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What Makes a Book Great? The 5 Elements of a Good Book

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 10, 2020 • 4 min read

What makes a book good? Is it a great story idea? A memorable protagonist? An inimitable writing style? Great books contain all these elements and more.



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The 5 Elements of a Good Book

When a potential reader is holding your book in their hands, there are a few methods they may use to determine whether it’s worth reading. A casual reader may flip through the front matter of a book (which includes the book title page, the copyright page, and the table of contents) to get a sense of whether the subject matter will be intriguing. Others may scan the body of the book to get a sense of whether the book contains good writing and a compelling story. Whether you’re writing the next great American novel or a children’s book for the first time, here are some elements that every good book should contain:

  1. A strong opening: A great book grabs readers on the first page and doesn’t let go until they’ve reached the end of the book. That’s why a strong opening is one of the most important elements of book writing. For both non-fiction and fiction writers, the opening of a book offers an opportunity to introduce your main character, highlight your unique narrative voice, and convey the stakes of your storyline. A great novel will also use its opening pages to establish (or subvert) the conventions of the book’s genre. For instance, readers expect a thriller to begin with immediate action or a fantasy novel to start with a scene in a new world. Either way, great literature is only as strong as its opening, and the first few pages may be the difference between someone reading the entire book and leaving it on the library shelf.
  2. Compelling characters: Most great works of literary fiction have one thing in common: rich, compelling characters. Good characters draw readers in, giving them someone to love, hate, or identify with. Just like people in real life, these characters are multifaceted and flawed, giving us insight into human nature as they overcome obstacles and moral tests. Character development is often inseparable from plot since readers typically experience the events of the story through a character’s point of view. Without a clear sense of who a character is, what they value, and what they’re afraid of, the reader will be unable to appreciate the significance of plot events, and your story will have less impact. Great writers not only render their protagonists in rich, vivid detail, but their antagonists and ancillary characters are thoroughly developed as well. Popular books like the Harry Potter series are filled with villains that are just as complex and interesting as the good guys.
  3. An absorbing story: When a reader picks up a novel, short story, or other piece of creative writing, they want to be entertained by a good story. From the inciting incident to the rising action to the climax, a great story keeps the reader engaged from the first page onward. Absorbing stories don’t happen by accident: Good writers often spend countless hours outlining and diagramming their plots, so they know the page numbers that certain events happen on before they even begin writing. Determining your story structure in advance can ensure that your plot is sustainable and compelling over the course of an entire novel. Outlining in advance can also help with your plot’s pacing, ensuring that the story neither moves too fast nor too slow.
  4. Sharp dialogue: Good books are filled with sharp, memorable dialogue. Bestsellers contain dialogue that advances the plot, demonstrates your characters’ personalities, and adds texture to the world of your story. The best books will balance scenes that heavily feature dialogue with scenes that describe action through first-person or third-person narration—and if a first draft leans too heavily on either, the author will often try to restore relative equilibrium in future drafts. Great writers know how to make each character’s word choice, syntax, and sentence structure sound completely unique so that the reader feels like no two characters sound completely alike.
  5. Unique style: Writing style is the voice and tone a writer uses to convey a story or express an idea. Every writer has their own writing style based on how they use words, the type of literary devices they prefer, their sentence structure, and their overall approach to the art of writing. Writers spend their entire careers learning how to express themselves in their own way—and in the best cases, the results can be a classic novel with a writing style unlike anything readers have seen before. Whether you’re self-publishing your first book or continuing your bestselling series, incorporating a distinct and singular style will make your writing unique and instantly recognizable.

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