New Review Feature: Doorways Into Books

In the Dark2 copyI’m excited to announce that I’m adding a new feature to my reviews! It’s designed to help you decide if a particular book will be perfect for you.

Here’s how: Nancy Pearl, a librarian and author, says that there are four doorways that lead a reader into loving a book.  Knowing your favorite doorways is a more reliable way to choose your next read than matching genre or subject alone.

I heard her talk about this several years ago and it has stuck in my head ever since.  Pearl goes in depth in this article, but here’s a quick rundown of the four doorways:

1. Story – aka plot.  “I had to see what happens next,” “I couldn’t put it down.”

2. Character – “The characters felt like real people,” “I was sad to finish – it felt like losing a friend.”

3. Setting – “I felt like I was there,” “I learned so much about that time and place,” “the setting was almost its own character.”

4. Language – “I didn’t follow the plot and that was okay – the writing was so beautiful I kept going,” “I found myself slowing down so I could enjoy the words.”

Personally story is my favorite doorway – nothing will suck me in like a riproaring plot.  After that I like character and setting almost equally, with language coming in a distant fourth.  I appreciate good writing, of course, but language alone won’t make me want to continue on.  Everyone is different, and figuring out your favorites is a fun way to deepen your reading and choose what to enjoy next.

So what does this look like in practice on the blog?

I’ve made pie charts showing the proportion of each element.  It’s subjective, of course, and we can quibble about percentages, but I think most people would agree on which doorways are most prominent.  Let’s look at examples for books I’ve read recently:Rapture in DeathRapture in Death, part of J.D. Robb’s In Death series, is a police procedural set in the future.  The mystery insures it’s heavy with plot, and the recurring cast of characters is a large element, as well.  The setting of 2058 New York adds makes for great worldbuilding.  On the other hand, while the writing is good the language doesn’t set it apart, making it the smallest chunk of the graph.A Line Made By Walking

On the other end of the spectrum, A Line Made by Walking is pure literary fiction.  The language is stunning and the main attraction.  Character and setting are doing their thing but there is very little plot.  Therefore, if you’re a fan of plot like I am this may not be the best fit.

Here’s one more:warday.jpg

Warday is an epistolary novel about life in America after a nuclear war.  Plot and setting drive the narrative as two reporters travel across the country to discover what remains.  The descriptions of bombed out cities and dust storms are vivid, and while the characters are well developed they’re not central to the book’s appeal.

I’ll be adding these graphs to many of my reviews going forward.  We all have different likes and dislikes, so I’m hoping it will help you decide on a book when our tastes don’t quite match up.

So which element – plot, character, setting, or language – draws you into a book the most?  Is there one that you could do without?

11 thoughts on “New Review Feature: Doorways Into Books

  1. I really like this idea! I’ve thought about it myself — I’m definitely character first, and setting matters to me too. I don’t care for books that are too much about the language — I’d rather get lost in a story than think about word choice or sentence structure (obviously writing matters but I don’t like when it’s the thing you notice the most).

    1. I am so with you on language! I think it’s why I have a hard time connecting with Booker Prize books, as the writing is amazing but the plot can be so thin. At first it frustrated me – why can’t I enjoy books other people have deemed Important? – but to each her own!

  2. I never heard of these 4 doorways before, this is so interesting! I think that to me, characters are always important, but language comes first when I read in French, which is my mother tongue. In Japanese, however, the plot takes the first place by far!

    1. I agree that plot is the most important thing when I read in Japanese! Interesting happenings help pull me through the book. And if the language is beautiful I probably won’t understand it, hehe.

  3. I really like this idea! This is a concept I use in my reviews pretty often, but I’ve not ever thought about quantifying it. I’m excited to see this in your reviews 🙂

    1. Thanks so much! It’s one of those things that you hear and go, “oh yeah, that makes total sense!” Going through and quantifying the areas while I review has been good exercise for my analytical brain, too.

  4. How interesting! I’m definitely more attracted to story and setting before the 2 others. I love your pie charts! I’ll keep this in mind when reviewing the next books.

    1. I’m so glad to hear you like the pie charts! They’re making me think a little more about my reviews, always a good thing.

      Setting-heavy books are so hard to find! I think The Night Circus is the most popular example, and Palimpsest is in that vein as well… but I’m not sure I can think of any others.

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