My last post was a review of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. I gave the series a good grade overall but there were a few points in all three books where I had to put the book down due to boredom. Fortunately I did get around to reading them to completion but it took me over a year and a half to do so.
You don’t want your readers to ever feel like they should put your book down, even if it’s for just a second. Once the book is down, it may never be picked up again.
Here are the biggest offenders that cause me to lose interest in a book. As you’ll see, most problems are caused by having too much or too little.
Reason #1: Lack of Hook
Over the past few months, I’ve started a dozen books but lost interest in eight of them by the second chapter. Of the remaining four, I lost interest in two before reaching the midpoint. Those last two books, I finished: Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick and Red Shirts by John Scalzi.
Hooks are important. Maybe your story is one of the most compelling stories of the past decade, but that matters none if your readers never reach those compelling moments. First they’ll judge your book by its cover, then they’ll judge its value by those first few pages.
I need a reason to read and the quickest way to capture my attention is character. Show me a character who wants something and I’ll want him to succeed in attaining that something. If that character has a strong personality, I will at the very least read to the next chapter.
Reason #2: Lack of Discernible Plot
Once I’m hooked and I’ve decided to give your book a fair chance, nothing kills my interest faster than a lack of plot direction. By the second chapter, the primary character should want something—it may not be the main goal of the story, but still, he should have a goal. The plot is the inherent conflict that arises when that character aims to fulfill his goal.
No goal, no conflict. No conflict, no plot. No plot, no interest. Take an interesting character—e.g., Lord Voldemort, Tyrion Lannister, or even Dr. House—and put them in a cafe, reading a newspaper and sipping on a latte. No one is going to watch that for more than five minutes unless there’s something going on.
Reason #3: Lack of Plot Progression
So let’s say that I’m hooked and you’ve laid out a plot for me to follow. Your primary character has been hired by a court nobleman to assassinate the king’s newborn child to leave him without an heir. Great! That’s an intriguing plot with potentially awesome characters.
But if I read another three chapters and the assassin has done nothing to progress towards the assassination, I’m going to lose interest. Even if he has progressed, he might be progressing too slowly. Sure, the story might have subplots that require the character’s attention, but every scene should ultimately bring that character closer to the main goal at a reasonable pace.
Reason #4: Lack of Strong Characters
You may be able to hook me at the start with one strong character, but if you want to hold my attention, you’ll need a few more who are just as strong. It’s not that I scrutinize each character and run down a mental checklist to see if they pass a test. Weak characters are boring and boring means I stop reading.
Of course, I don’t mean physically strong or weak. I’m talking about depth, history, personality, consistency, etc. Do your characters feel real or do they feel like mannequins with moving lips? Are they repetitive, always whining or struggling with the same thing for hundreds of pages, or do they change and adapt as circumstances change around them?
As the story progresses, your characters should continue to shed layers that reveal more and more about them, fleshing out who they are and why they do what they do.
Reason #5: Too Much Stilted Dialogue
I’ve used the term “on the nose” dialogue to describe what’s often called “stilted” dialogue. Stilted dialogue is what happens when the dialogue has no subtext. People rarely say exactly what they mean to say—in fact, people rarely know what it is they mean to say. Instead, their true intentions are buried beneath their words. That’s subtext.
Not only is subtext more realistic, it forces your readers to be actively involved in the story. If a female character asks “Do you still think I’m attractive?” to her boyfriend, you’re spoon-feeding your audience her insecurity. But what if she asks “Our waitress is pretty cute, huh?” Now we’re trying to figure out what she means by that and BAM! we’re investing ourselves in her as a character.
Reason #6: Too Much Exposition
Exposition doesn’t bother me as much as it does others. Sometimes I actually prefer exposition because it’s clear and direct, which means word economy. But exposition that occurs in long chunks that interrupt pacing irk me. Expositional recaps also irk me. Anything that tears me away from the story itself—irksome.
So what kind of exposition do I like?
The kind that’s doled out in small bits no longer than two, maybe three, paragraphs. The kind that’s flavored with the viewpoint character’s voice. The kind that offers new information that’s pertinent to the scene at hand. If it involves more than one of these, it becomes great exposition. If it involves none… well, it likely irks me.
Reason #7: Too Much Purple Prose
Purple prose is one writing pitfall that will cause me to slam a book shut out of sheer reflex. I can tolerate the other problems listed in this post—save for maybe the lack of a strong hook—and I’ll at least read another chapter or two before deciding that I’ve had enough, but purple prose is an instant Game Over.
Why? Because purple prose sentences are clunky, heavy, and overwrought. When each noun has three adjectives, when every verb is modified by an adverb, and when clauses are strung together one after another without any periods, I lose the will to continue. It’s the same issue as with exposition, except purple prose doesn’t offer any new information. Plus, it hinders my imagination since purple prose is most prevalent in descriptions.
For me, clean and straightforward sentences are always preferable to long-winded sentences that try to show off. It doesn’t help that I have a pet peeve against people—writers or not—who try too hard and I believe purple prose is a symptom of trying too hard.
Reason #8: Too Many Cliches
I am the most forgiving toward this issue, but at some point even I can’t stand the predictability of cliched tropes. That is, after all, why I have my series on bad fantasy cliches. So in the case of overplayed tropes I’m willing to give an author the benefit of the doubt—such as Michael Sullivan’s traditional fantasy races in the Riyria Revelations—but trope aversions and trope subversions are by far more interesting.
If your story can avoid these eight problems, there’s a high chance that I’ll read to the end without much issue. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll like the story, but that’s a topic for another day.