Monday, October 3, 2016

What makes a good book?

This is not only an art blog, but also a blog about writing! In 2014-2015, I studied writing full-time for a year at the Writing Academy in Stockholm, Sweden (distance). There I learned to write fiction, drama (theater and film), and poetry, for both adults and children.

Since then, I have thought about what to me makes a good novel. This, of course, varies from person to person and also between genres, but books I enjoy often share a few common denominators. The books mentioned are all mysteries (and one thriller), but I think the traits can be applied to other types of fiction as well.

1. A competent character

Competent characters know their profession. If amateurs, they quickly go through the necessary steps to gain the competence needed and they usually have quite a bit of wherewithal to begin with. A few examples of competent characters:

  • Kate and Charles, Victorian-Edwardian era writer and peer/amateur scientist respectively, apply their combined wits to mystery solving in this series by Robin Paige (Bill and Susan Albert).
  • Lady Frances Ffolkes, the Vassar-educated, Edwardian-era suffragette in R.J. Koreto's series, applies her college training to mystery solving and keeps a clear head together with her lady's maid and assistant Miss June Mallow.
  • Vish Puri, New Delhi-based private investigator in the mystery series by Tarquin Hall, knows his way around corruption and bureaucracy in India. As a boon, his assistants have the most colorful names, Facecream, Flush, and Handbrake, to mention a few.
  • Inspector Chopra, another private investigator in India, this time in Mumbai, in the mystery series by Vaseem Khan, has a past as an inspector in the police department and the most unusual companion, see below.
  • Jonathan Quinn in Brett Battles' thriller series about "the Cleaner" removes bodies and traces after assassinations.

2. An original character

It is not always easy to find a competent character, let alone a competent character that displays originality. Here is a shortlist:

  • Mrs. Pollifax. No list would be complete without Mrs. Pollifax, the retiree-cum-spy heroine in the mystery series by Dorothy Gilman. Mrs. Pollifax has a penchant for hats with large flower arrangements and, in the first book, she decides to act on her childhood dream and travels to the CIA to inquire if they might need any spies. Mrs. P. does indeed have the wherewithal needed for the task, including unorthodox problem-solving abilities and a soon to be had brown belt in karate.
  • Kate Ardleigh Sheridan in the above-mentioned Kate and Charles series is a writer who not only solves mysteries, but also starts a school to help educate young women, buys a car, learns to bicycle - wearing pants no less, all unusual things to do for a woman in turn-of-the-century England.
  • While Inspector Chopra, also mentioned above, may not be too original of a character, his companion certainly is. Baby elephant Ganesha is gifted to him around the same time as he retires from the police force. Ganesha turns out to be a big help in solving mysteries and together they form the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency.

3. An interesting, balanced and well-paced storyline

There is a delicate balance between descriptions and forward-motion, dialogue and text paragraphs, character deepening and action. This balance has changed over time.

When I compared the dramaturgical arcs of a few different books, I found that the more traditional mystery book slowly built the suspense until the final climax or action scene at the end. The corresponding arc looks like a ski slope with its top at the final chapter and a steep slope down toward the end and resolution.

In recent books, there is a trend toward multiple action scenes, the arc a series of spikes, sometimes even one per chapter. A book with less action, in contrast, may have a dramaturgical arc more like a horizontal line with gentle waves reflecting the storyline.

I think the above books do quite well in achieving a well-paced storyline, building up to the final resolution with a few action spikes placed throughout the book.

Översättning. Vilka är beståndsdelarna i en bra bok? 

Detta är inte bara en konstblogg utan även en skrivarblogg! Läsåret 2014-15 så gick jag Skrivarlinjen distans vid Skrivarakademin i Stockholm, en heltidsutbildning i skrivande på ett år. Jag lärde mig bland annat att skriva prosa, drama (teater och film) samt lyrik. 

Sedan dess så har jag funderat på vad som utgör en bra bok. Detta varierar naturligtvis från person till person och även mellan genrer, men de böcker jag fastnar för har ofta följande gemensamma nämnare:
  1. En kompetent huvudperson
  2. En originell huvudperson
  3. En intressant och välbalanserad historia
För exempel, se ovanstående titlar på engelska.  

No comments: