Twelve Elements I Look for in a Book

Last week I told you about my experiences with two books I tried to read and couldn’t.

Over the next week you weren’t shy chiming in. I loved your comments. Each of you has a different “rule” you read by. Some read to the bitter end. One reader suggested that we subtract our age from the number 100 and that becomes the number of pages we should read before we decide to call it quits. I love that suggestion. After all, as our time on this earth runs out, so does our patience. And there are so many better books we could cherish.

I’ve truly enjoyed my stint with the Better World Book Challenge list for 2017. So far I’ve read thirteen books for the twenty-five categories. Interested in what I’ve read so far? If not, feel free to skip.

Still to read? A food memoir, (Oprah’s new book, I think.) A book I pick based on the cover, (Karen White’s The Night the Lights Went Out, which I’m reading now.) A book based on a fairytale, a National Book Award winner, a book that takes place in a forest, a romance that takes place during travel, a book under 200 pages, a banned book, a book of poetry, a book with a child narrator, (Flavia DeLuce) a book translated from another language, and a book that’s been adapted into a movie. As you see I’ve selected some of them already and can’t wait to get started.

Some of the books I read would qualify for two categories, but I’ve decided not to go that route. This is too much fun to rush. I can’t imagine that I ever would have plowed through a Rolling Stones memoir, or read about women trying to survive under the Taliban, or of all things, a Zane Grey western. But I have now, and loved the experience, if not always the books. I’ll find another reading challenge when this one’s completed. I think I’m hooked. In fact I think I’ll create my own. Wouldn’t that be fun?

The challenge also has me thinking about what I most appreciate as a reader. And, of course, that spills over into what I need to do as a writer. (Actually if you pursue a writing career, everything spills over into the next book or the next or even the one that might take decades to hatch.)

So for fun, here are twelve elements I look for in a book, in no particular order, gathered from my weeks of pursuing this challenge and reading a variety of books.

  1. Sympathetic characters I can relate to–notice I did not say likable.
  2. Characters with clearly realized motivations for their actions.
  3. A vividly portrayed setting.
  4. Sentences/paragraphs/chapters I don’t have to re-read for clarity.
  5. A voice unique to the author.
  6. A beginning, middle and end.
  7. Excellent research so I’m not pulled out of the story by mistakes. (Hibiscus, for instance, has no scent.)
  8. No backstory dropped in to take up pages, show how deep the author is, or serve as the author’s soapbox.
  9. A plot with plenty of twists and turns, and suspense that builds.
  10. Details fleshed out, and story shown in scenes and never regurgitated by the narrator.
  11. An enticing beginning that pulls me in immediately.
  12. An ending that leaves me satisfied all the loose ends were tied up and the world is still spinning the way it’s supposed to.

I’ve sure I’ve forgotten some that are equally important. For instance, an enticing cover and an easily read font help will determine if I pick up a book, although certainly not the quality of the writing.

Humor? Both Born a Crime and The Prince of Los Cucuyos dealt with difficult childhoods, but they were filled with tender humor that made me read on and on.  Even a serious book needs places where the reader can smile.

Length matters, too. You’ll note it’s addressed in two of the Better World categories. It certainly mattered to me when I was plowing through Life, but here, too, Keith Richards used humor and his unique voice to keep me reading.

It’s time to hear from you. Tell us what you look for in a book. You don’t have to list as many elements as I have. Just tell us what matters most to you when you read. I loved hearing from you last week. Let’s do it again.

**Crankshaft Comics can be found here. Enjoy them online if you don’t get them in your newspaper.

**Today’s book links lead to, where I’m as associate, which means if you click and make a purchase I may get a commission. Since I don’t like to play favorites I make certain to link to every viable bookstore on my book pages.


  1. Shanna on May 3, 2017 at 6:48 am

    I have two books for your book translated from another language The Kagero Diary and The Confessions of Lady Nijo. I read them for a college Japanese Lit class. I suggest doing a small amount of background research just so you understand where the women are coming from.

    • Emilie Richards on May 3, 2017 at 8:00 am

      Good suggestions. Someone also suggested The Little Paris Bookshop and the author’s most recent book. I’ll have great choices.

  2. Martha O'Quinn on May 3, 2017 at 6:53 am

    FYI – FANTASTIC post Emilie. YOU are so INFORMATIVE. Let the reading continue! ?

  3. Marsha Markham on May 3, 2017 at 11:20 am

    That list explains why you are such a good writer…I know you really do your homework when researching. I think about the only thing I’d add to what you’ve listed is that I enjoy reading a book that makes me want to learn more about things (either more about the person, if it’s a historical figure or more about the time period , if it takes place in another time.
    You sure have stayed connected with this group of readers and I know I’m not the only one who appreciates that.

    • Emilie Richards on May 4, 2017 at 9:50 am

      An excellent addition.

  4. Nancy Lepri on May 3, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    You rock!!!! However do you manage to read AND write AND have a life?

  5. Coelle Baskel on May 3, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    Emilie, I just finished your book, “One Mountain Away”. It has all those 12 points and grabbed me from the start. Although I went through almost a whole box of tissues, it was an awesome story that gave me inspiration on being a ‘Grandma’. I can always learn something from your stories …they are definitely not ’empty’ writings. Thank You for continuing to write!

    • Emilie Richards on May 4, 2017 at 9:51 am

      Thank you, Coelle.

  6. Kathryn Trask on May 3, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    I like being grabbed in from the beginning, which what The Swallow’s Nest has done for me after the first chapter and I love the house setting, stopping to picture that entry way.
    Like seeing what you have read from the challenge so far. Nina George’s books as translations are goo and I liked her second one more than her first.
    And while this one does not fulfil a challenge spot I think, I just listened to the audiobook of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Great characters, sympathetic characters for sure and some not so likeable though! A debut novel too and it just carried me away.

    • Emilie Richards on May 4, 2017 at 9:52 am

      The moment I heard about that book, the moment I knew I wanted to read it. Now I’m sure. Thanks for your opinion on the George books, too. I’ll start with the second. (And thank you for the nice words on The Swallow’s Nest.)

  7. Lynn Ross on May 4, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    The older I get, the fewer books I read, as my eyes tire more easily as well as my body. My taste in books has changed through the years from challenging, gripping reads to the more comfortable love stories with happy endings that have several interesting characters interweaving like graceful choreography, each one with a story. I like books that educate and also make social statements. Your list of 12 is exactly what your books offer me and enrich my life. I’ve been your biggest fan since your very first book, so, all I need to do is go to the “R” section of “Women’s Fiction” . I look forward to your next book as always. Thank you for all your wonderful books.

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