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Elements of a successful book: content

Dive in with me as I explore the commonalities between successful books no matter how they were published, what genre they are, or whatever the circumstances of their publication. To start with, let’s look at the real meat and potatoes of a book—the content.

What is the content of your book?

First, we need to define what “content” is when referring to fiction books. If you’re familiar at all with books (and I imagine, if you’re reading this, that you are!), then you know that a book isn’t just made up of the pages that tell the story.

Books also contain two parts or sections, called the front matter (or preliminary matter) and the back matter (or end matter), that are broken up into several one or multi-page subsections. In fiction, traditional front matter may include some or all of the following:

  • Half-title page

  • Series title page

  • Title page

  • Copyright page

  • Dedication

  • Epigraph

  • Table of contents

  • Prologue (I’m not including Forward, Introduction, or Preface here)

The end matter, in contrast, is much shorter than the front matter and might include:

  • Epilogue

  • Acknowledgments

  • About the Author

All of these interior elements, including the main narrative text, make up the content of your book, and in some sense, should be considered as a cohesive whole in the process of writing, editing, and formatting your book. Each element, therefore, should serve the overall purpose and theme of the book.

Good content: beyond grammar and spelling

It may seem like “good” content simply means that the content has been proofread (at the very least). But ask any editor, and they’ll tell you that there is so much more to editing than just correcting grammar and spelling. Variation in tone, pacing, flow, syntax, diction, and the use of literary devices all work together to create a smooth and interesting reading experience. Together, these elements enhance the plot, characters, and setting. discusses five elements that make up great books. Their article identifies these elements as a strong opening, compelling characters, an absorbing story, sharp dialogue, and unique writing style. All five of these items can feel a bit subjective—after all, they all depend on how you define "strong," "compelling," "absorbing," "sharp," and "unique."

This is why receiving feedback, beyond that of family and friends (who may be hesitant to truthfully share what they think about your book; no one wants to be mean, of course!), is pivotal to forming an idea of what a strong story opener, compelling character arcs, absorbing plot points and trope twists, sharp and genre-appropriate dialogue, and a unique style (but not so unique as to be off-putting) are for your target audience.

You need folks on your team who understand writing craft and the particularities of your genre to help identify what's working well and what needs improvement. Perhaps this seems like common sense, but I've heard many a writer say with astonishment when they begin receiving negative reviews: "But my friends/family loved it!" Share with your family and friends by all means, but don't skip out on finding some professionals—critique groups/partners, writing groups, and book editors—to help.

Beyond the bones of your book

And we can drill down even further! Consider Writer's Digest's top ten suggestions for creating a book that people want to read. You know your book needs a solid plot, and there are many subelements that make up that good plot. Do they all contribute toward moving the plot forward? Are you revealing enough information for the reader along the way to make the payoff (the aha moment!) satisfactory for your reader?

The same can be said of dialogue. You know it needs to be true to your characters and that it needs to be realistic to the world you've created and understandable by readers. But you might also need to consider how much dialogue you need for your genre. Are you using a wide mix of formatting of dialogue tags and actions beats to convey not just the text but the subtext as well?

Take care to spend just as much time and effort on developing your antagonist(s) as much as your protagonists. It can be easy, as you're working out the beats of your story, to focus primarily on the protagonist, but there are antagonist beats as well. (Judy Mohr has a great article on this topic here.) Make sure that the plot rises and falls with your protagonist and your antagonist, and you'll find you'll have deeper characters overall.

The end goal of good book content: reader engagement

High quality, good book content goes beyond doing your story justice or telling your story in the best way possible. These are, of course, markers of personal success for authors. But having a well-written story and cohesive, thoughtful book content (remember, all the elements working together!) will do more than that. It will keep readers engaged.

Reader engagement means that your audience is hooked from the moment they open your book onto that half-title or title page. Now, a few other elements (think book cover, back cover and online blurb, etc.) obviously play into whether a reader will pick up your book to begin with, and I’ll go more in-depth on those in later blog posts.

But once someone has opened your book either physically or on an e-reader, then you want them to stick with it from beginning to end. And don’t think that once they’ve reached the end of the narrative text that that’s the end of the reader's experience. Far from it!

Authors should consider their end matter just as carefully as the front matter. Will you include your social media profiles, your website, or other relevant links in your About the Author section? When readers arrive at the end of your book, if they’ve enjoyed reading it, they’ll likely want to know what else you’ve written and where they can find you online.

This makes those final pages of book content incredibly important because once a reader is looking for you on the internet, joining your email list, reading your other books, or following your social media profiles, then you can be sure that you no longer have just a reader on your hands—you have a loyal fan who is going to keep coming back for more of the good content that got them hooked in the first place.

And if you’re really lucky, that loyal fan will do some marketing for you by sharing your book (a book they loved!) with the people they know. From there, the cycle repeats, and next thing you know, you’ve got happy readers galore. It all starts with how the elements between the back and front cover are woven together to create an immersive reading experience.


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