I’ve recently been hooked on Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer. It’s one of the books that’s quickly heading towards the small but elite club of books that I’ve read again and again and again. It would join such books as Neuromancer by William Gibson, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and World War Z by Max Brooks. I’ve read these books enough so that I can probably tell you what happens on any given page. These books capture me, they enthrall me. And this makes me wonder what it is that these very different stories share that makes me come back to them. The reason this is of interest is that if one can understand what attracts him or her to a book, then it should be possible to learn how to replicate that and write the kind of story that will make readers come back for more. Admittedly, this is a clear case of, “your mileage may vary,” in terms of the specifics. While these books may be page turning for me, they may not for you, but if you are someone who loves stories, then you probably have a few that you reread as well. This small list hopefully taps into something that is common to most books people find themselves returning to.
1. Clear Character Motivations
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” said Leonardo da Vinci. This is a powerful observation and one that finds confirmation in all the stories that I revisit. Love, pain, survival, and need. Though the stories themselves may take strange turns, though the plot may twist around to reveal something unexpected, we know what the characters of these stories want and it’s what many of us, by dint of being human, want. We all know what it’s like to want something so badly it felt like our nerves were on fire. So when we take that ride with Case in Neuromancer we can identify with him. When we read about Tyler Durden giving the middle finger to a cardboard society, we can feel that rage or disenfranchisement in ourselves. These characters reflect things we may feel and want things we may want. But the important thing is that we are clear on what that, “want,” is. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips for writing (you can find the rest here if you’re interested) is that, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” The clearer the character’s motivation, the better we can know who the character is and why we should care about him/her. I’m not saying that characters should be simple. Look at the film, Collateral in which Jamie Foxx’s character wants to make enough money to start his own limo company. Spoilers on! However, it is revealed later that the reason he’s been at his job so long is that he’s too afraid to make a move and go after what he wants. A conflicting motivation is fear or the avoidance of failure. Spoilers off. So as you can see, a character can have several motivations or motivations that change over time but it absolutely critical that the reader knows what these motivations are. Without a reason to act the character is left without a reason to even exist. So, the better you can convey a character’s motivations, the more the reader will be swept into the story.
A story is all about conflict. Conflict within the character or between a character and her surroundings or between different characters. In any case, good conflict and the resulting tension will snag readers as sure as any fishhook. Tension can come in many forms depending on the conflict. Is it the tension between doing what one should or doing what one wants to do? Is it the tension between failing or succeeding, loving or hating, learning or ignorance? The nature of your story will inform what the tension is between. Neuromancer is a case where the tension is between knowing and not knowing. Case doesn’t know what Armitage is planning and as he learns more about the plan, so do we. In a way, it’s a bit of a noir mystery in which there’s no killer to discover, just a very intricate plan. You could also look at it as a form of heist plot but updated with cyberpunk plot devices in which case the tension is between success and failure. The tension drives the story and introduces complications. We the readers need to know how things turn out. We are drawn like moths to a blow torch towards the big revelation. The thing that all these books do is use tension effectively. The trick is denying the audience, teasing them with the prospect that all will not be well or all will not be revealed. Part of the key to keeping people in suspense is not telling the whole story, not giving all the facts. Less is more in this case. Force the reader to guess, to wonder, to piece the clues together for herself. I’ve found that repeated readings do not actually diminish the effect. It’s akin to the suspension of disbelief where the reader almost forgets that s/he has prior knowledge, maybe not completely, but enough to enjoy the effects of the tension. So develop tension early and keep it burning. Don’t exhaust the reader with edge of her seat thrills on every page or else you will burn your reader out or just lose her interest (I still remember one book I picked up that I dropped after fifty pages because of this very thing.). Just keep a steady, low level tension with occasional burst of high energy. If you do this while keeping the reader in suspense, keeping him/her off balance by divulging only what is necessary, it will create a story that peels back in layers, each one burying the reader more deeply.
Good books make you feel. They can force us to look into the darkest, most fetid corners of our minds or show us what we could rise to become. Whatever the book goes for, it must try to evoke emotions of some kind, whether it be fear, longing, despair, awe, or any other emotion. If the story is honest, it will touch on some part of the human condition and make a connection with the reader. In World War Z the feeling of overwhelming, existential hopelessness crushes the reader, smothering the senses with one anecdote of horror and human vulnerability after another. In Veniss Underground there is a mix of interrelated feelings. Desperation, separation, and longing come to mind. We, as human beings, are emotional animals. We feel and we fear and we love and hate. Stories distill the essence of human experience and part of that experience is emotion. This is part of why we read: we want to feel something. And if you can provide the reader with something that resonates, you greatly increase the chances that s/he will return to your book. The best way I can think of to convey emotion is just by being honest. Be honest with yourself and your readers and they will know it. Try to hold back, try to avoid anything or gloss over anything, and the readers will know. Which is why this may be one of the most difficult things to master and why I intend to dedicate a post to just this one thing. However, this is nothing compared to the next and final thing that will make your books something readers will turn to till the pages are crumbling.
4. The Undefinable
There’s something about a book. You just know it. You feel it in your gut when you find that right book. It scratches that particular itch in a way that other books just can’t. This is intensely personal and what one book does for one person, it will not do for another. Again, all you can do here is be genuine because if you write what you need to, if you say everything that is inside and nothing false, there will be someone out there that it will mean something to. Your writing will reach that person in a way that is unique and that no other book can. Something about what you said, or how you said it, will leap off the page and that reader will know she found what she’s looking for. So be honest and your work will reach someone.
So, these are the four things I think make for a re-readable book. What are your thoughts? What books have you read again and again?