Monday, August 12, 2013

What Makes a Five-Star Book?

This week I take a break from reviews. I didn’t quit reading, mind you—yeah, like that would ever happen. But today I thought I’d take the time to talk about something else-- as a reviewer, a reader, and a writer. 

You need to read your genre widely if you want to be a writer. If you’re reading this post, you probably know that already. But as I spend more and more time writing, I realize I can no longer just relax and chill with a beach read. The second I open a book, my writer brain wakes up, stretches and starts busily taking notes.

So I asked myself: what exactly makes a book a five-star book? And how can I replicate it in my own stuff?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. A complex plot!

What do I mean by complex? Well, the writing-guide definition of “a story with a complex plot” is anything but: it’s a story with more than one plot thread. Hero has to save the world from villain while also coming to terms with his inner demons and getting the girl. Simple enough.  My definition needs something more: high stakes, and equally high costs. Nothing must come easily. There must be sacrifices. There must be twists and unexpected hurdles.

Again I’ll quote the nameless genius who said, Everything that can go wrong, must go wrong. A story with a simplistic or linear plot is just a description of stuff happening, and about as exciting to read as the IKEA catalogue.

2. Interesting characters!

Notice, I didn’t say likeable or even relatable. I know a lot of readers must have a likeable character at all cost, and that’s a matter of personal taste—but I’m definitely not one of them! To use a classic example, Anne Rice’s vampires are neither likable nor relatable, but you can’t deny that they’re interesting!
If a book has interesting characters I’ll probably finish it in spite of pretty much anything. (Hey, I finished that damn series, didn’t I?)

So what makes a character interesting? I have to wonder how they tick, why they do what they do, what exactly happened to them that made them the way they are.  This could be why I have a soft spot of screwed up, crazy, and generally troubled protagonists.

3. A great voice!

This one is the hardest to define. So much YA is written in first person, and when it’s done well it’s awesome. You feel like you’re right there with the character, you know their fears, their desires, you see to the bottom of their soul. But when not done well, it can feel flat and formulaic. It sounds like the author had a checklist above their desk: okay, insecurity about appearance, check, crush on hot guy, check, hatred of female rival because she puts out, check… what, teens do this, don’t they? Thankfully, it’s becoming less and less common as YA evolves to new, fantastic levels, but I’ve seen it. I’m sure you have too.

On that note: first person is great, but if a story requires more than one viewpoint character, it might be a better idea to tell it in third. Likewise, action sequences told blow-by-blow in the first person can sound clunky and unnatural. The ideal first person narrator balances all this with grace and panache.

So… there are my top three requirements for a five-star book. The rest can be anything, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, contemporary—if these three are there, I’ll read it!

What are yours? What do you think makes a five-star book? And what doesn’t?


  1. I agree with everything you've said here.

    Obviously it's great if a novel has good descriptions and dialogue and such, but even if a book is not strong on the details, I can still love it if it has an intriguing plot, fascinating characters and a unique voice.

    Nice post ;-)