If you're new around here, my unique review system might be throwing you for a loop. So for anyone who has any questions about how I rate books for book reviews or other pieces of media, here is a handy document explaining everything.
Stories are an art form, and as such are subjective. They don’t have a singular purpose in our society, so they can’t be judged with a singular metric. For that reason, I came up with my review system, which is actually three rating systems bundled together. These three rating systems each explore an aspect of how we view stories in our society: academic value, entertainment value, and personal investment.
Academic Rating: 0-100 (Letter Grades)
The first way I’ll rate any piece of media is by literary analysis, or by academic merit. This looks at the technique of the storytelling itself more than the actual content of the story. Here is where I’ll dive deep into the writing techniques, major themes of the work, and literary devices. You know, the kind of stuff you used to have to write about in your book reports in school. In honor of all the students slaving away on their papers, this rating will be given with letter grades based on a 100-point numeric scale.
But where do those points come from, you ask? There are five main categories that will be analysed on a ten point scale as follows:
Writing technique and style:
Here is where I’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of the piece. If it’s a book, this will cover diction and prose. If it’s poetry, I’ll talk about meter or rhythm instead. Reviews of TV shows and movies will cover dialogue or pacing. This is a basic measurement of the storyteller’s skill level in their respective medium.
I’ll say this right up front: a lot of people love huge amounts of world building. I don’t. A lot of people also like to rip off the Daddy of the modern fantasy genre, Tolkien, when they worldbuild. I don’t like that either.
Most people think that worldbuilding applies exclusively to fantastical or otherwise fictional universes that someone has created from scratch. I’m going to put a pin in that idea right now. Worldbuilding in a storytelling context simply means how alive the setting feels, and how well it meshes with the story and characters, whether that setting is based on a small town in our real world or an entirely fantastical universe. This rating determines how much a storyteller made me care about their world, no matter the size. In fact, the more useless facts about the world a story is loaded with, the less likely I am to give it a high rating. It doesn’t matter how much effort you spent creating a dynamic history for your fictional civilization: if you can’t get me to care about it, then you haven’t done your job right.
Characters are the lifeblood of every story. Are they nuanced, three dimensional characters that feel like real people? Or are they flat cardboard cutouts moved strategically through the story like puppets? Does the story capture a diverse set of viewpoints, or are the characters who differ from the author’s way of life a walking stereotype at best? Characters can make or break a story, and this rating does just that.
Literary Devices and Themes:
Here’s where we start to get really academic. If you want information for your book reports but don’t want to sound like everyone else who just copied off of Sparknotes, this is the section to look at. Did the story carry its themes through to a satisfying conclusion, or did it drop them somewhere around the second love triangle? And how did that foreshadowing work out? Since not every story is written for pure academic value, this will also be a measure of genre-savviness. It may not have the political clout of a book like 1984 or Lord of the Flies, but a textbook-perfect romance plotline is still a worthy accomplishment.
No, this is not a measure of political correctness. No, a story doesn’t have to be an extremely liberal “woke” masterpiece to get a good rating in this section. This is just a measure of a creator’s basic awareness of the culture they are creating works for. Or as I like to call it, the “don’t be an asshole” category. An important note: if I review any older pieces, they will be judged by the standards of the time they were written in, not by our modern standards. The story doesn’t need to have perfect representation in order to get a high rating here, but having bad representation is a sure way to get docked.
And those are all the categories. To get the final rating, all of the previous ratings are added together.
But wait! You might ask. The highest total you could possibly get, scoring a perfect 10 in every category, is only a 50. How can you call this a 100 point scale?
To that I have one last part of the formula: a little something I like to call the cohesion coefficient. (My background is in engineering, so I have a fondness for formulas.) Just excelling at the individual parts of writing a story isn’t enough: the elements also have to work together to form a cohesive story. Hence, the cohesion coefficient.
The cohesion coefficient is a number between 0 and 2 that represents how well all the different parts of the story play in the sandbox together (decimals allowed). A rating of a 1 means that the elements are all there but don’t mesh well. A rating below 1 means that the different elements are actively working against each other. A rating above 1 means that they work well together, with the effectiveness increasing as a rating approaches a 2. This number is then multiplied to the base score from the previous section to get the final score, which is then assigned an alphabetic grade.
Now, if you know anything about math, you’re probably wondering why there’s both addition and multiplication in this system. The funny thing about using multiplication after addition is the spread of the numbers; that is, that the numbers are skewed in the lower direction. This means that it’s a lot harder to get a high score than to get a low score, and a perfect score is almost impossible. But that’s a pattern that you’re going to see more of later in this document.
The way our education system works pushes people to excel and refuses to accept anything less than perfection. But art is subjective; you can’t force it into boxes like that. Plus, if I gave everything I reviewed a perfect rating, then that perfect rating wouldn’t mean anything. A high score should be worth something, so it should be rare.
But like I said before, there are other ways to judge storytelling than pure academic value. Just because something scores low in the analysis section, it doesn’t mean that it’s worthless. Some stories are just purely entertaining, which is what the next rating is all about.
Entertainment Value Rating:
-5 stars to 0 stars to 5 stars
Entertainment value is a separate metric from academic value. Sometimes you want a journey that will make you search your soul and leave you forever changed. And other times, you want something light and fluffy that can be consumed with a bowl of popcorn. If you’re in mood for pure entertainment, this is the rating you want to pay attention to.
But what is this? There are negative stars? How can that be? Well, have you ever watched something become a train wreck, but been unable to look away (*cough* the last season of Game of Thrones *cough*)? Familiar with the phrase: “it’s so bad, it’s good”? That’s what the negative rating is for. Here’s a basic outline of the ratings:
If a work has -5 stars:
This story is so bad, it’s hilarious. Think gratuitous slasher movies or over-the-top satires. Gouts of fake blood and dialogue so terrible, you can’t help but laugh. Sharknado. It’s not for everyone, but stories like these still certainly have their audience.
If a work has -4 stars:
This story is pretty bad. In the right light, though, it’s still pretty funny. Robin Hood: Men in Tights. You might get some fun times out of it if that’s your thing.
If a work has -3 stars:
This story is just straight up bad. It has very few redeeming qualities. I didn’t enjoy it, and I doubt anyone else will either.
If a work has -2 stars:
Meh. This story certainly exists. Nothing stuck out about it, or if it did, it stuck out for the wrong reason. I’m mad at the hours of my life I lost on this work.
If a work has -1 star:
This story was boring in the extreme, extremely predictable or a genre copycat. I could have fallen asleep reading it, that’s how boring it was. I would rather read a textbook. In fact, I probably have read more interesting textbooks. At least chemistry textbooks have explosions in them sometimes.
If a work has 0 stars:
This is a textbook. It has absolutely no entertainment value. There is no story worth following, if there is even a story at all. This is not something I would get far into unless I had to.
If a work has 1 star:
This is a textbook with a heart. At its core, it is an academic piece with intent to teach, but it does use some story elements to make the lesson more palatable. Most documentaries would fall into this category, as well as books like Silent Spring.
If a work has 2 stars:
There’s a story here, but it’s not one that’s going to appeal to a very wide audience. Think of a memoir by one of your favorite celebrities. It might be an enjoyable read, but it will definitely appeal to some people more than others. For example, one of my favorite autobiographies is The Man with the Golden Flute by Sir James Galway. I liked it, but it’s not for everyone.
If a work has 3 stars:
This is a pretty good story. It’s entertaining, and what more could you ask for than that? It’s probably a little tropey, but it’s perfect for turning your brain off and reading on the beach or binging in a blanket with a mug of tea.
If a work has 4 stars:
This story is high on the entertainment value, with a well thought out world, captivating characters, and a driving storyline. It’s sure to be a hit with almost anyone who likes a compelling story, regardless of genre.
If a work has 5 stars:
This story is the cream of the crop: absolute perfection. Not only is it so compelling you’re unable to put it down, it also means something. Maybe it sparked a revolution, or changed the way we look at a genre, the way the Harry Potter series or A Wrinkle in Time helped define the young adult genre of today.
Like before, this is a very hard rating to attain. Because if something has five stars, you know it’s special. Which leads me to my last rating.
Everyone has different things that they like in a story. And that’s okay: we are all different people, raised in different cultures and with different favorites. What’s going to appeal to me isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and I understand that. At the same time, I’m not going to like a lot of things that many other people do. That’s why I think it’s important to include this meter in addition to the more analysis based ones. If you hang around this blog a lot, chances are you probably have some similar preferences to mine, in which case this is probably a useful metric to you. If you don’t have similar preferences and hate everything that I like, then the rating might still be useful to you. Who knows.
The way I prefer to think about personal preference in stories is like a set of light switches inside my brain: each switch has a label, and it gets turned on when I encounter something by that label in a story. They can be vague or specific: for example, one of mine is “supportive relationships”, which can fit anything from loving pets to supportive friends to family that takes care of each other. Basically any healthy and functional relationship. Another one of my switches is “dragons”. That’s it. I love dragons with a passion. If it’s got a dragon in it, the light switch goes on, no questions asked.
Again, this is a personal preference rating and nothing more. It has very little bearing on the actual analytics of how “good” the story is. A guilty pleasure rating, if you will.
If a work has 0 stars:
I’m locked in a basement somewhere. There are no lights, and it is cold and dark and damp. I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to finish this story.
This is reserved for topics that actively turn my stomach, usually stories that deal with graphic descriptions of violent trauma or medical dramas (I have an intense phobia of needles). An example of a book that would fit here is The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel by Richard Flanagan about Australian prisoners of war in a Japanese labor camp during world war 2. I read it for a class and it’s a fantastically written book, but the depictions of the horrors the POWs suffered made me really uncomfortable. Is the book academically valuable? Yes. Would I read it again? Only if you paid me. Hence, the basement of 0 stars.
If a work has 1 star:
I’m locked in a supply closet with a smelly mop. There’s a single bare lightbulb flickering overhead. It’s not a pleasant place to be, but I’m not ready to kick down the door. Yet.
This is for stories that I don’t enjoy but that didn’t make me want to hurl. Usually the genre alone is enough to tip me off that I’m not going to have a good time. Was the story good? It could have been well written, but I just wasn’t interested in the subject matter. Most romance books, rom-coms, war movies (particularly from the two World Wars), generic dramas and thrillers, and stories about cancer or other terminal illness would fall into this category. (Although this doesn’t apply across the board. I found myself really enjoying Dunkirk, even though it’s a war movie, for the intriguing non-linear format, and I will avidly consume even the most tropey of romances if it’s in any way, shape, or form gay.) Some examples that would fall into this category are books like The Fault in our Stars, or movies like A Star is Born, or musicals like Dear Evan Hanson, or any iteration of The Notebook. Especially anything like The Notebook. Been there, done that a hundred times already, don’t want to do it again. You can yell at me all you want, but I’m not changing my mind.
If a work has 2 stars:
I’m in a dimly lit corridor. It’s a little spooky, but not bad. There are several doors leading out of the corridors, and I’d take one if it looks like it’s at all better than here.
This rating is pretty much exclusively reserved for stories that I wanted to like, or felt like I should like, but just fell flat. The disappointment that comes with the crash flattens down the rating. An example of a story that fits into this category is Carousel Tides, by Sharon Lee, a book by a local author that was pitched to me as “haunted Old Orchard Beach”. I wanted to like it from that description alone, but I just couldn’t get into the head of the main character and the outlay of information was always a step behind where I wanted it to be in a way that was supposed to be suspenseful but just irritated me. Great premise, but I just didn’t jive with the execution and style. And I was really looking forward to selkies in an amusement park, too.
If a work has 3 stars:
I’m in a room. There’s enough light to see by. It’s neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It certainly is a place that I am in.
This is basically the “meh” rating. I didn’t dislike the story, but nothing in particular stuck out to me either. I honestly can’t think of any examples off the top of my head because stories with this rating don’t stick with. Most media I consume tends to fall in this category though, so you’ll probably see a lot so these ratings laying around.
If a work has 4 stars:
The lights are on, the room is warm and cozy, I’ve got a blanket and a pillow and probably a cup of cocoa. I’m very happy where I am and have no desire to leave.
This is the rating for stories that I personally enjoyed. It doesn’t matter if they were cliche or trashy or so-called “low brow”: I loved them start to finish, even if there were parts that I wouldn’t typically enjoy. The Inheritance Cycle is an example of this for me. I grew up with these books and in this world. I loved the characters and the story. Is the main character a self insert of the author? Absolutely. Did the author make mistakes early on that were lampshaded in later books? Yes, and very obviously: it’s very difficult for a teen to wield a five-foot-long sword. Was the ending disappointing? Yeah, it felt a little bit like a cop out. But do I still love this series with every fiber of my being? Hell yes I do!
This distinction begs the question, however: where can I go from here? If a story I absolutely love only gets 4 stars on this rating, what could possibly attain that fifth perfect star?
If a work has 5 stars:
The sky has opened up and I have ascended. I stand amid a shower of golden light as I am serenaded by the sweetest of birdsongs. I am in my happy place and I never want to leave.
This rating is for works that leave a profound impact on me. In order to attain a 5 star rating, the story has to be so perfectly attuned to my preferences as to feel like it was made for me. As such, finding something I would call 5 stars is really rare. There are less than ten works in existence that I would give this rating (yet!).
But that’s the point of a 5 star rating. It means that it’s perfect, and nothing about it could be done better. I think that we as a society are hyper focused on perfection in our creative endeavors, but it’s okay if we don’t hit that impossible metric. I won’t give a work a high rating unless I think that work deserves it. Because when something is truly special, I think it deserves to shine.
So those are my three review systems! I’ll use all of them every time I do an in-depth review of a piece, so be on the lookout for them around the site.