As I sat next to a stack of library books (and frantically wondered what possessed me to bring so many home at once) I remembered a question that a group of fellow writers brought up. As a reader, what do you look for in stories?

The question made me stop and think for a bit. I knew I had a loosely defined mental set of criteria, but I was surprised at how quickly the list came together. (Have you had the opportunity to write down your own list? I have a hunch it’s wildly different from reader to reader.) Here’s mine –

  • A relatively seamless and easy entry into the first few pages of the story.
  • Hints of interesting things to come. They can be an event, the character’s “voice” (I have a soft spot for snarky first-persons), or even general circumstances. The caveat to this is that any first-page hints have to be paid off or elaborated upon within the first three chapters. Any longer than that and I no longer trust that the story will give me the answers I want.
  • A main character who is assertive and takes action. If they have a bit of flair, so much the better.
  • High moral codes. Or even just a mentality that answers to something higher than the main character’s desires. For instance, there’s a narrow line between petty revenge and “legit” revenge. I like legit much better than petty.
  • Shiny parts! I have to have my shiny bits of story where magic is let loose, characters have dash and style, and my imagination goes “oooooooohhh.”
  • Light and lyrical narrative ranks very high with me. It’s like reading a flickering flame or a happy little brook, as opposed to the dry intellectual tone, or the sort that sits down and gives you deliberate sentence after deliberate sentence. I like springboards in narrative.
  • And, me being me, I need a happy ending. Or at least an ending where the vast majority of wrongs are righted and the evil system has been crushed.

Reading back over this list, my pile of favorite books makes way more sense than before. What are some of your criteria? Are you a happy ending person, or do you find “sad” to be satisfying in some ways?