On the Qualities of Fiction

At this weeks SF/F reading group meeting the question was raised: what really makes a good book. So I’m trying to describe, at least to myself, the dimensions in a work of fiction that I enjoy and consider when trying to decide wheteher some book is good. So far here’s what I’ve come up with.

  • Sympathy and empathy for characters. There should be some connection between me and the characters of the book. The characters don’t have to be good people. I just need to be able to comprehend them, to put myself into their place, if only for the duration of the story.
  • Setting. A interesting location or background to the story is also important. Hopefully the author will provide enough detail to make the setting come alive in my imagination. One author who does this really well is Borges, especially in some of his infinite library stories. Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” is another good example, in fact it’s almost all setting.
  • Allusive depth. The story connect to something outside of itself. Most often these connections are to other works of art. Elizabeth Hand does this very well with music.
  • Novelty density. I’m not sure if this is the same or different than the allusive depth above. I put this here to get at the difference present in the science fiction that I really like: a lot of ideas are presented in a compressed frame and sometimes left unexplained. I think this is what Delany was getting at when he wrote that a sentence like “The door dilated” has a different reading in SF and F than in normal fiction.
  • Expressive language. This connects to my love of poetry. A well turned phrase can make a work come alive. First sentences stick in my mind with this quality. Gibson’s “The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.
  • Metaphor. At a micro level this can shade into expressive language, at a macro level it links to allusive depth. But allusion mostly connects to other artwork. Metaphor connects the story to the world, making the story stand in for our experience of life.
  • Narrative structure. The arrangement of the whole into a set that makes sense and creates the ideal feeling in the reader. This is the criterion that puts the reveal of the murderer at the end of a mystery.

Here are some links for a search on ‘what makes a good story’. From Creative Keys, Screenwriting.info, and the Thinking Writer