These are 21 things I look for in stories. Not really needs, more qualities I prefer. Since I’m the reader, I figure I have a say in the matter.
If you are currently writing a story, reading a story, or in a story, why don’t you run down this list now, and see which features apply?

Anyhow, you can mark me up as a flippant, not-deep-enough-to-understand-quantum-theorems reader, but I’m fairly certain I make up 99% of the reading population.

So, what are 21 things I want in a story?

1.) Is it written in words I can understand? Stop that science-fiction jargon in the first sentence. It’s turning me off badly.

2.) Is it competitively well-designed? I’m not sifting for words in a cement-block of text.

3.) Is it open to interpretation? I want a story I can think about three days later, when I actually have the time.

4.) Does something happen? Any event, anywhere. It doesn’t have to be phenomenal. A boy is bit by a bug.

5.) Is it signed? By an author? I don’t mind rainbowsunshinebutterfly67’s short story, but I don’t even want to touch “signed… anonymous”. At least own what you write.

6.) Is it descriptive? Pretty, ugly, in-between landscapes… I’d like to know where this book is taking me.

7.) Is it not descriptive? I’m not reading more than three paragraphs of description. I probably wouldn’t read more than two.

8.) Can it be held in my hands? I love books I can touch. Really.

9.) Is it not trying to impress me, but instead takes its time?

10.) Is it actively engaging? There doesn’t need to be a scandal every page… just every other page.

11.) Does it have a cast of less than twenty characters? I don’t want to start keeping charts with character names. And while we are discussing characters-

12.) Are the names easy to pronounce? Don’t twist my tongue. I have something against scary names. Get them away from me.

13.) Are the characters original? I’m sick of Mary Sue. I saw her in everyone I met today. Enough already.

14.) Still- are these characters people I have met? Maybe even, myself? I want badly to identify with your precious characters.

15.) Has it been edited ten times through, but looks effortless? Fire your editor- do it yourself.

16.) Does it have dialogue? Even if the book is about rabbits?

17.) Is it opinionated?

18.) And is it aggressively telling the opinions to me?

19.) Is it teaching me? Will I walk away trying to pronounce the foreign names or will I be contemplating the universe?

20.) Does it respect me? And love its awful readers, for all that we are?

21.) Can I read it again? Every day for the next five years?

There’s my twenty-oners. Can you find a twenty-second want?
Tell me.


  1. Snow White Queen on 16 November 2008, 20:29 said:

    Nice, I agree with basically everything you said, but why would you want to hold the book in your hands?

    And I didn’t understand the whole ‘signed by the author’ thing either, unless there was something I’m missing…

    Good article though! :)

    (Reminds me that my NaNo has a LOOOONG way to go before it’s even readable)

  2. Virgil on 16 November 2008, 20:34 said:

    Fairly well, but I don’t mind large casts. ASoIaF has a huge amount of people, but after a while you can identify with each one.

  3. SubStandardDeviation on 16 November 2008, 20:45 said:

    Hey, if it’s about writing, it’s relevant. Particularly if you pursue the angle of “what do readers want?” instead of “what makes it Great Literature?” Now, onto the points.

    4) Oy. Yes. Even if it’s just “two guys sit around and ponder the meaning of life.”

    5) People honestly write “signed…anonymous”?

    6, 7) I am assuming you mean “book” instead of “story” in this article; different media can vary widely in their use of description, pacing, etc. In a movie you have the whole world (and beyond) to set the scene, in a stage play you are lucky to have a backdrop. That said, in a book I tend to prefer less static description and more “what is going on now”. (Video game example: Eternal Sonata. Game starts with a wideshot of a forest, okay, but then a bland narration TELLS you how beautiful the flowers are, how the brook babbles, etc. instead of letting the viewer see for themselves as the BGM plays. And the graphics are good, if cartoony, and in hi-def too.)

    8) I don’t know why this is, but I can’t read ebooks. Something about the feeling of turning pages. (Or maybe it’s because the ebook in question is Brisingr.)

    11) I don’t mind loads and loads of characters, just don’t dump them all on me at once. And please do make them distinctive enough that I can care which one is talking at the time. This is especially a problem for non-visual media, because the reader can only “see” one person at a time.

    18) You want books to shove the author’s opinion at you? If I wanted to be preached to I’d read a pamphlet. Messages are fine, but stories first, kthx. I want a story I can enjoy even if I never understand or care about the underlying philosophy. (Like BioShock.)

    19) As with the previous point, the best stories make you think about more than what the author’s position on the Issue is.

    22) Does it have an ending, and not just a cheap cutoff point begging for a sequel? Have the characters learned/gained/developed anything from undergoing the events in the story? (One of my biggest complaints with Abarat.)

  4. Hedwig Widrig on 16 November 2008, 20:48 said:

    Lots of these make sense. I agree wholeheartedly that the names must be pronounceable. Nothing drives me crazier than when I can’t figure out how a vowel works or where the stress should be — Alessandro, for example, is fine, but Livak throws me, as does Weile.

  5. Snow White Queen on 16 November 2008, 21:14 said:

    Livak isn’t that bad.

    It’s when they start throwing apostrophes in there…

  6. Virgil on 16 November 2008, 21:37 said:

    BioShock was amazing, from the beginning to the end. I’ve heard a movie is being conceived, and all I could think of was ‘Anthony Hopkins is honor bound to play Andrew Ryan.’

  7. GC on 17 November 2008, 07:05 said:

    Virgil are you Nemo?

    Anyway, on to the text.

    5) Huh? why does that matter?

    8) Yeah, totally agree. I have like over a 2 GB of e-books I just can’t read. :’(

    11) ASOIAF, perhaps the best fantasy of all time (along with JS&MN and the first six HPs, but they’re irrelevant to the point).

  8. Carbon Copy on 17 November 2008, 09:58 said:

    I totally agree that one of the most important things a writer should do is present a story cleanly, using language that the majority of the reading public can understand (I personally cringe if I am instantly bombarded with techno-babble). However, while I realise this is just your opinion (and everybody is entitled to one of those) I’m struggling to understand some of your points.

    2. “Competitively well designed”? What does that mean? Do you mean the text in the book is formatted clearly? Or do you mean the structure of the story is easy to follow?

    4. I’ve never read anything where “nothing” happens. I think it’s impossible to write something where nothing at all happens.

    5. This one’s very confusing. What do you mean? An Internet handle is just as anonymous as signing “anonymous”. And are you saying that if you disguise your identity your work becomes meaningless? Stephen King wrote numerous books under the name Bachman. Are these books without merit? I just don’t understand what you are getting at.

    7. Depends on the paragraphs, surely? I mean, you’re right to a certain extent. Too much description will bog down the action of a story, and in most circumstances it is best to keep description snappy. But there are exceptions.

    9. Every book tries to impress the reader. Every book wants you to be sucked right into the action. Every book wants to grab you by the throat. If you mean, the story shouldn’t be overly complicated or “tricksy” in an attempt to appear grander than it is, then I agree. But as far as I am concerned, a story told simply and beautifully also counts as “impressive”.

    And what does time have to do with impressing you? War and Peace takes its time, and is incredibly impressive. I Am Legend can be read in just a couple of hours, and yet I consider that book to be impressive. You can read all five of the Spiderwick Chronicles books in an afternoon, and yet they are impressive.

    11. 20 characters? That’s pretty specific. Lord of the Rings has nine in the Fellowship.

    13 and 14. You’re sick of reading about characters you’ve met, and yet you want the characters to be like people you’ve met?

    15. “Fire your editor”? Seriously – a publisher won’t even look at your book unless it has already been edited, and the only person who will be able to do that is you. Once you have edited, edited, edited again, and then edited, your book may be ready to send to a publisher. If the publisher likes the book, then you will work WITH editors to improve the book further, but those editors don’t work FOR you – they work for the publishing house. You may be able to fight your corner against a copy editor who doesn’t like the way you have bent some of the rules of grammar, but you can’t fire any of the editors you will be dealing with. You’re just the lowly author.

    16. This is obviously a very personal one. As an author, writing without dialogue is a huge challenge, as you have to find other ways to impart information. But that challenge can be rewarding. As a reader, as long as the story is engaging, I don’t mind if there is no dialogue at all. I would recommend you watch the movie 3-Iron. There is not a single line of dialogue between the two main characters, and yet the movie is utterly captivating.

    17 and 18. You want stories that force their opinions on you? I couldn’t agree less. It annoys me no end when a book “preaches” at me, and it can totally ruin my enjoyment. For example, reading the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy was particularly upsetting. Mr Pullman was so determined to force his message down my throat I nearly choked on his opinions. As far as I am concerned, this completely undermined the truly exceptional work he had done in the first two books – basically, he forgot he was telling a story, and he started giving a lecture instead. The books are still brilliant, and I highly recommend them; but for me, that third book would have been much better if the opinions hadn’t got in the way of the story.

    As another example, consider the scene in Eragon where Arya bullies a dwarf for believing in gods. Do you really think books should be full of that sort of thing?

    20. I agree with this one. Of course it’s the author, not the book, who has to respect the reader. If you are fair to your readers, if you don’t trick them with DEM endings or trilogies that become cycles, then those readers will stick with you for life.

    21. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book I would want to read every day for five years. There are plenty of books I have read more than once, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Also, what’s wrong with a guilty pleasure? Some books are meant to be enjoyed and discarded. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  9. Rand on 17 November 2008, 17:49 said:

    @ SWQ (And the others who raised the question)
    1.) Number Five is on the list because I do wish people would own what they write. It shows they care. A pen name is fine, what with the whole Stephen King thing.
    2.) I want to hold a book in my hands because so I can eat the book. In the other fashion.

    @ Virgil
    1.) What is “ASoIaF”?
    And all the other abbreviations others used? I’m a little slow on these things.

    @ SubStandardDeviation
    1.) Yes, I would like opinions of the author. Even if it’s just so I can disagree with them.

    “the best stories make you think about more than what the author’s position on the Issue is”


    2.) I love that, number twenty two.
    3.) Wow, Abarat. I really loved those but recently, have thought that I’ve outgrown them. I probably haven’t. Is there going to be a third one? It sure seems like it.

    @HW and SWQ
    1.) Yes! The apostraphes scare me so badly!
    Dashes can be ok… sometimes… such as in “Ari-Aragorn”.

    1.) RE: Being Forced Opinions
    How do you know you disagree with something until someone tries to make you believe in it?
    2.) RE: Editors
    Don’t rely on them. No one else can get your story out. That was what I meant.
    I haven’t had any experience with actual editors but one summer workshop with a class full of other people devouring your essay for GRAMMAR edits… Sometimes, your meaning can be buried when you’re changing things around to be commercially appropriate.
    3.)RE: Guilty Pleasures
    I haven’t found a book anywhere that fits in with number twenty one. I’m searching. If you find it, tell me.

  10. Rand on 17 November 2008, 17:51 said:

    PS- As a sidenote… my Nano is probably the farthest thing from my twenty-oners. I just realized I’d hate my story if I wasn’t the one writing it. Well, well. I’ll see what I can do in Dec.

  11. Carbon Copy on 17 November 2008, 19:38 said:

    Rand – the whole purpose of a pseudonym is to disguise your identity. Nobody knew Bachman was Stephen King at the time, and George Eliot was a pseudonym used to disguise the fact that the author was a woman. The authors DIDN’T want to admit they were the authors, but it certainly didn’t mean they didn’t care.

    ASoIaF = A Song of Ice and Fire (George R R Martin).

    “How do you know you disagree with something until someone tries to make you believe in it?”

    I can happily form opinions on my own. This argument is absurd. I don’t need to sit through a lecture on why shooting people is right for me to know it’s wrong.

    I think you are confused with this point – there is a difference between an author (a) providing information about something and allowing you to decide for yourself and (b) just telling you what you should think.

    Back to the Pullman example – the main thrust of His Dark Materials was Religion is evil and God is a phony. Those were Pullman’s opinions, and he was so desperate to make all his readers think the same that the story stopped being fun to read (until the last few chapters, when he showed why he is a superb author of unquestionable talent).

    If you tell your readers what to think, then they will disengage from the story. No-one likes to have opinions forced on them. It is always better to provide the information, and let the reader make his or her own decision.

    “Editors – don’t rely on them.”

    Okay, I’m going to assume you mean, don’t rely on your mate who sits next to you in your workshop.

    I can tell you that at the moment your view of editors is blinkered by a lack of experience. Editor’s don’t take your book away and change it all when you aren’t looking. You work WITH the editor; it’s a collaborative affair.

  12. Rand on 17 November 2008, 20:43 said:

    @ CC:
    RE: Opinions from Authors
    -Have you ever read “A Modest Proposal”? First off, just because an author says something, doesn’t mean that’s what they’re trying to convey. So, I as a reader enjoy deciphering the message. Maybe that isn’t representing the average reader but it’s a personal preference.
    -Also, if you never have anyone telling you of one side of an issue, you’d never know about it. I never knew I was against marijuana used in any situation until my state tried to legalize small amounts of it. (Recently found a bathroom wall reading “Vote yes on number two… smoke weed every day”… and it was my favorite stall too…). There’s some things readers just don’t know about and it’s up to the authors to point out a half of the story.
    -Third, apart from actually alerting the reader to the situation, the author can provide either support for the reader’s belief OR a different aspect for the reader to consider. If you’re against owning guns, why NOT read about the pros of owning a gun?
    It’s an old mock-trial method of knowing the opposing side well.

    RE: Editors
    Yes, there is a “blinkering of editor-experience” here. I simply meant that I as a reader would hope the author is the one standing behind their words. Its also a fairly unadvanced, non-deep mentality. I like to think that person on the back cover is blinking kindly down at me. And saying “Here’s my work”. And handing me a hot choclate. That’s all.
    But I see what you mean with the editorial collaborative effort.

    RE: His Dark Materials
    Actually, I would be the perfect example of a driven-to-madness-by-Pullman’s-theories reader since I read through all three series… up until the last few chapters. I stopped after they started leading armies to storm heavan. So, you see, I never even got to the redemptive last chapters of good writing.
    That’s interesting. I always assumed it’d gotten too boring.

  13. Rand on 17 November 2008, 20:45 said:

    By the way, has anyone figured out which song this ‘article’ is vaguely resembling?

  14. SubStandardDeviation on 17 November 2008, 22:07 said:

    @ Opinions
    Agree to disagree, then. Sometimes I want pure escapism.

    If I believe position X and want to learn about Not-X, I will seek out information that doesn’t disguise itself as a novel. Many people won’t. You can’t make ‘em. Try it and they may not even bother to read beyond the beginning of your “preaching”, with their opinions unchanged – except perhaps about the literary merit of your work.

    Of course, if you want to call attention to a real-world issue in your work, more power to you. Just 1) present the Issue as something the various characters, not just author stand-ins, have opinions about and 2) no straw arguments. It also helps to present the Issue early. Look at Eragon’s conversion to “enlightened” vegetarianism – could you have guessed that from Book 1?

    @ Abarat
    DoMNoW was published in ’04, and from what I heard, ended on a cliffhanger. Apparently there’s a Book 3 in the works called Absolute Midnight, but no release date, so I seriously doubt we’ll see it soon.

    @ Hot Chocolate
    Authors generally don’t write the back-of-book blurbs, so you know.

    @ Song
    No clue.

  15. Rand on 18 November 2008, 17:26 said:

    Wow, this makes for great debate material…
    Yes. A2D.
    I never knew Eragon converted to vegetarianism. Maybe its to make his seem more civilized. And advanced.

    I see. It ended alright; Carrion was pretty destroyed but there was totally room for resurrection. His grandmother (sorry, what was her name again?) – Wow! Guess what everyone! I hid two hundred dollars in a little envelope inside my copy of DoMNoW! See, it shows how much I loved that book-
    Ok, Mater Motley- she would probably be the new villian. And she wouldn’t be merciful like Carrion because she’s got no personal attachment to Candy.

  16. Billy the Kid on 21 November 2008, 18:43 said:

    Just to be randomly unhelpful…

    ASoIaF is great, but the sheer number of protagonists makes the books travel at a snail’s pace. So I agree there shouldn’t be all that many really important characeters, but not for the same reason.

    P.S. I’m speaking only having read a Game of Thrones and halfway through A Clash of Kings

  17. Virgil on 21 November 2008, 20:10 said:

    I’m the same, only partly through Clash of Kings. It’s really good, though.

  18. Rand on 22 November 2008, 21:39 said:

    I haven’t read any of those nor have I heard of them. Actually, I haven’t been to a bookstore since summertime! Oh dear.