I’ve been trying to come up with a better way to rate and review books (or movies or any other story-telling medium for that matter). I’ve come up with a list of things people often want in stories. These are mostly subjective, but they’re things to think about when rating (and writing) a story. To complicate matters a bit, it’s generally OK for a comedic or surreal story to break most of these rules.
- Quality. Are there typos, grammatical, formatting, or vocabulary use errors? Is there poetry to the language? Are there repetitions (either in word choice or in plot)? Are the repetitions thematic or lazy writing? Is there an info-dump in which a lot of information is packed into one place rather than organically spread out throughout the story? Does the story show rather than tell? The story should stand on its own. Try not to be biased based on external factors such as the cover of the book, whether it was self-published, the hype surrounding it, etc.. Don’t be biased by the author’s age, sex, race, orientation, fame, etc. Forget all external factors and just ask yourself if the story is good by itself.
- Action. Does something actually happen in the story? Is the story too slow or too fast? Is there something at stake? What does the character want and what stands in their way? Is there only external conflict or is there internal conflict as well? Does what happen change the character in a meaningful way?
- Consistency. Does a smart character suddenly do something stupid to advance the plot? Does the tone and point of view of the story remain consistent? Does the world remain consistent? If science fiction, is the technology level consistent? If fantasy, does magic work the same way throughout or does it change to suit the plot? Does the plot proceed logically from beginning to end with every effect having a cause or are events unrelated? Is there foreshadowing? Are there any missed opportunities or did the story go as far as it could go? Are there plot holes?
- Originality. People often praise original stories and disparage formulaic stories. Like the other items on this list, this is often in the eye of the beholder. The first time you read a mystery you might think it’s original even if it uses the standard formula for mysteries. Was this story original or cliche? This is also a sliding scale. Something can be kind of original (a story with a piano tuner for a protagonist) or highly original (a book that doesn’t fit neatly into any other genre). Does the author have a unique voice or is it generic?
- Message. All fiction is political because it either normalizes or stigmatizes the behavior presented therein. A story can be political by what it leaves out (people of color, gays) as much by what is put in. All fiction presents a certain political world view even if it isn’t explicit. What was the message of the story? Was it explicit or implicit? People often hate “message stories” in which the message is too obvious (especially if it’s a message they personally disagree with). However, if the messages are more hidden, or are messages you agree with, you’ll enjoy the story more. Is there a clear theme to the story or is it all over the place? Is there a deeper meaning to the story or is it all just surface level?
- Memorability. Did the story stick with you long after you read it, or did you soon forget about it? Did you learn something from this story? It could be something small like an interesting factoid thrown in, or something big like a cool new idea that will forever change the way you live your life. How much time did you spend thinking about the new ideas you learned or is this the story just not that memorable?
- Escapism. Was the story escapist? People like to get lost in a story. At any point during reading it, did you forget you were reading and imagined yourself there? Sensory details help here. Does the story engage with all five senses? Are descriptions detailed enough to picture yourself there, but not so wordy it becomes boring?
- Realism. Are the characters realistic or stereotypes? Are they distinct from each other? Do they speak like real people? A story can get negative points in this category if it commits factual errors. I’m not talking about errors like “dragons don’t really exist” I mean errors like “we only use 10% of our brains!” (unless the story takes place in a fantasy world in which the fantasy creatures actually do use only 10% of their brains). Cliches are realistic, but not original. Is it believable or does it strain the suspension of disbelief? If historical fiction, does it contain anachronisms?
- Clarity. Are the character’s motivations and relationships clear? Is the story confusing? Do we know enough about the characters to understand their actions? Are descriptions specific or abstract? Is it easy to read or more demanding of the reader? Is there too much irrelevant information? Not enough information? Are there too many characters? Are there references you don’t get? Does it over or under explain?
- Emotion. Being boring is the worst sin a story can commit. Ask yourself which emotions the story made you feel. Did the story make you laugh or cry? Did it frighten you? Were the action sequences exciting? Was it fun to read? Was it arousing? Was it disgusting? Did it make you angry? Does the story remain engaging throughout or did you get bored in places? Did you care about the characters or not?
I think this is a pretty good list to get started. What do you think? Is there anything I left off this list that should be added? Let me know in the comments.