Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.
Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?
I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.
Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years — busy-ness, bosses, the mortgage. So the take-charge Nancy, the clever, self-sufficient sleuth, still resonates.
Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy or her friends, captured and tied up. How will she or they escape this time? A hidden staircase, a mysterious letter, a secret in the old attic. Will she find the clue she needs? Tension. Each story utilized something of the unknown and something of the dangerous to create suspense.
The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what Nancy Drew’s goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month. But despite the formulaic nature of the plot, Nancy Drew books are still around.
Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates or tension that propels the action. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike Nancy Drew books, no one will be buying them forty years later.
Some authors actually aim to write long-lasting books. These must have an added dimension: depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.
And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page. Depth isn’t achieved by telling the reader what to think but by giving them a reason to think about the ideas central to the story.
These are the books that can stir readers to believe or hope or try. They go beyond showing the lives of the characters and the events of the story to showing the reader how he is to think and to live. In other words, they have impact.
If books with depth are to last, though, the ideas have to be timeless and universal. They have to connect with their readers year after year. A story, then, like The Octopus by Frank Norris, about the abuses of the railroad in nineteenth century America, may have resonated in its day to its target audience, but fifty years later or a continent away, it makes little impression.
In summary, books with larger-than-life characters and an abundance of tension can last. Add depth and the books that last can impact readers for generations.