What’s your book gateway?

Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, gave a talk last year where she discussed four different gateways to books: setting, story, language, and character:

One of the things that I found interesting about it was that it explained that different readers are looking for *very* different things from the books that they read. It provided me with an explanation of why books that critics might think of as “badly written” can be so appealing to such a large segment of readers.

I’ve discovered over the years that my primary two gateways are setting and character, with a slice of “language” on the side. If a book has a great setting and characters, and has beautiful language to boot, I will happily read for pages without worrying if the plot is moving quickly enough.

On the other hand, Da Vinci Code has a big-ass “story” (aka plot) gateway. I hated the characters, and the language sucked, but the puzzles and the setting (yep, it had a strong setting gateway — hey, look, here we’re playing in the back areas of the vatican) kept me reading to the end.

Several of the runaway youth hits in the past few years were nicely balanced between story, setting and character:
* Hunger Games — fast moving plot, interesting setting, fabulous main character
* Harry Potter — fabulous setting, fun characters, decent plot line once it got going.
* Percy Jackson — awesome characters, strong setting, fun & twisty plot.

I cannot explain Twilight, which in my mind did very little well, though I think that some readers really enjoyed Edward the sparkly and J (what’s his name?) the werewolf, but hey… Not every bestseller has to be comprehensible to me.

A lot of genre writers complain about plotless literary fiction, not realizing that language can be its own gateway. Several of the authors that I most love (esp. Neil Gaiman) have language as their largest single gateway. If you write beautifully enough, you can get a lot more leeway on one of the other gateways.

What’s your gateway, either as a reader or as a writer?


Posted in Writing permalink

About Hilary Moon Murphy

Hilary Moon Murphy's fictional life currently takes place in 1836, within the boundaries of Washington, D.C.. Before that, she has fictionally lived in an ancient China that never was, Mahatma Gandhi's India, and a magical San Francisco. She is a firm believer in Sacred Cows, especially those that are really elephants.


What’s your book gateway? — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Hilary. That is a nice way to categorize books. I want to read page turners with deeply interesting characters. It is a rare combination and explains perhaps why so few books are satisfying. John LeCarre, whose writing was cited as character dominated, is one of my favorite authors. Interesting people are engaged in interesting problems and the language and settings are compelling–what more could you ask for?

    Maybe that means I’m happy with an event driven story if it has reasonably interesting characters, interested in a character driven story if they are engaged in reasonably interesting events, and dearly love stories that hit the target on both.

    Language–? Not so much. I appreciate it when it is well done but would never read a book because of it.

    Setting–? Maybe, if the setting was really innovative and interesting I would put up with crummy plot and plastic characters. Take the movie “Cairo Time”. I thought it was astonishingly bad. Characters didn’t walk, or stride, or run–they ambled. The scenery–breathtaking. The dialogue? Might have been well written, but I can’t remember a single bit of their pointless ramblings. Using this movie as an example, I guess settings won’t cut it for me either.

    Then there is the bottom line: I think that story is what defines character. The events in the story give the characters a chance to show what they really are like.