10 St. Bookies–Elements to Know

Imagine that you’re in the stacks, pulling holds or roving the wings. A reader walks up to you and says, “I’m looking for a good book.” Freeze frame here. If you’re comfortable with reading conversations, you’ll likely smile and practically rub your hands together in delight. If you haven’t had much experience connecting readers with their next book, you might get more of a deer in the headlights look.

Relax! In our last post, we reminded you that reading conversations are just that—a chat between two people. That said, learning about the elements of books and the lingo of readers’ services can take the fear out of book chats, help you write great book reviews, inspire your displays, and more. Below, you’ll find information and suggested questions that can help you get the conversation started.

Readers Advisory: 10th St. Bookies won’t be using this term much, because it’s one of those phrases that is more jargon than description. However, it’s a standard industry term, so you’ll see it when you decide to explore library literature on readers’ services. According to Diana Tixier Herald, author of Genreflecting, readers advisory is: “the act of putting people together with the books they love.” Easy enough, right?

*Most of the following is condensed from “Connecting Patrons with Library Materials: A Readers’ Advisory Crash Course. Readers’ Advisory Round Table, Iowa Library Association.” The full document is linked below if you would like to explore further.*

Genre​ is the word used to describe a category of literature, film, or music. These include: Adventure, Romantic Suspense, Suspense, Thriller, Gentle Reads, Horror, Romance, Women’s Lives and Relationships, Chick Lit, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Psychological Suspense, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Westerns, Christian Fiction

Themes are popular and recurring plot elements found in fiction — think ‘chosen ones’ in fantasy or fake relationships in romance.

Appeal factors go beyond the subject or plotline and describe the “feel” or the “essence” of the book. See below for some examples, and some suggestions for how to find out what appeals to your reader with a few questions.

  • Pacing​: Speed of the book, both in terms of how the story unfolds and how it feels to read the book. Certain genres are generally known to be fast-paced, such as thrillers, romance, and action adventures, whereas historical fiction, biography, and fantasy are usually more leisurely paced.
    ■ Words to listen for regarding pacing:​ page-turner, compelling, intensifying, leisurely, non-stop action, plot twists.
    ■ Questions to consider regarding pacing:​ Is there more dialogue or description? Are the characters  and plot revealed quickly or slowly? Are there multiple plotlines and points of view?
    ■ Main genres:​ Thrillers, Adventure, Suspense, Romantic Suspense
  • Characterization​: This refers to both the type and number of characters as well as how the reader reacts to them. Characters can be well defined and constant or can be developed slowly and subject to change. Often, readers are in the mood for a specific type of character, such as funny, strong, sassy, etc.
    ■ Words to listen for regarding characterization: Introspective/Involving first-person, quirky, likeable, sassy, spirited, strong, authentic, courageous, brooding, flawed, large cast, relatable, unlikeable, snarky, sympathetic, unreliable, well-developed.
    ■ Questions to consider regarding characterization:​ Are the characters developed over time? Is the focus on one character or several? From whose point of view is the story told? Do you identify with the character(s) or just observe them? Are there series characters? How important are the secondary characters?
    ■ Main genres:​ Horror, Romance, Gentle Reads, Chick Lit, Women’s Lives & Relationship, Science Fiction, Mystery, Literary Fiction and Psychological Suspense
  • Storyline: ​ Storyline refers to more than just the plot of the book. Rather it is a combination of the book’s type, theme, genre, subject, focus and how the story is constructed. Think of it as the book’s blueprint.
    ■ Words to listen for regarding storyline:​ Complex, convoluted, issue-oriented, action-packed, character-driven, nonlinear, open ended, plot-driven, sweeping, world-building, family-centered, tragic.
    ■ Questions to consider regarding storyline:​ Does the story emphasize people or events? Is the focus more interior/psychological or exterior/situational? What is the author’s intent with the story?
    ■ Main genres:​ All
  • Language/Style: ​ Language/Style refers to the reader’s perceived quality and manner of writing. Language/Style is not always essential to a reader’s enjoyment, but when it is important, it is often the most important appeal factor.
    ■ Words to listen for regarding language/style:​ Lyrical, lush, beautiful, haunting, eloquent, gritty, provocative, humorous, jargon-filled, precise, dry, poetic, elegant, conversational, colorful, candid, flamboyant, frank, showy, simple, sophisticated, unpretentious, unusual.
    ■ Questions to consider regarding language/style:​ Does the reader prefer elegantly written, award-winning books, or would they rather have a book written in a conversational style? Is the style of the writing important to the reader, or are they more interested in a specific subject, genre, tone, setting, etc.?
    ■ Main genres:​ All books have a specific language and writing style, though Literary fiction is often viewed as “high quality” or “well written”. Readers’ advisory experts suggest avoiding terms like these as they’re very subjective. If the reader appreciates such qualifications, you may choose to use “critically acclaimed” or “award winning” when describing a book.
  • Setting: This refers to not only where the story is set, but also the book’s background how much that setting is integral to the book. Books can be set in either real or imagined places, and the setting can be as fundamental to the story as a character or can be insignificant.
    ■ Words to listen for regarding setting:​ Descriptive, detailed, atmosphere, world-building, culture, ambience, background, time period
    ■ Questions to consider regarding setting:​ Is the background detailed or minimal? How important is the geographic location of the book? Is the setting a real place or has the author invented a new world?
    ■ Main genres:​ Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Western, Science Fiction, Thriller (in terms of Political, Medical, Military, Legal, Scientific, Financial, Law Enforcement, Espionage backgrounds)
  • Tone/Mood: ​ Tone/mood describes how the book feels when it is read. Often a reader’s own mood and sensibility will affect the type of book they want to read, and those feelings can change quickly. A reader might say, “I’m in the mood for…”
    ■ Words to listen for regarding tone/mood:​ bleak, upbeat, amusing, atmospheric, bittersweet, chaste, conservative, creepy, darkly humorous, disturbing, dramatic, explicit, gossipy, gruesome, funny, haunting, heartwarming, heart wrenching, homespun, hopeful, inspiring, impassioned, irreverent, menacing, moody, moving, mystical, nostalgic, offbeat, racy, reflective, romantic, sardonic, self-deprecating, sobering, spiritual, steamy, strong sense of place, suspenseful, thought-provoking, violent, whimsical.
    ■ Questions to consider regarding tone/mood:​ What type of book is the reader looking for? What is the reader in the mood for today? Does the reader want a book that makes them feel happy? Scared? Hopeful? etc.
    ■ Main genres:​ Horror, Romance, Gentle Reads, Chick Lit, and Women’s Lives & Relationships ○ Frame: ​ Frame encompasses the setting, tone, mood, and background of the book; in other words the book’s impression upon the reader.

Genre groups​, from Joyce Saricks: Grouping of genres according to their similar appeal factors. Particularly helpful when dealing with unfamiliar genres or when suggesting a new genre to a reader.

  • Adrenaline​: Focuses on pacing of the story and action of the plot. Includes Thrillers, Adventure, Suspense, Romantic Suspense.
  • Intellect​: Focuses on question of “What if” as well as the language and inner world of the character. Includes Science Fiction, Mystery, Literary Fiction and Psychological Suspense.
  • Emotion​: Focuses on tone, feel, and character interactions. Includes Horror, Romance, Gentle Reads, Chick Lit, and Women’s Lives & Relationships.
  • Landscape​: Focuses on settings. Includes Westerns, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction.

Appeal Doorways: ​ Nancy Pearl has another approach to Readers’ Advisory that pictures readers entering books through a particular doorway: Story, Setting, Character, and Language. As you listen to the reader describe a book he or she enjoyed, or a book they are in the mood for, pay attention to what they are focusing on. This approach is more streamlined than remembering all of the different appeal factors, which makes it easier to use for librarians just starting out in readers’ advisory.

  • If they describe what happened in the book they are entering through the Story doorway.
  • If it’s the writing quality they bring up it’s the Language doorway.
  • If they are describing the people in the book they are entering through the Character doorway.
  • If it’s where the book takes place they are using the Setting doorway.

10th St. Bookies is a project of the Engaged Community of Readers Team. Online information will be followed by in-person reading conversations, trainings, and opportunities to engage with readers. Reading conversations are for everyone!


Connecting Patrons with Library Materials: A Readers’ Advisory Crash Course. Readers’ Advisory Round Table, Iowa Library Association.


Product Update: Themes. NoveList.


Readers’ Advisory: The Most Important Class for New Librarians. Moyer.


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