And, no, I am not going to say “character, character, character,” although character is one of them. Compelling characters—people we feel we must understand—can send a mediocre plot into the stratosphere. A fascinating character, one with depth and true complexities, can drive me into a story and I’ll never let go until the last word.
The second element? A question. Why are we in this story in this point and time? What question lies between the characters that must be answered? It could be as simple as whether or not John and Mary, given their differences, can start a life together. Or as complicated as whether Mary can save the fate of the world. Either way, as a reader, I need to buy into the question. It doesn’t have to have overwhelming importance to me, but it must be of vital importance to the characters.
The third element I must have is something very dry: scene and sequence. As I read, I create a mind movie in my head. An author in full command of her story gives me the important details as I need to know them to understand the action and to pull full meaning out of the dialogue. Without an orderly scene and sequence, I’m not only lost, I’m frustrated. Sometimes, without this third element, not even dynamite characters or an intriguing question can keep me reading. I will set the book aside.
So what about you? As a reader, what three elements must you have to not only pull you into a book but make you believe the hours you spent with that story was the absolute best use of your time?