June 28, 2017

Build a better book club: conversation starters

Great book club conversations happen when readers take elements of a book to heart, and feel empowered to share and compare their reading experiences together. To set the stage for that as the discussion leader, toss out those lengthy, old-school lists of “discussion questions”! Nobody goes to a book club meeting to feel like they forgot to study for a pop quiz (cue sad trombone).

After years of working with small groups of readers, I’ve discovered that a thoughtful, selective set of handy “conversation starters” does a better job. Here are three tips to help you build better book club prompts -- it’s easier than you think, and you’ll feel like a book club superhero when your group’s engagement goes up!

Less is more.  Remember your group is reading for pleasure -- and meeting for it, too. Offering too many ideas to consider all at once (especially in written form) can stall their reading and/or discussion impulse. Most book clubs meet for an hour, and average at least 3 attendees. To give everyone a chance to speak and feel heard:

  • Estimate that you’ll cover about one discussion point every 15 minutes (that’s about 5 minutes of input per person) -- so you’re unlikely to need more than 5-7 prompts.
  • Even then, ideally readers will raise some discussion-worthy topics of their own so you may not use all of your prompts (which is just fine).

Invite readers to rely on what they already know. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re a librarian -- and therefore comfortable with questions like:  “How does foreshadowing create plot tension in the novel?” Reality check: Your readers are far less likely than you (you book weirdo!) to think about concepts like “foreshadowing” and “plot tension.” A better book club prompt uses phrasing that connects to the individual reader’s experience:

  • “How did hints of what might happen fulfill your expectations?”
  • “What plot development seemed most unusual to you?”

Apply fun approaches familiar to readers from social media/pop culture. Send them off to read with a sense of humor. If your group likes this approach, invite a different group member to come up with prompts like these for each meeting!

  • With character-driven books (like Jane Eyre) consider this kind of prompt: “What top three self-improvement tips would you give to X?” (This may be the protagonist, the antagonist, or an interesting secondary character.)
  • For atmospheric books with a strong sense of place, consider how a very different setting would change the story -- or would it? For example: “How would the plot of Stephen King’s It be different if it were set in your home town?”
  • If the book is action-oriented, have readers define “The Moment that is Everything” -- in other words, what event they feel defines the book and why.

Finally, don’t forget to check out NoveList’s great resources for librarians working with book club leaders and readers.


A long-time genre fiction expert, Readers Advisory Librarian Kimberly Burton creates NoveList content for adult readers and the librarians who love them. Librarians: For RA tips, resources, and book club best bets, sign up for Kim’s Club Scene emails from the NoveList Book Squad.

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