What Speaks To You?

In the last post, I listed eleven questions. Interestingly, most of the responses I got said the questions were too hard. Also interestingly, those responses came in to my email rather than here so I think it was difficult to admit that, too. So I decided to prime the pump of opening dialog by answering them myself. Not all at once, of course, as some are hard.

What makes a book speak to you – the characters, the setting, the plot?

For me, it’s always the setting that pulls me in. The characters and the plot keep me in the story world once there, but it’s the setting that hooks me.

I want to immerse myself in a place that resonates, even if it’s somewhere I’ve never been. Ellie Griffith’s book, The Crossing Places comes immediately to mind, with the salt marsh, the space between land and sea. I also think of the late, great, Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody series that took me, over the course of many years, to Egypt.

No matter what the location is, the emotional responses are similar. Especially if the setting is an integral part of the story so it becomes a character in its own right. I want to feel that sand in my clothes, the damp salt air on my skin, the freezing, biting snow (Winterdance, by Gary Paulsen). When the setting is so well written that I can see, smell, feel it, so well written that it no longer becomes just a background description but alive and vital to the story, then I won’t want to leave. I’ll want to read everything that author writes from then on. It’s a dream world that becomes tangible on the page.

I also love it when the author uses setting as a character, as I mentioned. Whether that land is an antagonist, throwing up conflict for the protagonist, or is a supporting character, or even comic relief. Writing like that brings the world even more to life, even if it’s a futuristic place on another planet.

For me, the land is the main character, and I’ll wander there, following the other characters as they move through that story world. I’ll even reach first for a book with a cover that shows the setting.

So what makes you reach for a book? What pulls you in, speaks to you, makes you stay within the pages all the way to the end?

6 thoughts on “What Speaks To You?

  1. I know what you mean. My boyfriend is a filmmaker and we often refer to this as “creating a world.” If you fail to do this whether in a movie or a book, it is often hard to fully immerse yourself in the story.

    • I hadn’t thought of this in relationship to being a filmmaker but you’re right. The movies that I like have very strong settings.

  2. I’m the exact opposite of Lisa 1, (Stowe). I am all about the characters first, plot second. In fact too much detail about setting (I’m thinking about Steinbeck’s East of Eden here, a book I loved – once I struggled past pages of scene setting) will having me fighting bouts of narcolepsy. That’s why Dean Koontz and Stephen King always draw me in: in just a few paragraphs, their characters are real to me – and I’m in!

    • You bring up a good point that setting can be too much. I think when that happens though, it’s because setting is nothing more than a long descriptive passage rather than setting be an active character in the story. I, too, get bored and skip long narrative description. Those passages worked many years ago when people stayed close to home. But these days with travel and the internet, readers are more knowledgeable of the world and don’t need a descriptive list to see where the story takes place. So setting as description works in tiny bits. But setting, to me, is at its strongest when it’s an active part of the story. Good point Lisa and nice to see you here.

  3. I think that for me, setting has a lot to do with what I read. I tend to read a lot of stuff that is set in the U.S. West. Not necessarily westerns that are set in the Old West, but books by Cormac Maccarthy and Edward Abbey. Dialog is very important, but a lot of times you don’t know much about that until you are actively reading the book. Hemingway has long been a favorite, as is Scott Fitzgerald. Lots of Stephen King’s books are good no matter where they are set. I will also confess to getting pulled in by good cover art (I know, I know, not the best reason to buy a book).
    Good post.

    • Ah, Cormac McCarthy, what a great author. Stephen King’s books are the only ones where I flip to the end to see which characters are still alive so I know which ones are safe to get attached to. And his settings are always characters in their own rights, too. And if you’re confessing, I will, too. I have also picked up one or two books based on cover art…

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