What makes a compelling read?

Posted: April 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

In the past few years, several of the books I’ve enjoyed the most have been ones that I’ve got through really quickly. Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates In An Adventure With Communists (more on that later in the week). Even Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay, which I’m reading at the moment, is going by quickly for five hundred pages of slowly unravelling events.

Some stories go by in a blur

Some stories go by in a blur

All these books are excellent reads in their own ways, and I saw the speed at which I got through them as a sign of their quality. But then I read this blog post by Olivia Berrier and I thought again.

The Dan Brown factor

Some time ago I read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. And then, for reasons that escape me now, I read the sequel, Angels And Demons.

I’m sure that Dan Brown is good at something writing-wise, because those books have sold in their millions. But me, I really didn’t like them. The writing was dull and repetitive. Rather than sucking me in, as I’d expect from a popular best-seller, words and phrasing often knocked me out of my immersion in the story. Sure, the plot kept moving, but it never struck me as particularly clever or original. It just sort of happened. Worst of all, the whole work seemed to take itself very seriously, despite it’s daftness.

Yet I kept reading. I committed precious hours to those books, precious corners of my brain to memorising their flaws.

Why oh why had I kept reading? And how did I get through them so damn fast?

Speed and/or substance

I’m not saying that a well written story doesn’t help make a book compelling, or lead to you getting through it faster. But as Olivia points out in her post, speed of reading and quality of book are clearly not the same thing. You can really enjoy a book that takes forever to read. You can get through a trite, tedious thriller in hours.

It’s not just be about the books themselves. After all, different things are compelling to different readers. I have a friend who loves James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I never got more than halfway through that dense, rambling tome.

Even as individuals we aren’t constant. I found Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan slow going at first, but a change of mood got me engaged and fascinated. That fascination has carried over to my reading of Sailing to Sarantium, which I’m now tearing through in fifty and hundred page chunks.

So what makes a book a page-turner? What makes it compelling or a quick read? What connects The Da Vinci Code and The Hunger Games?

What do you think?


Picture by Mo Riza via Flickr creative commons

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    For me, having an interest in the characters plus the style of writing makes a page turner. You need to make discoveries every few pages which in turn raise questions for which you want to find answers. Language also helps. Easy, flowing prose that facilitates rather than hinders is important.
    On an aside, I loved the Lions of Al-Rassan from beginning to end. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend A Song for Arbonne (which is set in the same ‘universe”) and Tigana (which is a standalone novel), although I will always have a soft spot for Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, which was his first trilogy and one to which I keep coming back.

    • That point about discovery’s an interesting one. Comics writer Peter David recommends giving the readers something to pique their curiosity at the end of each pair of pages in a comics script, to keep them turning. That’s easier for a comics writer to control, and he doesn’t mean going over the top with constant cliffhangers – it can be as simple as an unanswered question, a door opening or an interesting new visual, but whatever the details it fits with what you’re describing.

      I tend to agree with you on easy prose as well. For all the problems I had with Dan Brown’s prose, it didn’t drag.

      I’m only on my second Kay novel with Sarantium, but Laura and I received a pile of them for Christmas. We’ve definitely got Tigana and the Fionavar Tapestry, so I’ll read those later in the year. Never having heard of him before six months ago, I’m already a huge fan of his work.

      • Dylan Hearn says:

        He’s great. I ‘discovered’ him 20 years ago and I’ve only read one book of his I thought was just ok (Ysabel), the rest have been great. He has a lovely poetic style without stumbling into pretentiousness.

  2. glenatron says:

    I usually find that if a book drags enough for long enough, I’ll end up giving up. Unless it’s short enough that I reach the end by default.

    Conversely if it’s really fast going I barely notice anything of it. I think I read the Da Vinci Code in a single bath, although I may have needed to top up with a bit of hot water and it may have ended up quite cold. Basically if the Da Vinci code was a good but slow book, it would be Foucaults Pendulum.

    Also the Sarantine Mosaic are my favourite GGK books. Just astounding.

    • Foucault’s Pendulum is what I recommend to people who come out of the Da Vinci Code going ‘is that it?’ Actually does what the Code claims to in its marketing – smart and fascinating. I think his amazing writing there is what made The Prague Cemetery so disappointing by comparison – I could see what he was trying to do, but he didn’t make me care.

      And while I’m only on my second GGK book, Sarantine Mosaic is definitely my favourite so far. Lions was great, but this is astounding. It feels like I’m being pulled ever further into the characters’ heads with every page, and the depiction of the world is just phenomenal.

  3. For me a compelling read requires two things: character(s) that I can develop an attachment to; because if I don’t care about any of the characters in a story, I invariably don’t care about the situations the author puts them into. Secondly, the narrative needs to have momentum, so that I can’t bring myself to put the book down, due to an overriding need to know what happens next. I really dislike books which are needlessly ponderous, and dwell on things that aren’t essential to the plot.

    • That sense of momentum is one area where Guy Gavriel Kay’s books surprise me. They never feel slow as I’m reading them, yet when I step back I realise how little has happened in fifty or a hundred pages. If his prose and characters weren’t so great I’d have got annoyed.

  4. Eleanor Wood says:

    Yep. Characters I’m invested in is my number one priority for any book. If I don’t care about the characters, no amount of fast pacing and beautiful writing will help me enjoy the read. Plot is obviously crucial, but you can’t really have engaging characters without plot and the conflict that’s central to it. I can only invest in characters who have an investment in the story themselves, and that only comes about through conflict, which drives plot. So theoretically, you can’t really achieve one without the other.

    Consistency is key too, mind you. Few things annoy me more than characters who suddenly behave in thoroughly uncharacteristic ways seemingly for the purpose of taking the story in a certain direction. Once you get a handle on a character, having them abruptly do something that contradicts their established personality is a sure-fire way for the story to lose its credibility. I read a book like this recently and just couldn’t get back into it after a massive discrepancy in character.

    • Funnily enough, I just read a book that broke the rule about needing compelling characters yet just about got away with it. Normally not caring enough about the characters kills the reading experience for me too, but this just about got away with it by keeping the action coming. Will come back to that in a future post…

      • Eleanor Wood says:

        Interesting… I look forward to your further thoughts on that. I guess if there are enough intriguing elements I can get on okay with a book, but it’s unlikely to become a favourite without real character investment.

        • That pretty much matches my experience with the book in question – I got on OK with it, even enjoyed it, but without truly engaging characters I’d never bother reading it again.

  5. Hm… I find that last question really intriguing. What *does* connect the Hunger Games with the Da Vinci Code?? And maybe that’s a better way to approach the problem: by examining all of the “fast reads” together.

    Also, I have to wonder at one point society made the decision that fast=better. As long as I can remember, “It’s a page-turner! I couldn’t put it down!” Has been listed under praises for the book. And maybe that’s where our willingness to pursue books that were really for us, simply because we read them quickly. But where did that start?

    • You’ve raised another interesting question there, and one I hadn’t even considered. The desire for constant, relentless immersion in a story isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t the only good option, and it’s clearly one we’ve started taking as read. I wonder if that blinds us to the difference between a book that’s a page-turner because it’s excellent and one that’s a page-turner because it’s easy?

      I think part of what connects the Hunger Games and the Da Vinci Code is that the flow of the reading experiences is seldom interrupted. But that experience is very different – part of the flow of The Hunger Games is emotional immersion in the character’s struggles, and I didn’t feel that with the Code.

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