Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Inverarity's School of Literary Analysis (plus a tiny, petty rant)

First, the tiny, petty rant:

For some reason, Yahoo!Mail is not playing nicely with Firefox. I can log in, but it takes forever to actually get to my inbox and be able to read messages. I suspect it's because Yahoo! has done something that Noscript and/or Adblock Plus doesn't like. Is anyone else having similar issues? MSIE logs in and retrieves mail just fine. But when I log into Yahoo!Mail with IE, and then click review links to MNFF, I am reminded just how much the Internet sucks without Firefox + NoScript + Adblocker. Everything is all annoying, flashing banners!

(Yes, the obvious solution is to not use Yahoo!Mail. I actually don't for any of my "real" email, but my Y! address is where all my fanfic-related stuff goes.)

Inverarity's School of Literary Analysis

Traditionally, fiction is said to be composed of five elements: Characters, Setting, Plot, Theme, and Style. There are other interpretations; "Style," for example, is sometimes referred to as Point-of-View, but that ignores everything about the writing style except the choice of first-vs-second-vs-third person limited-vs-omniscient, etc. Some lists include Conflict as a separate element, but I regard that as part of the Plot. And you can find other lists that break it down into slightly different ways, but I'm going to stick with these five.

So, I was wondering why some people hate certain authors that others love, and why you can look on Amazon or GoodReads and find two people who are both seemingly intelligent, thoughtful, critical reviewers with similar tastes, and one will give a book one star and another will give the same book five stars. Obviously, sometimes it's just going to be quirks of the individual and/or the book: I really hated a certain plot twist that someone else likes, or a character that I love totally gets on another reader's nerves. Predicting tastes and value judgments is a tricky business (and one that has big money behind it: Netflix is still only mediocre at predicting how I'll rate a given movie, and I find that Amazon's recommendations are usually at least in the ballpark of what I like to read, but their algorithm can also produce wildly inappropriate suggestions.)

Anyway, I propose the following theory: there are three kinds of readers.

Like any theory that attempts to sort everyone in the world into one of three categories, this is not to be taken too seriously, but humor me. I'm actually working on this as a paradigm for future book reviews, so feel free to give your input. (Also, I apply the same judgments to fan fiction.)

For my purposes, I am going to say that every story has three crucial elements, and that what kind of reader you are is based on which element is most important to you.


Is the story believable and interesting? Does it keep you up late finishing the book? Does it consistently make you want to turn the next page? Or do you find yourself annoyed by plot holes, by too much suspension of disbelief, or by a story that is unoriginal and not cleverly done?


Are the characters interesting, engaging, and sympathetic? Do you care what happens to them? Do you empathize with them? Do you even like the villains as characters (even if they're not likable as people)? Or are the characters unbelievable, unsympathetic, uninteresting, or cliched?


Does the writing style impress you? Is the prose dazzling and descriptive? Is the writer a true wordsmith, a crafter of clever lines, a master of metaphors, someone who paints a vivid picture with words? Is the story full of memorable lines? Or is the prose flat, workman-like, or worse, clunky or even laughable?

Now that I've set forth my simplistic criteria, I will point out that of course, a truly great book should excel in all three areas, and it's a rare book that can bomb in any one of the three and be so fantastic in the other two as to make up for it. Naturally, we all want stories with great plots, characters, and writing. But I think very few authors can rate five stars consistently in every area, and most authors have definite strengths and weaknesses. My theory is that you will most enjoy stories that are strongest in the area most important to you.

For example, I would rate myself as a Plot > Characters > Style reader. I want a complex but believable story with interesting (but believable!) plot twists, above all. Only slightly secondary to that, I want characters who are interesting and likeable (or dislikeable in an interesting way). I can overlook flat characterization if the story really grabs me. I can forgive clumsy writing if I like the story and the characters. But the most dazzling, perfectly-crafted prose in the world won't induce me to keep reading a story that's boring, or make me want to read about characters I don't care about. And even really vivid, engaging characters won't hold my interest if the plot is tedious or doesn't go anywhere.

I believe my preferences above also reflect my relative strengths as a writer. What I really obsess over is my story. It's what causes me the most anxiety and "writer's block," when I discover a plot hole that I'm not sure how to get around, or when I am not satisfied with how I've resolved something because it seems implausible or weak to me. I love my characters and I think I write them well, and their characterization is quite important to me, but I don't spend nearly as much time worrying about whether or not Alexandra is "in character." I tend to assume that if her behavior makes sense given the situation, and I have her react believably (i.e., character intersecting with plot), then she's in character.

As for my writing style: that's where I probably devote the least effort. Which is not to say that I don't care about style and don't work continuously on polishing my words; I do. But I just don't spend a lot of time thinking about my own personal style or trying to establish my "voice," and I don't study other writers for their choice of words, and while I'll notice if I like a writer's style (or don't), it's not what sticks in my mind. I think my writing is serviceable, but it's mostly just there to carry the story and the characters.

I also think this is where many writers fall down: they've been taught that they need to write scintillating, dazzling words with many, many adjectives and metaphors, and so they go off on these long, descriptive paragraphs about crisp, cerulean skies shimmering overhead like an eternal expanse of endless blue or Broody McHawtness's dark, glittering orbs of deep amethyst spearing you with twin forks of electrically-charged intensity... Just give me plain prose that tells a story, dammit!

A Geeky Digression

Having thus developed my theory, I will now apply the concept of a weighted average, reflecting my personal preferences. If I were to give each author and/or book an individual rating from now on in each of the three above categories, I would weight those ratings by the relative importance I place on each aspect.

My unscientific estimation of how much relative weight I give each in judging a book:

Plot: 0.45
Characters: .35
Style: .20

Rating Authors

So, let's apply my theory to a few sample authors. These ratings are my opinion at this time. This is based on my recollection of the last time I read their books (which was years ago, in some cases), and depending on my mood, I might easily change my rating in an individual category by one star up or down. So, it's not as if these are the result of some deep, extensive survey; they're just an approximation of how I feel about each author.

J.K. Rowling:

Story: 4 stars. It's not all that original, but she somehow makes a wizarding world that's obviously silly on the face of it something we want to believe in. I really wanted to know what happens next. The story was epic and compelling. She loses 1 star for a few plot holes, and all the plot devices she pulled out of her ass in DH.

Characters: 4 stars. I cared about most of them, found most of them interesting. Some should have been developed more, and she told us things about some of them that should have been demonstrated by their behavior in the text.

Style: 3 stars. Nothing special, and there are some howlers here and there in the books, but it's not so bad that it distracts me from the story.

Weighted Average: 3.8

Neal Stephenson

Story: 5 stars. He has fantastic ideas, and the stories he writes are really, really interesting.

Characters: 3 stars. Some of them are interesting, but most are just kind of there. I can get a feel for most of them, but none of his characters really stuck out for me as memorable.

Style: 4 stars. He writes really good, interesting prose. He's descriptive and clever. He's also wordy at times.

Weighted Average: 4.1

Philip Pullman

Story: 4 stars. Great concepts, good worldbuilding. I took away one star for clunky, ham-handed resolutions.

Characters: 5 stars. I loved his characters. Even the villains turned out to be more multi-dimensional than they first appear.

Style: 4 stars. Good style, easy to read but interesting. Not dazzling

Weighted Average: 4.35

Robert Heinlein

Story: 4 stars. All of his stories are interesting, though some go off on weird tangents. (I'm mostly rating his early- to mid-career; his later stories are almost incomprehensible.)

Characters: 4 stars. I like most of his characters, though they sometimes act a bit unbelievably, and "Heinleinesque" characters is not always a complement. Nonetheless, I don't recall reading any Heinlein novel where the main character bored me.

Style: 5 stars. He was a master of his craft. He didn't write beautiful prose, but he put adjectives exactly where they needed to be, and he had the sort of style where you didn't even notice how he wrote the story because the story just flowed.

Weighted Average: 4.2

David Brin

Story: 5 stars. Epic, galaxy-spanning empires with interesting aliens and technology, but he still makes individual characters and actions important.

Characters: 5 stars. The characters are all interesting and believable, even the completely inhuman ones.

Style: 4 stars. I can't say that I remember his style as being exceptional (it's been a while since I've read his books), but I know he was able to vividly describe alien races and worlds and space battles and the like in a way that painted a very clear picture.

Weighted Average: 4.8

Tony Hillerman

Story: 4 stars. Decent whodunuts, with a Southwest/Navajo twist, but they got repetitive over time. Still, in each book I was drawn in and wanted to see how it turned out.

Characters: 4 stars. All the characters become like familiar friends, and while some of them take a while to warm up to, over time you really get to know all of his recurring characters.

Style: 5 stars. It's Hillerman's description of the Southwest and Navajo customs that really paint the picture; he writes in a sparse style typical of most mystery writers, but there is rarely anything missing or any detail that is excessive.

Weighted Average: 4.2

What do you think?

Obviously, this was a lot of tl;dr about my own self-indulgent thoughts about writing. But I'm the sort of person who likes metrics, so I may continue using this sort of rubric when reviewing books. (I'm not sure how well it would apply to movies.) Do you think it makes sense?

Okay, so I lied; if you rate my three elements in order, there are actually six kinds of readers, given every possible permutation. Rather than asking you to think about permutations, I'll ask the question in a simpler way: which of the three categories is most and least important to you when reading? (Note: "least" important does not mean you don't care about it at all and don't want to see it done well. It just means that's the area in which you're more willing to forgive deficiencies if the story is strong elsewhere.)

Read the stuff inside the cut for an explanation; yes, you must choose one. Pretend I'm holding a gun to your head. :P

Poll #1543927 What type of reader are you?

Which of these three is MOST important to you in a story?


Which of these three is LEAST important to you in a story?

Tags: polls, reviews, writing

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