I came home yesterday and found my daughters reading on the couch (which is every dad’s dream). Hannah was reading a graphic novel about a girl and a unicorn. Abigail had a copy of the first Nancy Drew book.
“How is it?” I asked. Normally, she says something like “It’s pretty good,” or “I like it.” This time, though, was different. She looked up at me, with a great big grin, and said, “It’s gripping!”
(When talking to her mother earlier that day, she was more emphatic, saying, “I don’t just like it—it’s gripping!”)
This is what every dad wants to hear, isn’t it? At least, if we’re readers. I want my girls to find books they enjoy. To find books that are fun and exciting. Books that grip them.
And I want that for me, too. I want to read books that stir my soul. Books that make me think and laugh and even want to throw them across the room at times.
But, these aren’t always easy books to find. Part of the reasons is the subjective nature of books. We all have unique tastes, preferences and so on. If I think a book is gripping, or the person offering an endorsement does, it doesn’t mean you will.
Even so, is there anything objective we can look for—particularly in a fiction book or biography?
There are at least a couple of elements, although you’ll notice that there’s one I won’t talk about—plot. That’s because sometimes a book can have a rudimentary plot but still be compelling because of everything else surrounding it.
Gripping books have colorful characters
By this, I mean the characters need to have something about them that makes you want to learn more about them. When a character is a mere cypher for a writer’s ideology,1 or even a cliché, it’s hard to stay interested. Some of my favorites are the characters in High Fidelity, for example. Yes they were a bunch of nitwits and did all their shopping at the jerk store, but they were every dude I’ve worked at a record shop.
That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about gripping characters, though. They’re recognizable, they’re interesting enough to want to read about. When a book doesn’t have interesting people in it—even if it’s the background players who are the most interesting—it’s hard to stay engaged.
Gripping books have an engaging setting
Maybe a book doesn’t have the best characters, but the world they inhabit is fascinating. Barnabas Piper and I talked about this on Reading Writers a couple weeks back. There are some books where the world is what keeps you hooked—whether it’s how its society functions (as in the case of many more fantastical books) or the way things are described.
Gripping books have great writing
Sometimes it’s just the writing itself. The way the sentences are constructed carries you along. You get most of your enjoyment from reading the words, even more than the story itself. This is what I often find with a writer like Neil Gaiman. He does write interesting characters and creates engaging settings, of course. But what really makes his work stand out is the way he constructs his sentences. They’re just interesting to read.
Y’know, it is all pretty subjective…
So what are some of those books for you, dear reader? What books do you remember reading that have really engaging characters and settings—or are just fantastically written?
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