What Makes A Story Well-Written?

Over on Twitter someone mentioned that they were starting to “read” (audio version), Nora Robert’s Year One and that reminded me that I’ve been trying to decipher for myself what makes a book well-written.

I normally try not to call out specific books, but that one represents for me exactly the conundrum that this question brings up.

My mother is a huge Nora Roberts fan. She’s currently re-reading all thirty-plus JD Robb books and routinely rereads her Nora Roberts romances. So she loves this woman and her writing in whatever form it takes.

But she was disappointed in Year One.

And I think the reasons why highlight something that I’ve been trying to sort through for myself as a writer.

I think there are two types of good writing. There’s writing that pulls you from page to page through a story. It’s something in that particular writer’s word choice and sentence structure and description and dialogue that keeps you reading. For my mother, Year One had that. She finished the book in two days even though she didn’t really like it.

I did, too.

There’s something about how Nora Roberts writes a story that is easy and enjoyable. Whatever this combination is (and I think it’s unique for each writer that has this skill), it makes reading a pleasurable experience.

But that kind of good writing isn’t guaranteed to make a book an enjoyable read that you want to recommend to others or read again. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have that satisfied feeling that the best books give.

SPOILER ALERT:In this case, part of the issue was that this book isn’t a romance but it also doesn’t do well as what it is. There’s a couple at the beginning of the book and by the end of the book one of those two is dead and the other person is with someone new. And the story is not about moving from that first relationship to a better one. So not a romance. Also, it starts as multiple viewpoint so you’re led to care about numerous people, but then the book skips over a significant part of their personal journeys and ends with us not knowing what happened to all but one character. And not in a cliff-hanger way. In a “the last 100 pages are about one person only and who cares what happened to all those others when they were all attacked” way.

So I keep asking myself what it was this book was missing. Because I read it. Cover to cover in two days. I didn’t set it aside.

It was well-written, but I think perhaps not well-told.

And I think that a truly great story is both. It has writing that engages the reader but it also has believable characters and good conflict and it keeps all the story lines gathered together and resolves all of them in a satisfying manner. There aren’t incongruent scenes. (A problem I had with book 2 by a different author recently.) And you see the key parts on the page. (I happened to think the last Brad Thor book was one of the better ones he’d written recently until the last twenty pages or so when it skipped ahead a couple weeks and summarized how things ended. Like, what? That takes all the satisfaction away, thanks.)

I don’t think there’s one formula here. I can think of a dozen authors I think write well and can carry any story and they’re all different in how they do that. And I can think of another handful who don’t write so well but tell a story so riveting that you just have to keep going.

As a reader my personal dread is the person who writes well but tells horrible stories because I’ll keep reading even as I hate them for making me do so. It’s terrible to want to throw a book away but be drawn forward by the writing. I’d far rather read a good story with messy writing than an awful story with good writing.

Anyway. It’s something I think about and try to learn from although I clearly haven’t puzzled it all out just yet.