Discussion: What’s The Most Important Part of a Book?

I’m taking a class this semester on reader’s advisory, which is exactly what it sounds like: chatting with a library patron about what they’re looking for, what books they’ve liked and disliked, and then offering them some suggestions based on what’s available in the library’s collection.

According to reader’s advisory expert Nancy Pearl (the only librarian to have an action figure made in her image) there are four storytelling “styles” in every book: plot, character, language, and setting. Pearl theorizes that while readers will hem and haw and say that they can’t possibly choose just one, their reading choices show that individuals tend to show a strong preference for one of these “styles” over the others.

So now I’m wondering, what’s the most important part of a book for you? Regardless of genre, regardless of topic. Do you crave a fast-paced read above all others? Are well-crafted characters an absolute must for you? Do you find yourself reaching for books with writing styles described as “lyrical” or “poetic”? Are you someone who only enjoys books that take place in fantastical, atmospheric settings?

Jess knows what I'm sayin'
Jess knows what I’m sayin’

I am, of course, one of the readers who’d rather not pick just one style. But if I examine my leisure reading very closely, one style emerges the clear victor: character. It doesn’t matter what the genre or subject is, if the characters are well written and I feel connected to them, I will love the book.

When I take stock of my favourite reads over the last few years, it isn’t a particular kind of plot pacing that I prefer, nor is it a specific style of writing or a type of setting that I prefer. Books like Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch don’t have much in common on the surface. But what made me rate them all very highly – and more importantly, what kept me thinking about them long after I’d finished reading – was the characters.

Whether I related to them or experienced something new through their eyes, the protagonists and secondary characters in these novels all taught me something and made me really feel for them. For me, those are the two major requirements for a great book – and I seem to have the most success finding them when I read books with compelling characters or character-driven stories.

I’m not convinced of the usefulness of identifying a preference for one storytelling “style” over another (it feels a bit essentialist and arbitrary, what do you think?), but it’s certainly an interesting exercise in reflection. Plus I do enjoy being forced to make an impossible choice, so long as it has very low stakes!

Which is your preferred “storytelling style”: plot, character, language, or setting? Let me know in the comments!