What Makes a Book Unforgettable?

magic I had fun seeing the RITA and Golden Heart award nominations go up yesterday. There were some really good books up there! At first, I was just noting that I had read more of the nominees(and had more in my TBR) than in past years. But then, as I pondered this list of books that stood out in the minds of RITA/Golden Heart judges, it made me think on a more subjective level about what makes a book really stand out in my mind.

Certainly polished writing helps. If the reader is constantly slogging through poor punctuation, clumsy phrasing, and the inveterate abuse of homophones, it’s hard for the story to speak to one. However, beautiful words without heart just won’t do it. And that’s where I find things hard to quantify.

After all, what is this heart in a story? One can cite the mixture of humor and poignant emotion that makes a Julia Quinn book stand out or the many layers of character Laura Kinsale bestows on her creations. Jennifer Ashley creates couples who feel real and show actual growth as people in their relationships, Roberta Gellis brings the distant past to immediate life, and the list goes on and on.

There’s just no one answer. And, given the wide range of tastes in online romanceland, there’s certainly no one answer for every person. Certain books just have the magical, special something that makes them stick in our minds and stay close to our hearts. You can’t quantify it or definite it, but, to paraphrase Justice Stewart’s famous description of obscenity, we all know it when we see it.

So, what makes a book unforgettable to you?

Congratulations to all the RITA and Golden Heart finalists!

-Lynn Spencer

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20 Responses to “What Makes a Book Unforgettable?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lynn Spencer. Lynn Spencer said: Blogging about that indefinable something that makes a book stand out: http://bit.ly/9YBagj [...]

  2. carrie says:

    It has to be unique. It has to have something like great writing (lyrical prose or great comedic timing); unusual plot or unique mystery; solid, believable characters, characters that you keep thinking about after the book is done because you’ve connected with them; emotional response to the characters and/or the story that is lasting.

    I love reading mysteries and romance books, but 90% of them, even the ones I’ve enjoyed, don’t have a plot line I could recall a year later. I read 200+ books a year, so it’s the books that have something really unique that stay with me in detail. Books like Pride and Prejudice, All Quiet on the Western Front, In This House of Brede, Children of Men, Les Miserables, God Stalk by Hodgell, and recently, Butterfly Tattoo by Deidre Knight.

    In lighter fiction, the characters of Shelly Fredman’s Brandy Alexander series really grabbed my heart and have made those books very special for me, with more poignancy than I’d expect from a humorous mystery/romance series. And there are several Georgette Heyer books I keep going back to in my mind, including The Civil Contract, which wasn’t necessarily the most fun to read, but had a story that has stayed with me a long time. The books by A.J. Menden, including Phenomenal Girl 5, are unique and memorable because they take something that could be tired and make it fresh. Jess Granger does something similar (and with equal success) win Beyond the Rain.

  3. Tracy says:

    Unforgettable? A good simple story told well. I hate it when the story is too wordy, you know when you read the scene and then for the next two pages the heroine discusses, it in length, in her head like she’s OCD. Page filler I guess but a shorter book would be welcome.

  4. Karenmc says:

    For me, it’s the characters. When characters are so well-written and specifically drawn, I remember the book, and I’ll want to revisit those characters.

    I have a list of my top ten historicals, and I can name the H/H in each of them. In other books, the names don’t stick with me. That tells me which are the keepers.

  5. Janine (LFL) says:

    Great question. It’s the characters for me too. Characters so real they leap off the page are what makes me fall in love with a book. If the characters are cardboard flat, it doesn’t matter how well-plotted the book is or how unusual the setting. If the characters are amazing, I can forgive other flaws — although not bad prose. That’s probably my second criteria, I want the writing to be smooth at minimum. If the language is gorgeous, that’s a huge bonus.

  6. Tina S. says:

    Characters. For me, connecting with a story is all about the characters. I remember how they act toward each other and how they resolve conflicts more than anything else.

    And I want my adult characters to act like adults. “Outlander” is one of my favorite books, and so are most of the Mary Balogh and Suzanne Brockmann books I’ve read. Adults should act like adults. I really appreciate that in my stories, and since I find it to be a fairly rare occurrence I also remember those books that contain that aspect of the relationship.

  7. June says:

    Simon Cowell advises the American Idol finalists to have ‘a moment, a special moment’ if they want to be successful. Unforgettable novels have many memorable moments.

    While dancing their second waltz, the first was two years ago and lot of heartache before, Ian asks ‘Love me’, and Elizabeth replies ‘I do’. Gush, I melt. There are so many wonderfully romantic moments in Almost Heaven; it’s an unforgettable novel to me.

  8. xina says:

    Thinking back to my favorite books that remain unforgettable, I remember being totally immersed in the story and really caring about the characters. So, I guess it has to be the whole entire package that makes it unforgettable. Those books made me want to go back and visit the people and the place again and again.

  9. Ellen AAR says:

    Characters, characters, characters. I can forgive clunky writing, gaping plot holes and other literary sins if the characters are memorable. They are what make a book stick in my mind.

  10. Lisa says:

    If books were sound boards, I’d say you have switches for characters, plot, setting, and writing quality (and probably a few others, but that’s what’s jumping out at me now). For a book to be unforgettable to me, at least one of those switches has to go all the way up to overdrive. It could be wildly original instead of wildly good (Dara Joy’s Ritual of Proof didn’t really work for me, but I can’t forget the conceit) but it has to be wildly something.

    Some examples for me:

    Unforgettable characters – Phoebe and Dan, Christian and Maddie
    Unforgettable plot – Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (also a great setting)
    Unforgettable setting – Again (Regency soap opera set), Kathleen Gilles Seidel
    Unforgettable writing – I love Eva Ibbotsen’s voice.

    • Janine (LFL) says:

      Some examples for me:Unforgettable characters – Phoebe and Dan, Christian and Maddie
      Unforgettable plot – Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (also a great setting)
      Unforgettable setting – Again (Regency soap opera set), Kathleen Gilles Seidel
      Unforgettable writing – I love Eva Ibbotsen’s voice.

      Wow, I’ve read all of those but the Pheobe and Dan book and loved every one except one Ibbotson! Since your taste in books is very much in line with mine, I would love it if you can recommend some of your other faves to me.

      Dragonflight was my favorite book in the world in my early teen years. Yes, it has an great plot but the characters are amazing too IMO. Who could forget F’lar and Lessa?

  11. Ann Stephens says:

    I once heard an editor say a hot hero is the key factor in a book, and I agree with her to an extent, but if the heroine is vapid, it’s going to take a *lot* of effort for me to finish a book unless she goes through some major character development. The writing has to be more than proficient as well, or I stop paying attention to the plot and start mentally revising sentences.

  12. annaR says:

    Here’s an element no one else has mentioned–outstanding scenes. Years ago, Gene Siskel, the late movie reviewer, said that his definition of a great movie was three really good scenes and no bad ones. Probably reading a book is like running a movie through my mind so I can’t disagree with that. Most all of my keepers have scenes, whether overtly or covertly so, that are romantically thrilling and ones that I’ve never forgotten.

  13. Susan says:

    For me it’s as simple as characters I like. I can even overlook some storyline flaws if they’re written well. I read over 400 romances a year, and whether it’s outright erotica with graphic scenes or something rather tame from Harlequin, EVERY book that goes into my keep pile will have characters that I adore.

  14. Janine (LFL) says:

    I meant one book by Ibbotson. I love all her others…

  15. Lisa says:

    Janine –

    I’ll give you some of mine if you give me some of yours ! :)

    Books like Dragonflight: Elizabeth Vaughn’s Warprize (but not the sequels), Maria Snyder’s Poison Study (again not the sequels)

    Books like Seidel: Difficult! I’d say Deborah Smith books (there’s a thread on her now) – some people there also compared her to SEP, who wrote the Phoebe and Dan book (It Had To Be You) and maybe Fannie Flagg books, but Flagg’s don’t have a core romance. My other favorites by Seidel are Summer’s End and The Same Last Name. Her Harlequin backlist is hard to find but generally worth it.

    I don’t know if anybody else can think of something like Flowers from the Storm. It’s a bit of its own thing…

    More if I think of them!

  16. My favorite books are those where I get to “see” through vivid scenes the H&H actually fall in love. When I finish a Romance I want my ‘awww’ moment. I want to really be able to believe the people I’ve just spent several hours reading about will live happily ever after. If I immediately want to go back and read certain passages once I finish a story or wake up thinking about the H&H the day after, I know I have a keeper on my hands. :-)

  17. Janine (LFL) says:

    Lisa, I didn’t mean recommendations of books similar to the ones you listed (although those are welcome too), I just meant, I’d love to hear what some of your favorite romances are. If you think it’s too off-topic here you can PM me at the AAR boards.

    But to trade back:

    Books like Dragonflight: Archangel by Sharon Shinn, The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe. The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner.

    To a much lesser degree (only a tiny bit similar) maybe The Wild Hunt by Elizabeth Chadwick and For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale. The heroines of the latter two books remind me a bit of Lessa, in different ways. And there’s intrigue in both books.

    Books like Seidel’s: I agree this is tough. The closest to me is maybe LaVyrle Spencer’s contemporaries. Can be a little bit dated but many are good. I recommend Familly Blesssings and Spring Fancy as good starting places.

    Books like Flowers from the Storm. None really, but I can think of a couple of books where one character is devout, the other is not, and that is the source of the conflict. One is Jovah’s Angel by Sharon Shinn (the sequel to Archangel which I mentioned above, another is To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney. Maybe Sunshine and Shadow by Tom and Sharon Curtis as well? I’ll stop here.

    Books like Ibbotson’s. Most of her romances actually remind me more of classic YA books like The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables. But Madensky Square which is my favorite, reminds me more of the Judith Ivory books that are set in France. It is more a similarity of sensibility than anything else, though.

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