While each of us has individual taste in literature, according to Cheryl Klein in The Magic Words, there are universal qualities evident in good books. Her guide focuses on children’s and YA lit, yet these attributes apply to all stories.
The diction and syntax have strength and integrity, with a discernable voice. Voice is like a fingerprint; it is the personality of the narrative. If it sounds like anyone could have written it, the prose lacks voice.
Mma Ramotswe and the other characters in in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith are distinctive. Her story is told in a calm, objective voice, whereas Ann Cleeve’s Vera novels, also a detective, possess a sense of urgency in the main character’s voice. Both examples convince the reader these fictional people are real and credible.
Notice the difference in diction to distinguish these two writers.
From Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life
Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone. From where she sat, she could gaze out of the window, out beyond the acacia trees, over the grass and the scrub bush, to the hills in their blue haze of heat. It was such a noble country, and so wide, stretching for mile upon mile to brown horizons at the very edge of Africa.
From Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves:
Vera swam slowly. An elderly man with a bathing hat pulled like a fully stretched condom over his head went past her. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he was faster than she was. She was the sloth of the swimming world. But still she was almost faint with the effort of moving, with pulling the bulk of her body through the water. She hated the sensation of water on her face — one splash and she imagined she was drowning — so she did a slow breaststroke with her chin a couple of inches from the surface of the pool. Looking, she suspected, like a giant turtle.
Precious Ramotswe and Vera Stanhope are both detectives, yet nobody would confuse them with one another. Mma Ramotswe rarely raises her voice, and carefully weighs her words before she speaks, yet Vera is sharp tongued and bossy and her associates often feel slighted by her. The writers provide enough description and supporting characters that readers care about them.
The plot is “what happens,’” but it is driven by the “so what?” factor. The tale needs to be about something, otherwise it’s a series of events without a central focus. The protagonist, someone we care about, longs for something but is stopped by one or more major obstacles. The plot allows the MC to confront and deal with issues preventing him from achieving his desires, and a layered plot will raise the stakes throughout the story.
Theme demonstrates to the reader what it is to be human and how they react to circumstances beyond their control. It is a universal point, and it says something meaningful about being human in the world. The protagonist, or Main Character (MC) has an issue, and the story is driven by a universal theme and framed by a plot that reveals the MC’s internal and external struggles to either reach his goal or fail. It is the job of the writer to synthesize these key points so the reader can connect to the story.
In a detective novel the apparent goal is to solve the crime, yet what keeps the reader reading is watching how the characters reveal their human qualities as they react to unfolding events.
A sign of a great book is the reader experiences an authentic, visceral emotional response intended by the author. I often hear of books where readers warn you to have tissues nearby. I’m not a warm fuzzy, so if an author can make me cry, such as in Lisa Fipps’ middle grade novel Starfish, the writer has done an extraordinary job. I cared greatly for Ellie, the MC, and experienced grief, sadness, and joy alongside her.
Ironically, all these qualities exist in books being challenged in school and public libraries. A great novel, though it is fiction, tells a deep truth about the human experience and allows the reader to feel empathy.