Long before I started writing fiction, I belonged to numerous book clubs. For me, adding book-centered conversation to a glass of wine, snacks, and the chance to poke around in a neighbor’s house creates a perfect social event. Yet 90 million Goodreads members and the plethora of online reading groups suggest that many don’t even require an in-person component. They just want to connect over the books they’ve read.
In order to earn a piece of the book-club audience, which has the potential to serve as a a word-of-mouth marketing machine for novelists, I look here at some of my favorite questions from reading guides to glean what I can about how to meet the needs of of readers who hope a novel will generate great discussion.
Let’s give them something to talk about, shall we?
- “What interested you about the protagonist’s unique perspective?”
One of the things fiction does so brilliantly is to allow you to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes. Think The Girls by Lori Lansens, told in the alternating voices of conjoined twins. Or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, narrated by Death.
I’ll never forget the third club in which I discussed Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, told from the perspective of an evolved dog who has observed crucial information for his beloved human, Denny, yet cannot effectively communicate it. At one point, a book club member who was profoundly deaf, and struggling to keep up with our excited chatter, waved his hands to get our attention. We looked over at him as one, as if surprised he wanted to speak. Forcing a vocalization, he said, “I am the dog.” Had goosebumps then, and have them again now while typing this—it was a powerful moment.
Book club members want a chance to look at life in a new way. How will your protagonist’s unique perspective help them do that?
- “Which character did you relate to the most?”
To inspire this discussion, consider orchestrating your character set around a timely or meaningful theme. One of my favorite examples of this is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, whose cast is orchestrated around a woman’s reproductive rights. It features middle-of-the-roader Dr. Larch, who both performs abortions and raises unwanted children; pro-lifer Homer, one of the abandoned children and Larch’s reluctant apprentice; Homer’s love interest, who came to end her pregnancy; and the incest victim that inspires Homer to perform his first “in extreme circumstances” abortion. By giving us deep access to a range of characters we can relate to, such stories help us learn more about ourselves.
- “How did the story’s developing drama reflect something the protagonist was already wrestling with at the opening?”
By showing us that the deeply personal can also be universal and political, stories can change lives. A reader may not identify as a feminist, say, until she bonds with abused wife Fran Benedetto in Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue. A reader’s prejudices about mental illness might remain hidden until exposed through her low expectations for a character like Barbara Claypole White’s James Nealy, who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder in The Unfinished Garden. A reader who hesitates to support LGBTQ rights might be emboldened after discussing the true nature of love, as inspired by a character like Allison Banks in Chris Bohjalian’s Trans-Sister Radio.
To inspire the kind of debate that results in a consciousness-raising experience, start with inner conflicts to which many of us can relate, and externalize the specific conflict from there with stakes that remind us that what we humans think and feel matters.
- “How did the book’s structure help set expectation and convey meaning?”
When book club darling Sue Monk Kidd used nonfiction epigraphs for the chapters in The Secret Life of Bees, she invited readers to consider what biological and social impulses we humans might share with lower life forms. When early on Delia Owens intercut short chapters investigating the murder of a character we haven’t yet met in Where the Crawdads Sing, readers knew that a girl growing up alone in a marsh would suffer problems beyond how she’d gain an education or find her next meal.
Book club members not only find great joy in digesting and interpreting story, they are eager to identify all the factors that make it meaningful and impactful. The way you order and frame your story can allow you to plant clues about where the story is heading while still allowing readers the space they need to enter into and own the story.
- “Where do you see these characters another five years down the road?”
While many readers love their “happily ever after” endings, for this question to generate conversation, take out the “ever after.” Whether hopeful or tragic, an ending that wraps things up with an imperfect bow will continue to act on the reader long after the last page, as she chews on the future implications for all of the characters. Danielle Younge-Ullman pushed “open-ended” to the max in Falling Under by not telling her readers which male character arrives to support the female protagonist at story’s end, something you’ll find at once maddening and intriguing. My guess is, it cost her readers—but boy, does it generate discussion!
Although I saved this question for last, it is my favorite question to ask the book clubs I visit. While my readers find my endings satisfying, the wide range of enthusiastic answers they give shows that their imaginations are not constrained to what occurred between the covers of the book. A tidy epilogue would have robbed my readers of this chance to co-create story.
(As this discussion draws to a close, excuse Kathryn as she snarfs down one last stuffed mushroom and raises her wineglass.)
Here’s to the next great book club read—may it be written by you!
What are your favorite book club discussion questions? Or, tell us something you’ve learned about writing from one of the discussions in your own book club.
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