I am addicted to words. As a kid, I read the dictionary. Seriously. It has shaped my writing and what I love about reading.
I am drawn to writers who are masters at the art of using words. There is nothing quite like a fine bit of writing, that sentence or phrase that seems to express the essence of a thing in a way that is at once fresh and obvious. In a way that makes you wonder why you never thought of it that way, because now that you’ve heard it, you can’t imagine a better way to express it.
Combine that with engaging characters and a nice plot, and you can’t lose.
Most good stories have the four main components of characters, plot, dialog and narrative. All are important, but they occur in varying degrees of presence depending on the type of book. For example, a spy novel might depend more on plot and less on characters. A travel book might rely heavily on narrative and have little or no plot. It may or may not have interesting characters, depending on who’s writing it and why.
Many modern readers are plot junkies. They want to keep the action going and are willing to accept two-dimensional characters that act according to type as long as the plot twists keep coming. A completely unforeseen surprise ending is the acme of this type of book.
For me, a really great book, regardless of type, is built around characters. The plot is simply what they do, the dialog simply what they say, the narrative providing the infrastructure in which they do and say those things.
Do you know any really clever people, fun to be around? It is fascinating how a mundane setting or experience can be transformed by such a person. I find it the same with books. If the characters are riveting, it really doesn’t matter what they do (the plot). If the characters are really well done, it might take you a while to realize there IS no plot! I once read a brilliant paragraph by Nabakov that described a screen door. A screen door, for crying out loud! Which has nothing to do with characters, but I just remembered it so I threw it in.
This is not to say I enjoy reading books about screen doors. I like a good plot as much as the next guy, and clever dialog can be a thing of beauty, even in the presence of formulaic plots, as Damon Runyon and P. G. Wodehouse have demonstrated.
In the end, for me, it comes down to the writing itself. Whisper a well-turned phrase into my ear, and I'll follow you anywhere.