Story stuff that always gets me

Violet from Shakespeare




A few years back, I did a post on “Ten things I don’t want to read about,”   so I thought, why not ten things that always hook my interest?

This would be about story elements, maybe story types, or even elements of voice. Anything goes.

A promise of humor is probably first. It doesn’t have to be a satire, or a comedy; the humor can be conveyed through the voice, but I find my interest engaged the more quickly if I perceived its presence.

And then there are story elements that promise fun, like disguises. I realize this betrays my total lack of literary sophistication (yeah, right, like there was ever any question), but I really get a kick out of stories with disguises, especially when what the characters know, what the author knows, and what the reader knows are all different, and revelations are cleverly worked out so that I can’t predict who will know what when, why, and how. Levels of disguise are even more intriguing: masquerades, cross dressing, levels of identity.


This can translate over into amnesia stories. I suspect that the amnesia story is a subset of the stranger coming to the village, or conversely, the disruption of orderly and expected life by an outside element. (As long as the disruption isn’t some version of “pure evil” which I tend to find banal, predictable, and only useful for shock value. Not fond of shock value for the sake of shock.)

Close by, but not quite the same is the element of intrigue. I find the subtleties of power play so much more interesting than hack-smash-and-hew. (Not that I object to some spiffy explosions, duels, chases, and the like. But hardcore, unrelenting violence, not my thing.) Worldbuilding that convinces me is of primary importance here. Intrigue isn’t as convincing in a Hollywood backdrop story.

Romance, both in the older sense as well as romantic interactions. I so much prefer romance to grimdark, wit to grit.


I like my protagonists to have a moral code, maybe even a sense of honor, though it isn’t easy or convenient, and the numinous is going to catch my heart every time.


Caper stories  —but I find there has to be another element, like friendship versus trust. If it’s all clever people being clever, that can read (to me) a bit arid and empty.

And last, the twist that changes everything.

How about you?




Story stuff that always gets me — 45 Comments

  1. So many of the things I come up with are things I love. . . most times, but which can be irritating if done wrong–or else it’s the case that also I like the exact opposite at times. Thinking back over books I’ve really loved in the past year, I think . . .

    –vividness of setting, and unusual setting, and I like it when it’s described with sensory details other than just sight. Yes. I think that’s something I pretty much always like– sensory details appealing to sounds, feel, smell and cool, unusual settings

    Child protagonists. I sometimes feel like a freak: I’m old enough to be a grandmother, so why do I still like child protagonists? I like them both when the book is aimed at a child audience, and when it’s aimed at adults (which is to say, I do like reading books for a younger audience as well as ones for an adult audience).

    –Maybe it’s part of a broader thing I like, which is protagonists with an unusual viewpoint. That’s part of what I loved about Ancillary Justice: the fact that in the early part of the book, Justice of Toren had a viewpoint distributed across multiple bodies. I like seeing the world through the eyes of someone who sees it in some way that’s radically different from the ones I’m used to.

    –Positive sibling relationships and parent-child relationships. I understand that in real life lots of those relationships are *awful*, and it’s natural that there will be lots of stories that deal with that awfulness, but I like reading stories in which at least *some* of those relationships are positive.

    • Oh, yes, about relationships!

      Could the child protagonist thing be about promising a certain level of safety? (Though that is certainly not true in grim darks like Game of Thrones, etc.)

    • I’m also very fond of child protagonists. That’s partly because I like stories about people learning things. School stories, certainly, but less formal/institutional learning, as well.

  2. I like scenes of combat—but not combat for the sake of the physical action (I came out of the second Matrix film complaining about the long, boring fight scenes): What I’m looking for is combat as a test of moral qualities. This can mean scenes of defeat—Boromir’s death in the film of The Fellowship of the Ring is exactly the sort of scene I’m looking at. S. M. Stirling has written a number of such scenes.

    I like female characters with agency.

    I’m a big fan of what might be called “scholastic fantasy”: Stories about the experience of education. I think I could trace this back to Lee Correy’s Rocket Man, which gives the kind of course by course recounting that Pamela Dean provided more recently in Tam Lin, but for an engineering rather than a liberal arts school—I read it in the 1950s, and alas, now it’s out of print and collectible. I went for it when the X-men brought it into comics, and it was part of what appealed to me about A Wizard of Earthsea.

    I enjoy stories that present nonstandard ideas, especially perhaps when they appear as quick throwaway bits. One of my favorites is the short political debate in Ken MacLeod’s Dark Light that ends with one of the speakers saying that elections not only aren’t democratic but are antidemocratic, everybody knows that! It would actually have been much less fun if we’d gotten a detailed historical or philosophical lecture; having it presented as a commonplace and being left to infer what sort of society might see it as one is more fun.

  3. Elements that always attract me to a story:

    People who are described as smart actually being convincingly smart. This includes making the specific kind of stupid mistakes smart people make. Patrick Rothfuss is very good at this.

    Unreliable narrators, particulary those who are blithely unaware of their unreliability.

    People for whom strong friendships are an important part of their lives, ideally well balanced with a satisfying romantic life that does not overwhelm said friendships Also, narrators who have happy stable romantic lives that they do not consider the reader’s business, and people who can work with someone they recognise as attractive without getting emotionally entangled with them in predictable cliche ways.

    Nice chewy realistically complex politics, for which Ken MacLeod is a very good example.

    An interesting idea presented and consequences worked through in detail to multiple levels.

    • Unreliable narrators are something I love, too–generally! I don’t like it if they’re too broadly and ridiculously unreliable (unless the whole thing is being played only for laughs, in which case it’s okay), because then I feel too much as if the author is anxiously trying to make sure that I know that the unreliable narrator =/= the author. But generally, yeah, I think they’re great too.

      • I don’t love explicitly unreliable narrators, but I love it when the first person voice obviously contains the sorts of unconscious, knee-jerk biases that all people have, and I strongly prefer it when the narrator turns out to be eliding, or unobjective on *some* things even as they think they’re trying to be objective. I don’t generally trust the first person voice that feels like it’s giving me the whole story straight up.

        (One of the things that intrigued me about Banner of the Damned, which I am reading quite slowly, is Emras’ intimation that she can prove and demonstrate that the portions of the story she describes from other perspectives are in fact dead on accurate. Not least because I feel like her own first person sections are, um, not always as clear-eyed.)

        • Oh boy: one thing I definitely loved about Banner of the Damned–which, depending on where you are, you’re probably discovering –is how you realize, slowly, that Emras moves further and further toward a position/behavior that’s super alarming to others, even while, each step of the way it seems justified/justifiable.

  4. I like interesting love stories, especially where characters look past outward appearances and fall in love with who the other person is inside. That involves working through misunderstandings with intelligence and sensitivity.

    Also, cool animals are a plus. Horses, if well written. Dinosaurs and other charismatic extinct critters. Whales. Alien beasties that actually behave in an alien fashion.

    When I was a teen, I connected strongly Andre Norton’s outcast protagonists. Now I’m more interested in strong, complex older women characters. Duh.

  5. Linguistic Fun – subtleties in translation and new concepts.
    A Sense of Wonder – in characters or felt by reader.
    Abstracted Genius – strong intelligent women are a must, but having them exhibit crazy creativity & intensity in their chosen field enthralls me.
    a Character Puzzle – someone difficult but engaging.
    Food – whether the childish delight of Harry Potter’s candy store (& Cj’s pies – eaten or thrown), otherworldly delicacies, ethnic home cooked meals or simple bread and cheese, tell me what they’re eating & how they feel about it.
    Sensucht – this melancholy loveliness, all the more engaging when (like in AKH’s Medair or Lord’s the Best of All Possible Worlds) finding a way towards happiness & hope.
    the Mythopoeic – see Patricia McKillip.
    Hints of History

  6. It would be nice if there were included titles of works that do what you like, rather than having to wonder if you mean this, rather than that! 🙂

    For example, when it comes to humor, or comedy, or wit, for me, when these elements are promised within works of certain genres, I run away, for I find many of them neither humorous nor comic, and what’s intended as wit, embarrassing.

    Love, c.

  7. What I’m a sucker for picking up, however, are fictions set within the music biz, Hollywood and /or television, show biz, and to a lesser degree the publishing industry and academia. Often these are very funny, and intentionally so. Also fiction set in NYC, though the historical fictions are generally extraordinarily predictable, but those dealing with 1920 – through now, and the more contemporary the better, tend to work for me.

    Though, for instance, The Flamethrowers (last year) did not work for me, despite having lived through some of what she describes — or at least know/knew some of the people on which her characters are based — since I got here rather later than the period of the novel.

    Love, c.

  8. Looking at my stack of Very Precious books for a commonality, I note that virtually all of them have a number of quiet moments, domestic pauses in the adventure, or at least a sense of the characters’ daily lives around and beyond the adventure.

    I prefer characters who feel passionately about some cause or purpose, however. (The Robin McKinley book in the heap, Rose Daughter, may well be the exception. Beauty may give up her freedom for her father, and bring animals back to the castle for wanting, and know all about roses, but she also doesn’t have the sort of fierce definite Purpose).

    I am still a sucker for fantastical beasts (not humanoids, usually) in the mold that is sapient but not human in its habits, or the kind that is a highly intelligent distinctive animal (Think Toothless as an example of the latter). Real animals written well can push the same button, but I have to really trust the author knows what they’re doing (Judith Tarr, for instance).

    I seem to take my magic mostly on the two extreme fringes; the numinous and slippery side (A la McKillip), and the side that treats it the way an engineer would, with a rigourous taking-apart. (On that side, things like the D&D set rules for spells and attempts to do things like that in fiction are a turn-off, in a way the scientific method applied to magic is not)

    Friendly and/or loving bonds that aren’t a source of tension in the story (Buddy teams or romances that don’t struggle).

    Interesting three dimensional women. And men, but that’s (still) less noteable and pointed a thing to need to ask for.

    Complicated backstories (mostly going back to the sense the characters have a life off the page, before and after the story begins.) Even better if not fully explained or dwelled upon. Ditto for the worldbuilding.

    Valiance, especially against stacked odds, almost always KILLS me. Similarly for small kindnesses in the midst of the worst the story can throw. Kindness in general appeals to me, over harsher characters, even (or especially) in harsh worlds.

  9. I agree with you completely on the subject of humor, moral codes and intrigue. As for other guaranteed hooks:

    4) Improbable friendships. I LOVE friendships that have no business working but do.

    5) Lead characters that actually do something. I am very tired of whiny characters that sit around and mentally complain about extremely solvable problems for chapters and chapters of filler. They bore me. Give me a decisive lead that can speak for himself/herself and that does things, or tries to do things, that will improve the situation.

    6) Love coming after I’ve had a chance to see the relationship grow and develop. If the couple or threesome falls in love at first sight and they screw shortly afterward, I know it’s all about looks and sex, and I’m not going to believe that love is involved no matter how much the author says that it is. If, on the other hand, I’ve actually seen the couple behaving as if they like and respect each other, enjoying activities together, and trusting each other in tough situations, then I’ll believe it.

    7) Dovetailing with the above–beta males This, sadly, is hard to find, as most writers (and most publishers) seem convinced that every woman wants an “alpha male”, a controlling, driven, arrogant jerkass with a terrible temper, a dark secret, and–allegedly–a heart of gold. I don’t. I want to read about genuinely kind and dependable guys who have integrity and who respect their partners. I think that the beta guy and his lady could still have problems in their relationship without the relationship being physically or emotionally abusive. I can find this in fanfic occasionally, but it’s depressingly hard to find in professionally published books.

    8) Fading to black. I read a LOT of sex scenes as an editor, and most people can’t write them to save their lives. Also, most of the time, they add nothing to the plot or to characterization. I’m much happier when writers keep sex scenes to a minimum and just get on with the story.

    9) Female characters with agency. I love it when female characters have the right to make their own decisions rather than the narrative or male lead mocking them or deciding for them, or the female characters just saying that they have the right and not following through. Oddly, I tend to find female characters with agency more in children’s books and teen lit than anywhere else. I don’t know why. Are we not supposed to be interested in independent female leads now that we’re all grown up?

    10) Research. I am that horrible reader who WILL double-check to see where your hero crashed and whether he was isolated, what the laws on guns and doctor-patient confidentiality are in the state or country in which you set the story, and whether the ultra-modern tech in the story was really ultra-modern in the year the story takes place. I cannot help it. I have to know. So I’m absolutely thrilled when someone does do the research and makes the story more plausible.

    • Agency, yes! And women with agency! And what you said about alpha males. But I guess that is what the majority of readers want, judging by sales.

      • I’m not sure that’s what readers want so much as it’s what publishers have decided that readers want. And I’m not talking about unconscious bias, either. I can think of one extremely large publisher that boasts in its submission guidelines that “all of our heroes are 100% alpha!”

        Now, if you need clothes and the only clothes available anywhere are purple floral dresses, you’re going to buy and wear purple floral dresses because it fills a need. It may not fill it as you would wish, but you do have clothes. But that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t prefer different colors, different patterns or even clothing that isn’t a dress. And it would be rather silly of the manufacturers of purple floral dresses to decide, “All men, women and non-binary people ever buy are purple floral dresses, so clearly that’s all they like. So that’s all we’re going to make, market and sell!”

        A toddler could tell that the makers of purple floral dresses were ignoring people who wanted and needed something else. A toddler.

        • This is true, and yet one sees books with these elements on best seller lists, and books that are otherwise excellent but absent these elements barely known.

  10. Allies! I don’t have much use for the loner hero of either gender–at least those who stay loners. I love to see friends working together to solve problems.
    I agree with posters who mention those refreshing moments of quiet, kindness, and beauty along the way.

  11. years ago, the late 50s, I read a book called “The Crimson Witch” the kind of book that might sent the more feminist reader screaming into the night.
    It opens with our heroine swooping into her cavern on her broomstick, shooting lightning from her fingertips, etc because a mere mortal (with magical protection) has dared to kiss her. She’s so upset she strikes “life” into a pair of rocks sitting next to the fire pit. As she continues her rant, they nod and comment appropriately, “how terrible”, “how dare he”, etc.
    Then as she calms down, they very timidly ask if they could be made rocks again because it’s very tiring being awake.
    You won’t find the book listed on the Authors list of other books, etc.
    But as the first Dean Koontz book I ever read, I have certainly remembered that opening scene. The humor was great and the heroine was striking. It did show some promise for the writer.
    Overall pretty much on target for the reading group of that time and place. I suppose, technically a romance. Maybe a tad too much of one for mainstream science fiction readers as Curtiss Books were not major SF/F publishers.

  12. I love reading about court life/political intrigue, as long as the characters have believable motives.

    I also enjoy strong world-building in regards to cultures. So often it seems like “foreign culture” is described only through differences in language and gender roles, which is disappointing because actual cultures are so much more complex. Maybe because we don’t see the importance of culture enough to begin with?

    • It could be a host of things, including writers who have the best motives, but a very poor understanding of history, and how cultures evolve.

  13. Just what comes to mind: I love deep time– I want backgrounds go back millions or billions of years. I want a culture which has some trustworthiness– not treachery all the time.

    Unfortunately, I’ve become somewhat bitter about humor in sf. A lot of it is mere humor-shaped objects. I appreciate it a lot when a author can make me smile or laugh.

    I’m recommending ML Brennan’s _Generation V_ and _Iron Knight_ because they hit more than half of your preferences– humor, disguises, intrigue, and moral code. On the other hand, they’re horror in the modern sense of the word. There’s moderately graphic violence, and some very scary non-humans.

    I say horror in the modern sense, because I think true horror is about dangers which are too strong for humans to defeat and relentlessly inimical. What’s happened in recent decades is that horror tropes have been moved into action-adventure and romance.

  14. I am an absolute total sucker for realistic family relationships. I grew heartily tired, very early, of the orphan hero with no parents and no siblings. People! Have! Families!

    I think I could be an absolute total sucker for a book with genuine religious sensibility, but they’re SO INCREDIBLY RARE. Smarmy religion — think “Heidi” — makes me feel barfy, and most religion in fiction is portrayed as universally B.A.D. bad. But religion is hard to do with any sense that it’s genuine. I’m not sure why. The best example I can think of for religion/faith in fiction that feels “genuine” to me is Little House on the Prairie. I did read another book recently that impressed me on that score, and now I’m drawing a blank on what it was. In film/TV, Firefly was astonishingly genuine in its depiction of Christianity, and The Simpsons has always been absolutely spot-on, and everybody else (including “Christian” film companies) mucks it up horribly. But I feel about religion in fiction like I feel about families in fiction. People! Have! Faiths! What kind of story are you writing about *people* where there isn’t any?

    Also I am a total plot junkie. Something has to happen! Or I will get bored and wander away.

    • _The Shadow Speaker_ by Nnedi Okorafor has a Muslim main character who’s attached to her religion, but it’s an ordinary part of her life.

      Seannan McGuire’s InCrypted series has normal family relationships.

      Likewise for Grig Larsen’s _Trolley_. Be warned, I think it’s a martyr story rather than typical genre fiction, even though it’s steampunk.

      I’m not sure if it’s quite what you’re looking for, but Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s _The Thread that Binds the Bones_ has something that I think is rather like Catholicism– ancestors show up as benevolent ghosts and there’s quite a lot about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. On the other hand, it’s not real world Catholicism.

  15. In total agreement with pilgrimsoul about allies.

    And loyalty! Unshakable partnership! It can be fraught, its power over them a mystery to one or both participants. Ancillary Justice and Cherryh’s Tower series are recent reads that feature that kind of relationship, and I loved them both.

    Settings that fall outside the here and now. The further from 21st-century U.S. consumer culture, the better.