What is your favorite part of a fictional book? What part of a good book do you remember long after you’ve finished reading it? What is the most important part of a book to you? The way we answer these questions as readers often has a major influence on how we write, whether we realize it or not.
Librarian Nancy Pearl has a theory she calls the Four Doorways, which states that, for readers, there are four main doorways into fiction. These doorways are story, character, setting, and language, and which one you enjoy the most often determines the type of books you’ll love to read and—for writers—which parts of a story are your strong suit.
Writers who gravitate toward the story doorway tend to write books that readers and reviewers call “page turners.” These are books with fast plots that readers stay up all night to finish because they have to know what happens next. On the other hand, writers who gravitate toward character tell stories about people that readers wish were real. They create characters who leap off the page, who readers root for and who they feel like they know—or who they wish they could know.
Setting is the doorway that has readers wishing the world they are reading about could be real or, in realistic fiction, has them making plans to visit—or at least thinking about visiting—the area. Forks, Washington, in the Twilight books, for example, or Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, are just two settings that have ignited the imaginations of readers around the world, and in the case of Forks, have had people flocking to the town by the thousands.
The final doorway, language, is about word choice, figurative language, style. The writers who enter story through language create books where what is going on matters much less than how it is written. Readers who love this doorway find themselves reading slowly, savoring each sentence and re-reading passages again and again because the language is so beautiful to them.
Every writer has at least one doorway that they gravitate toward. For Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code among other bestsellers, that doorway is story. People fly through his books, fascinated by his story question and desperate to figure out what happens next. For Nora Roberts, who has been a #1 New York Times bestseller many times over, the doorway is character. Her books are filled with characters who are genuinely good people and that her readers fall for over and over again. Most of her heroes and heroines are people her readers would love to have a cup of coffee or a beer with, and that attachment has them coming back for book after book in her trilogies or her long running In Death series (which she writes as J.D. Robb).
Literary phenomenon and bestselling author Sandra Cisneros uses language to engage her readers. In her internationally bestselling first novel, The House on Mango Street, her use of figurative language and beautiful description makes each vignette leap off the page and into her readers' hearts. We turn the pages because we can’t wait to see each brilliant, evocative new description that makes something ordinary extraordinary.
But one thing these authors—and most phenomenally successful authors—have in common is that they engage readers in at least three of the doorways at all times. Yes, each author has one thing that they do best, but they all use the other doorways to effectively engage readers as well. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, creates a powerful setting that fascinates and horrifies her readers. But she also uses a fast-paced story filled with twists and turns to capture readers' imaginations and keep them turning pages as well as intriguing characters that readers want to see more of. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, he creates one of the most likeable middle grade heroes ever written, then adds funny prose and a take on the Greek pantheon no one has ever thought of before. And in my own internationally bestselling Crave series, I combine a plot filled with twists, turns, and nail-biting cliffhangers with a group of characters my readers want to be best friends with, a lot of humor, and a fantastical world that gets bigger with every book in the series.
The key to the success of so many bestselling novels and series is being able to engage readers in various doorways. If you have a great plot, you’ll attract the attention of all those readers who love plots that make it impossible to put their books down. But if you have a great plot and characters who really touch your readers, you’ll engage both the story readers and the character readers, which broadens your reader base and in the end, sells more books. Keeping the four doorways in mind when you write helps you create more powerful stories that touch more readers, and isn’t that what writing novels is all about?