters. I personally don’t think this is a good trend. There’s talent in creating tension, don’t get me wrong, but if tension is all you have then your book is going to be fairly ’empty’.

What else makes a book successful? Increasingly, I think ‘simplicity of language’. I read an article recently about a freelance writer. When he started, he wrote to a twelfth-grade level. Two years ago it was eight. Now he’s told to write to a sixth-grade level–because that’s the mean reading level in the United States (and it’s not much better elsewhere in the English-speaking world). Which is somewhat disturbing, but it’s the reality of this world we live in. If you write above a sixth-grade level, you’re shutting out a large number of potential readers. Does that mean you should dumb down your book? Well, if you want to increase your chances of success, maybe yes. If someone reads your sample and doesn’t understand it–or worse, feels stupid because of it–then they’re not going to buy your book. There’s a very good reason that TV shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones and The Wire don’t attract nearly as many viewers as things like American Idol or ‘simpler’ TV shows (I won’t name any names, but you know the sort I mean), and it’s that a lot of people just don’t understand them. They’re not used to paying attention, or following a story. When a show doesn’t explain everything or lay it out for them in clear language, they don’t think “I should be paying more attention”, they just change the channel. But there’s also a reason that these kinds of shows are treasured by people who care about good stories and characters and skilful storytelling, because they treat us like grown-ups, and they reward us for our attention. In a world where ‘good enough’ is the standard and the lowest common denominator rules, anything that strives to rise above this should be lauded.

With that in mind, let’s move on. What makes a good book, in my opinion? First of all, above anything else, a strong, entertaining authorial voice. This is such a mercurial quality that discussing it in any depth would take up far too much time, so I’ll try to restrain myself to a single short paragraph:

‘Voice’ is what distinguishes the author from other authors and the book from other books–read any sentence in any Douglas Adams book and you KNOW you’re reading Douglas Adams. Voice comes from personality, character, and experience, and it’s not something that can be taught, only encouraged. Many writers begin by trying to emulate the voice of writers they admire, just as many artists begin by copying the styles of artists they admire. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this–to begin with. But it’s those who can rise above this and find their own voice who are well on their way to becoming ‘good writers’.

Next, interesting characters I want to spend time with. They don’t necessarily have to be ‘likeable’, although that’s a nebulous term in itself, they just have to have something about them that attracts me to them, that makes me want to know what happens to them. It might be a brightness of personality or a quirky charm, or the fact they feel isolated and alone or even that they’re a total badass, but there has to be something about them that makes me want to know what their story is. This is the biggest problem I have with most books these days: flat characters, dull, clichéd dialogue. This is one of my many problems with writers like Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyers: SUCH BORING/ANNOYING CHARACTERS. I’ll take a good character with a dull story over a dull character with a good story any day. Of course, having a good character with a good story is best, which leads me on to my next point; story! As I mentioned above, ‘story’ is a different thing from ‘tension’, and different from ‘plot’ too. I think of it in this way: plot is how things happen, story is why they happen.

Actually–hello, yes, we’re in a new paragraph, that was a bit sudden but just come along with me for a moment–I’d like to go off on a slight tangent at this point. Stories are so important. SO important. Humans are made of stories, stories are what separate us from animals. From our very beginnings, stories about hunting and gathering and Why You Shouldn’t Go Alone Into The Dark, or The Boy Who Went Down To Crocodile River And Never Came Back. You know that rule, “Show, don’t tell”? Telling someone why something is a good or bad idea rarely works. But SHOWING them that same idea in the context of a story is likely to be far more effective. You can say “don’t do drugs” which is ‘telling’, or you can give someone a story which shows them why it’s a bad idea–and the truer the story the more likely it is to be effective. Also, a story allows us to examine an idea from many angles, many perspectives–in the case of drugs we can show WHY people start doing them, the problems that lead to such escapes, we can show the effects of drugs on a person and the people around them, we can show the slow road to recovery, we can even be a little bit controversial and show things like a character who dips into less ‘hard’ drugs and still lives a normal life–because there’s truth there, too. I think people instinctively respond to truth and honesty, and if something is ‘false’ then most people pick up on that. Kind of the ‘tiger in the bushes’ effect, humans are good at spotting that which is out of place, or ‘untrue’. So not just stories, but TRUTH in stories. This is one reason I respect Terry Pratchett so much, as an author, as a person, because he cares about stories and he cares about truth. He’s wise, and he shows this wisdom so effectively in his books.

So, what makes a good story? For me, two things: ‘truth’, as mentioned, and ‘weight’. The story has to matter. It has to have something to do with me and my life, whether it’s about someone struggling against hopeless odds to win through, or One Good Man In All The World Doing What’s Right No Matter The Cost, or the hopelessness of change once Those In Charge have too much power–there has to be something in there I can take away with me. Books that do nothing more than entertain are okay, not everything has to be heavy, but there’s got to be something in there. Look at The Wire, which is, at its core, a story about various people struggling to achieve their personal goals in a world where the system quite simply does not work. There are many different individual stories, but for me the impact and emotion of Bub’s story is probably the strongest. I tear up just thinking about it. I’ll carry that story with me for the rest of my life, because it’s so strong and has so much true weight. Note also that there’s a difference between ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. Something doesn’t have to have happened to be true.

Moving on to plot. Plot’s important. I think of it as a ‘line’, you need something sturdy to hang all your themes and characters and stories and such on. If the line’s not strong enough, it’ll break. But if a book has a weak plot but a strong story, or a weak plot but fun characters, I’ll forgive it. This is one area where, for me, ‘good enough’ IS enough. I prefer strong plots, of course. But I can live without them. Just so long as I’m not rolling my eyes at the ludicrous developments, and just as long as the writer avoids just piling up the questions with no intention of answering them, I’m fine. If the characters behave and react in a ‘true’ sort of way, that’s enough for me. With that said I LOVE ‘moments’ in fiction, moments of high emotion, moments of true drama, moments of pure awesomeness. Without a good plot, it’s hard to create these moments or give them the weight they deserve. So in order for me to love something, a strong, intelligently constructed plot is essential (of course, what makes up a ‘plot’ can be ethereal in itself, The Little Prince has a simple structure which basically consists of a bunch of little stories and observances strung together and yet it’s one of my favourite books in the world, so there you go, there are ever exceptions).

What else does a good book need? Well, here we go, because to me a good book NEEDS good writing. Story alone isn’t enough, tension won’t keep me interested, and you can’t have good characters without good writing. The writing should either be as transparent as possible so as not to distract from the story, or beautiful/funny/interesting/charming enough so that I enjoy it purely AS writing. It should flow, it should use language creatively but not pretentiously, it should be grammatically plausible, each sentence should lead smoothly to the next. To an extent ‘good editing’ also comes into play here. I’ll forgive an engaging book a lot of things, but if it gets to the point where I’m so distracted by basic errors that I’m no longer reading for the story but instead just hunting typos, that’s when you’ve lost me. Similarly, if I’m spending too much time trying to figure out what you’re saying, then I’m not going to bother reading any further.

Phew. I feel as though I’ve just touched upon the surface of what makes a book good, and what makes a book successful, but I’m already scraping against 2000 words and my daughter’s just woken up. I’ll finish things off with this: success and quality are two separate things. What makes something a success is not necessarily the same thing that makes it ‘good’, and just because something is ‘good’ doesn’t mean it’ll be a success. Success is not a measure of worth. It’s a measure of popularity, which is something entirely different. So keep working at your craft, keep refining, keep improving. Don’t accept ‘good enough’. Strive to be better than that, because there are still people out there who care.

I’ll leave you with these words-of-others:

“Doing a thing well is often a waste of time.”
– Robert Byrne

“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”
-The Paradoxical Commandments, Dr. Kent M. Keith


Posted by on June 9, 2011 in Of Writing


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5 responses to “Good Books vs Successful Books: Is There A Difference?

  1. Coral

    June 10, 2011 at 09:06

    “When a show doesn’t explain everything or lay it out for them in clear language, they don’t think “I should be paying more attention”, they just change the channel.”

    That was one of the most insightful statements I’ve read lately. I think there’s a middle ground there somewhere between the people who can’t be bothered to think about anything and the ones that love to ponder out mysteries. I don’t know, maybe I’m deluding myself about that, but I like to believe it. 🙂

    Moving on to your point about characters. Interesting characters is what any book that I’m going to read to the end has to have. I’ve slogged through some terrible reading to find out what happens to a character that intrigues me.

    Just a terrific post all around. Thank you. 🙂

    • Ben White

      June 10, 2011 at 12:04

      Thank you 🙂 I spent too much time writing this post, once I started I couldn’t stop! And I agree about the ‘middle ground’, I think that’s important too. My feeling is that characters may be the key to finding this–in my writing I always, always focus on characters first, try to make them clear even if that introduces an element of two-dimensionality to them. So even though I don’t explain everything or lay everything out and I love ‘implying’ rather than stating directly and I show far more than I tell, hopefully my characters are attractive enough to pull people along–along my target audience is definitely ‘people who care; people who pay attention; people who appreciate the little details’. If I look at my earlier books I sometimes think “Hmm, no, didn’t QUITE succeed there” but I’m getting better 🙂

      I often wonder if the “reaction to confusion: ignore source of confusion” is a Western thing, because (sweeping general statement ahead!) I haven’t noticed it so much with the Japanese people I know. It’s probably easiest to sum it up like:

      Typical Western response to something they don’t understand: “This isn’t clear enough, this isn’t being explained well enough; you have failed in making it simple and easy to understand.”
      Typical Japanese response to something they don’t understand: “I’m not trying hard enough to understand this, I should pay more attention; I have failed in understanding it.”

      As I said, sweepingly general and of course there are exceptions, but I think there’s some truth there. I think taking the responsibility of ‘understanding’ is the first step towards a higher level of thinking, and also of enjoyment–if you enjoy things that challenge you and don’t lay everything out, then things that DON’T challenge you and DO lay everything out seem dull in comparison.

      Of course, I also feel that all writers should strive for clarity of language and thought, ESPECIALLY if they’re creating something complex.

      Thanks again for your comment 🙂

      • George

        June 10, 2011 at 15:27

        Well said–clarity is key; we need to put down everything the reader needs to know to understand the situation, but not over-explain. That leads to infodumps, yawns, etc.

      • Ben White

        June 10, 2011 at 17:48

        I found a nicely pithy bit of advice the other day: “Let the reader draw their own conclusions.” I totally agree with this.

      • Coral

        June 11, 2011 at 14:54

        I never really thought about it being a Western thing, but you could be right. I’ve always thought about it in terms of self-entitlement, but really they are close to the same thing? Eastern cultures emphasize suppression of the self (not in a bad way) to a greater degree, and that might be what this comes down to. The first thing someone here thinks of is that other people are at fault.


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