As an author-in-the-making, I know what goes into a good book. I know the tricks to fill a story with truth (not to mention decent morals) without making it didactic, and I know how to make a story interesting without making it obscene.
This knowledge, which has come straight from personal experience, also comes into play when I’m choosing books to read. Since not everyone is an aspiring author, though, I thought I could share a few pointers on picking what (and what not) to read. You’ll notice that none of these specifically exclude books that are not considered religious. I did this intentionally- there are good books to read which have nothing to do with God or faith or anything. (Although the best books always do. Read Lord of the Rings if you don’t believe me.)
If it uses expletives, put it down. It’s that simple. From an author’s point of view, this is the mark of a poorly written book. If the author didn’t have a large enough vocabulary to avoid using cuss words to express emotion, then their book doesn’t deserve to be read. I know that’s harsh, but it is one of the first indications that this book isn’t worth your time, nor is it worth the attack on your soul.
2) Portrayal of love.
This could mean any number of things: the character’s relationship with her friends, the character’s relationship with his family, the character’s relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend, etc. The way a character interacts with other people says a lot about them. In fact, I rely on relationships for character development more than anything else when I write.
There are two ways in which love can be wrongly portrayed, both of which are indicators of a bad book. The first one is obvious. If there are any highly sensual scenes -especially if the people in question are not married- then it’s literally no better than verbal pornography. I’m not kidding.
The second way is harder to catch because it doesn’t necessarily involve explicitly inappropriate scenes. You have to consider the work as a whole: is love portrayed as a selfless, fruitful gift, or is it portrayed as infatuation and lust? Don’t fool yourself. If you find that the “love” in your book falls under that second description, that book should find its way into the trash.
The only exception here is if you are willing to let your parents/other responsible figures read this book so that you can discuss and understand exactly why the portrayal of love is wrong. The Phantom of the Opera (Yes, I’ve read it. Don’t judge.) is a good example. Much of the conflict centers around two different portrayals of love: a pure, selfless version, and a lustful, possessive version. While that’s not generally a good quality in a book, it makes for great discussion if you’re willing to do so. Hint: if you wouldn’t want your parents to read it, then you probably shouldn’t be reading it, either.
3) Portrayal of life.
This especially applies to action/thrillers. It’s understandable that the antagonist has no respect for life, but what about the protagonist? If the protagonist and his buddies rely on guns to get things done, then they are just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Over time, this attack on the dignity of life will start to wear down the reader’s belief in the sacredness of life.
Trust me, there are other ways to do things than by eliminating inconveniences. A writer will show their true talent if they can create a protagonist who respects life- even in an action story where high speed car chases and bullet-riddled bodies are the norm. It also makes the conflict infinitely more interesting.
Anyone who has taken a literature class can tell you the four different kinds of conflict: man vs self, man vs nature, man vs man, man vs society. If you can identify the struggle in the book you’re reading, it will tell you a lot about the nature of the story. Now, to a non-author, that probably sounds horrible. Who wants to analyze a book when they’re trying to enjoy it? (I do, but I’m weird like that.) Here’s my answer: identifying the conflict won’t be a conscious thought. If the book is written well, the protagonist and antagonist will be obvious, and so will the struggle. Don’t think too hard- just answer simply: what is the conflict?
The conflict is what your book is about. Let me repeat: there is no story without a conflict. Putting a character into a bad situation brings out their true colors- it shows you their virtues, their flaws, everything. When I have writer’s block, I make a list of all of the worst things that could possibly happen at the moment in my story where I got stuck. This always sparks an idea- putting a character in a horrible position shows the reader what they’re made of, and moves the plot forward.
So consider the conflict carefully. Is it revealing the character as a truly good person in spite of their flaws? Or is it making them worse than ever? The way a character handles the conflict determines whether you have a truly good story in your hands.
5) Overall message.
Here’s the tricky part about conflict. In my current project, my main character is both the protagonist and the antagonist- but even as the protagonist, she’s still a thief. A liar. An all around bad person. When faced with the conflict, instead of repenting and fixing the problem, she just continues to do exactly what she did before- steal and lie.
That sounds like a horrible book, right? It goes against everything I just said about conflict determining what the story is made of. But if you were to read on, you would see that, in reality, her lifestyle is unsettling to her- she’s just afraid to admit it. And if you were to get all the way to end… Just kidding, I won’t spoil it. (Just in case you ever read it.) What I will say is that it ends in a conversion which truly redeems her. Notice that those are both very Christian themes, but if you were to read the book, there is not a single mention of God. In fact, it’s the furthest from a “religious” book that you could possibly get- a combination of sci-fi/fantasy and action/thriller.
With this in mind, make sure you consider the over all message of the story. A good author won’t write based on a set “theme” about morality or faith or anything. Such a message will creep in later, to be revealed through relationships and conflict and everything else that makes a good book. Often, it happens without the writer even knowing it- but it does happen, and it will be identifiable. If you can’t find some sort of message, then the book had no purpose. In that case, it’s not worth reading anyway.
But if you do see some sort of message, make sure it’s a good one. In the same way that a theme will seep in unknown to the author, that theme will seep into the reader’s brain without their knowledge. It will determine your idea of a good (or bad) person. It will affect what you believe is true. Sorry to use an overused cliché, but sticks and stones have got nothing on words- so make sure the words you are reading are worth the cost.