What Defines a Great Book? A Checklist for Ambitious Writers

Abi Wurdeman
January 3, 2023

Is there a more loaded question in the literary world than “What defines a great book?”

Ask anyone who fancies themselves an insightful writer or a serious reader, and you’ll probably get a super confident answer.

They’ll tell you any book worth its salt will be bold and confrontational. Or all that matters is that a book is entertaining and people who say they love the classics are full of it. 

This leads to new questions. What does mass appeal say about the quality of a book? Is it okay to be derivative if you do it artfully? Or is it pretentious to do anything artfully? 

It’s an exhausting debate. So I’d like to offer this one, simple standard—the only standard I believe truly matters:

A great book is one that connects with its reader.

Brilliant literature makes readers feel seen by unveiling human experiences in a vivid and resonating way. It makes the unfamiliar feel more familiar by touching on the vulnerabilities and hopes that connect us all. A great book inspires or thrills or devastates. 

Sure, top-of-the-line fiction might also win a Pulitzer or at least land an agent. But its defining characteristic is emotional connection.

To help you create that oddly intimate writer-to-reader relationship, I’ve put together the most important standards for writing 1) an excellent story 2) in an emotionally engaging way. Because that’s what defines a great book: stellar storytelling and masterful writing.

You can use this list to polish your novel as you plan it, draft it, and revise it. Feel free to read the entire thing or simply skip ahead to the categories that give you the most trouble.

Use this list however it helps you write a brilliant novel…

…now that you know what that is.

Excellent Storytelling

Profile view of a person with long, black hair and glasses engrossed in a great book.

Expert storytelling transports readers to new worlds, invites them to live unfamiliar lives, and inspires them to think more deeply about their reality.

This skill lies at the heart of what defines a great book. And to perfect this skill, you need to master your genre, character development, worldbuilding, and more.

What follows is a checklist of all the features great stories have. Take a look and see how your own novel stacks up.

Genre Awareness

  • The word count is standard for the genre. (Your cozy mystery readers may not stick around for a 120,000-word tome.)
  • Whether it’s foreboding, quirky, or formal, the narrative tone matches the genre. 
  • Major plot points align with genre conventions. That doesn’t mean you have to write a cookie-cutter story. Just that your romance must have a happy ending and your mystery should probably kick off with a dead body.
  • The story embraces beloved tropes. A trope is a convention of the genre, like the “Chosen One” in fantasy novels or the “only one bed” dilemma in romance. Your genre is likely loaded with tropes; don’t worry about packing all of them in. Just indulge your favorites.
  • The novel honors the genre without being hacky. It leans into genre tropes, structure, and familiar character arcs without merely copy-and-pasting overdone storylines.
  • You’ve made it your own while remaining genre-appropriate. Maybe this means it’s a thriller told through text messages or a middle grade fantasy sidekick inspired by your old imaginary friend. You’ve used your own imagination and interests to give readers the kind of adventure they were looking for.

Strong Character Development

  • Every major character has a clear goal.
  • They’re also getting something wrong. They live according to a big Lie (a flawed philosophy based on past trauma) and it’s holding them back.
  • Speaking of past trauma, each major character (or at least your protagonist) is haunted by a Ghosta painful past experience they’re determined not to go through again.
  • Your characters have compelling motivations. They don’t do anything because the story needs them to—their choices are rooted in their own needs, fears, and desires.
  • Your protagonist has a Need they’re either not aware of or are desperately denying.
  • All characters have unique strengths, weaknesses, and flaws.
  • All characters have distinctive voices.
  • The protagonist is deeply afraid of something and forced to face that fear as a result of the story’s central conflict.
  • Your protagonist has a character arc. It’s fine if that arc is flat (meaning they don’t change). But even a flat arc needs to be a choice that serves the story and not the accidental result of an underdeveloped character.
  • All characters have a physical presentation—what they wear, how they move, how they look, how they sound, etc.—that either aligns with or delightfully contradicts their personality.
  • Each character’s culture, religion, sexuality, gender, ability, health, and past trauma is portrayed authentically. (In other words, you’ve done your research and worked with a sensitivity reader when appropriate.)

Compelling Conflict

  • The protagonist and significant side characters struggle with an internal conflict.
  • They also face an external conflict that challenges and heightens their internal conflict (and vice versa).
  • The central conflict intensifies as the story progresses.
  • Some of the protagonist’s actions make the conflict worse. (Psst. You can make this happen by having the protagonist lean into the Lie. What terrible decisions do they make because they’re clinging to the Lie and letting their fear take the wheel?)
  • The conflict forces the protagonist to face their weaknesses and confront their fears. Most importantly, the protagonist can only resolve the conflict by changing. (Whether or not they do is up to you and your genre.)
  • The antagonist has goals, fears, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of their own.

Expert Plot Development

  • The opening does it all: establishes the “normal life” that’s about to change forever, introduces the protagonist, sets the tone, and draws the reader in.
  • The inciting incident is big enough to change the protagonist’s life forever and force them to make a big decision.
  • When the hero/ine accepts the Call of Adventure, they’re crossing a point of no return.
  • The middle of the book (a.k.a. second act) pays off the “promise of the premise.” If you plan to market this novel as a story about accountants who become pirates, this is where the reader gets to watch pencil-pushers transform into buccaneers.
  • The protagonist gets into the climax by making a bold and difficult choice. Whatever the final battle is, it doesn’t just happen to them. They choose it. 
  • There’s an “all is lost” moment before the victory.
  • The resolution wraps up all plot lines, including subplots. That doesn’t mean every storyline has to end happily. You can even leave a few questions unanswered. But it has to be clear to the reader that you meant to do that and didn’t just forget about the flirtation between the BFF and her dog-walker.

Setting

  • There is a reason for placing this story in this location. It’s fine if your original reason was only that you like this setting. But if you like it, use it! Let the setting reflect a theme, set a tone, or contribute to the conflict.
  • Depictions of real places and times are reasonably accurate, thanks to a solid research effort on your part.
  • If the story takes place in a fictional world, the setting is a thoroughly imagined world with its own natural features, cultural influences, and more. (In other words, you’ve done some stellar worldbuilding.) But also:
  • The fictional world is not so exhaustingly detailed that it overshadows the story.

Clear and Purposeful Point of View

  • The point of view (POV) is clear and consistent. No erratic shifts between first person and third-person omniscient. 
  • Whether the POV comes from a character in the story or a nameless narrator, there’s a reason to tell this particular story from that POV. 
  • If multiple characters are used to tell the story, it’s super clear who’s narrating when.
  • All scenes written in first person or limited third person contain only information the POV character would know. No reckless head hopping.
  • Also for first person and third-person limited: make sure the narrative is deliciously biased. Let the scene details pass through the filter of the POV character’s emotions and perspective. Narration is a characterization tool, after all.

Resonating Themes

  • The story contains themes that inspire, challenge, affirm, spark debate, or otherwise get readers to feel big feelings and think big thoughts. (Find ideas here.
  • You, the author, are able to state your theme as a statement, not a topic. (“Power” is not a theme but “power corrupts” is.)
  • The narrative both challenges and supports the theme with characters who have conflicting experiences and points of view.
  • Symbols help clarify and emphasize themes.
  • The central theme is reflected in the protagonist’s character arc. Even better: work it into the antagonist’s and side characters’ arcs as well.
  • The theme resonates deeply with you, the author.

Excellent Writing

A person writes in a journal.

You know what else defines a great book?

The expert execution of mad writing skills. Because what good is an incredible story if you can’t convey the full masterpiece in your mind to the reader holding your book?

Here’s your checklist for leveling up your writing.

Deliberate Pacing

  • The pacing fits the genre.
  • Action and fight scenes aren’t bogged down by excessive description, flashbacks, or lengthy dialogue.
  • Moments of reflection or revelation have room to breathe. They’re not rushed and they give the reader time to feel all the feelings.
  • If flashbacks are necessary to tell the story, they’re artfully timed. That is to say, they don’t interrupt or ease tension.
  • As a general rule: fast-paced scenes call for shorter sentences. Longer sentences work better in slower scenes.

Distinctive Voice and Tone

  • The narrative tone fits the genre.
  • The tone conveys a clear attitude about the story.
  • Consistency is key. The intriguing voice and tone that open that novel need to stick around for the whole story. Speaking of which:
  • The narrative voice is engaging without being “a little much” for an entire novel. 
  • Both tone and voice align with the narrative point of view. For example, a first-person narrative told by a cynical detective might call for a world-weary tone with a clever, observant voice.
  • Language and rhythm are deliberate. Sentence length, complexity, and lyricism fits the tone and voice. So do word choices. 

Vivid Descriptions

  • There’s more showing than telling.
  • Details are ultra-specific. “Heart-spangled Huffy” versus “kids bike.” This helps with the next key feature:
  • Descriptions are brief but striking because they focus on a few key details that bring the moment to life most effectively rather than spending pages describing every blade of grass.
  • Scenes come alive through the five senses. There’s less “creepy” and “eerie,” more “icy chills” and “creaking tree limbs.” 
  • Adjectives and adverbs are not used as crutches. You can use them, but if you can use a more vivid noun or verb instead, do that.
  • There are no clichés.

Natural and Engaging Dialogue

  • Dialogue sounds smooth and natural when read aloud.
  • Any use of accents or regional dialects feel authentic—not heavy-handed or stereotypical.
  • The characters’ emotions and conversational objectives are conveyed mostly through subtext unless it’s in their nature to be direct. Let them keep secrets, vulnerability, and ulterior motives hidden until they become too big to conceal. It’s more exciting for the reader that way.
  • Each character has a distinct voice.
  • The most common dialogue tag is “said.” More connotative tags like “cried,” “bellowed,” and “announced” are used sparingly.
  • All dialogue is interesting and relevant to the story. There is no “Hi. / Hello. / How are you? / Fine. How are you?” unless it’s somehow revealing something important about the conflict or characters. 
  • The dialogue never repeats something the reader already knows. If the reader just saw the dead body in the previous scene, move on to the interrogation of the victim’s wife rather than with the police informing her of her husband’s death.

Emotionally Engaging

  • The thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of characters reveal a vulnerability that’s familiar to readers. The protagonist is not perfect. They’re not angelic or infinitely wise or completely confident. They have insecurities, fears, desires, and old wounds. 
  • Most (or all) characters have a really tough time saying what they mean. They’re afraid to speak frankly about their needs and emotions, which results in a failure to connect with the people who can help them.
  • Epiphanies are earned through conflict. They don’t appear magically.
  • Speaking of earning it: characters only make a big change when staying the same becomes the scarier option.
  • The descriptions of emotional experiences include physical sensation. A tingling scalp, a twisting gut, heavy bones… it’s all more effective than “excited” or “depressed.”
  • Characters have clear reasons for needing one another, even if they refuse to see those reasons themselves. 
  • Shocking twists make sense in retrospect (and aren’t overused).
  • Each beat presents a new and compelling question.
  • The stakes get higher for the protagonist as the story continues.

The Final Word on What Defines a Great Book

Whew. A lot of stuff. But you can handle it. Just take it bit by bit, and remember that Dabble’s here whenever you need us. 

Check out DabbleU for articles that will help you master the skills we just discussed. (I linked about a million of them in this article to get you started.) Download our free ebook, Let’s Write a Book, for step-by-step guidance on crafting a stellar story. And use Dabble to plot, draft, and revise your novel.

One last word of advice:

Throughout the novel-writing process, you’ll collect a lot of opinions about what defines a great book. Some of these opinions will be invited. Others will be thrust upon you when some stranger overhears you telling a friend about the book you’re writing.

And others will come in the form of lengthy checklists offered to you by strangers on the internet.

Hopefully, most of these opinions will be helpful. But they may also be overwhelming, and that’s when it’s good to remember that you have the final word on what your novel needs.

So even as you work to improve your writing, continue to read. Pay attention to what moves you—what’s happening in the story and with the writing when you, as a reader, feel that connection. This will help you decide for yourself what defines a great book.

Get out there and be brilliant. And if you’re interested in using Dabble for this journey of genius, you should know that you can try it for free for fourteen days. Click this link, sign up (no credit card required!), and start crafting that masterpiece.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.