Monday, June 4, 2012

The Three Things You Need to Make Your Book GREAT

Ever seen the movie "Drive"? I have.

The words of my husband when he saw I'd rented it from the video store: "Since when do you like car movies? You're going to hate that."

He was right that I'm not usually a fan of car movies. Or actions. But I'd heard the name bandied around and when I came across it in the store, I read the back.

I'm not sure what it said, but here's what I read:

Movie stunt-driver by day, criminal-get-away driver at night.

POW. I was hooked.

Now, there's a LOT more to this movie than that little premise. But once we got going, it didn't matter.

See, the premise just had to capture my interest. Had to get me intrigued enough to pay the cash, then stick with the movie for the first twenty minutes or so - by which time I was so entrenched in the story I'd forgotten what I thought the movie was going to be. I was too busy finding out what it actually is.

Turns out, it isn't just a car movie. And the tiny romance (usually a big hook for me) is simple and un-embellished. And there's real violence (which usually turns me off, big time).

But I didn't care. I was hooked - first by the premise, then by the incredible acting, then by the tension of knowing something was going really, really wrong here. I couldn't take my eyes off it. And once things started getting bad they just got worse and worse and worse...

By the end of the movie I'd laughed, screamed, jumped, wanted to be sick, and felt terribly sad. I was drained.

That's what a good story delivers.

And just in case you missed it, there were three things that made my experience complete:

1 - Hook (Premise)

Whether it's movie, book or play, the first contact the audience has with your story is the hook. The premise. Have you found the nugget in your story that makes people want to flip to page one, then page two, then page three - and so on?

2 - Technical Skill

In a movie it's the script and the acting, in a book it's your ability to create a mental image with words and pace them correctly... but whatever skillset you need, hone it. When you move into transition phases of your story, your ability to manipulate words will be the difference between keeping a reader engaged, and letting their brains switch off to thinking about what they should have for dinner.

3 - Catastrophic Tension

Your goal isn't just "Oh, really...?", not just "That isn't good," but "WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY IS GOING TO HAPPEN HERE?!?!"

Put conflict everywhere - beginning, middle and end. Make it hard. Make it hurt. Make it seemingly impossible to fix. Make it keep crashing over the protagonist in waves. Don't let up until the very, very end - at which point both your protagonist and your reader feel wrung out like the rag your mom uses to wipe the counter.

Now, we could argue that any one of those elements has the makings for a good book. And I'd agree. A good book probably doesn't need all three in droves.

But a GREAT book? Well...

Your Turn: What elements do you think are critical to a great reading experience?


  1. Excellent post! The catastrophic tension is something I'm working to increase in my WIP and it's tough! Plugging away though.

  2. Thanks, Leslie. Yes, it's easy to know WHAT you need. Much harder to deliver on it. If you find the secret, let me know :)

  3. Great post, Aimee. You've made me really want to see this movie now! I believe The Big Smoke (my MS) definitely has two and three, and I think it has one as well, but reader feedback has been a little mixed on the hook. Some love the beginning, some say it's too slow. Always hard to know whose advice to take!