Several months ago I wrote a post about how there is no shame in not finishing a book. (The dreaded DNF.) If you’re out of school and the book isn’t required, it’s perfectly fine to walk away. No sense wasting time over something that doesn’t bring you happiness, fun, or valuable information. Life’s too short for that, so go find something else.
Interestingly, this post inspired more than a few people to contact me to ask why I DNF a book. What are the things that drive me, personally, to put it down, walk away, and return it to the library?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this would be an interesting question to answer, not only because I like to share my personal opinions about stuff like this, but also because it might be valuable information for other authors. What might make readers put your book down?
Now, bear in mind before I begin… Everyone is different. What drives me batty about a book may be something that others love, and vice versa. So I can only speak to my preferences, here.
The characters are unlikable.
This is the number one reason for me to drop a book. Yes, lots of characters are unlikable (villains, for example), and there are books where the whole point is to write about unlikable characters. (Hannibal, anyone?) In these cases, it’s acceptable because these are not people we should want to be friends with. (Although it helps when even the villain has something sympathetic about him/her. Very few people are pure evil or meanness. It comes from somewhere and if you can show that and make me sympathize, I’ll put up with your unlikable characters even more.)
The problem arises when the characters should be likable but they just aren’t. These are the good guys, the ones we should be rooting for, but it’s impossible to care for them for whatever reason. It may be the way they treat others, stupidity on an epic scale, passivity, overly raunchy dialogue, or something more nebulous that just makes me say, “I don’t like you enough to spend 300 pages with you.” Much as we choose friends in real life, we choose our favorite characters the same way. We connect or we don’t.
Note that I often encounter unlikable characters when it seems as though the author has gone out of their way to give them a flaw. No, no character should ever be a perfect Mary Sue, but when you give them a flaw and then blow it up and shove it in the reader’s face over and over, it often makes a character unlikable.
There are no/low stakes.
I don’t like books where the characters have little to strive for, or nothing really matters. That’s daily life. Give me characters who have to accomplish, solve, improve, or change something. It doesn’t have to be as epic as saving the planet. It could just be changing their hometown in some way. But give them a reason to exist and things to do. And make it matter (at least to the characters, if no one else).
It’s too predictable.
If I know who did it by page fifty of a mystery, I won’t keep going. If the characters always do the obvious, easy, thing, you’ll lose me. When I can already tell by the end of the second chapter that everyone is going to live happily ever after, why would I finish the story? I don’t need to be shocked or awed by the plot, but I do want to be surprised. If you’re going to send the characters into the spooky old house that no one ever goes into because it’s cursed, there had better be something that happens beyond the obvious. When the lovers meet, there need to be obstacles to their love and a sense/reasons that they might not end up together. If you want me to stick around, don’t make me feel like the conclusion is inevitable.
It doesn’t keep my interest/I don’t care.
I don’t need a car chase or explosion on every page to keep me interested, but I do need a reason to keep turning the pages. I need to know what happens next, that everything turns out okay, that the good guys win (or lose), that the character gets what he wants (or doesn’t and learns how to live on anyway). If I don’t care about what happens as the story and characters evolves, I’ll DNF.
Excessive/sadistic violence and gore.
This one’s definitely just a personal preference, as some people really love the gory, sadistic stuff. More power to you. For me, though, it’s a turn off. I don’t mind a good shootout if the story calls for it, or even a beat down if necessary. The line gets drawn at page after page of torture, graphic descriptions of gore, or violence that’s just written purely for shock value and isn’t necessary for the story.
As I say, this is strictly personal preference. If your story requires it, then have at it. I just won’t be lining up to read it.
The information is old, tired, out of date, or common.
If we’re talking non-fiction, I put down books that simply rehash the same information that others have tackled a hundred times. Add something new to the conversation. Similarly, if the information is out of date, I won’t stick with you. If you’re going to use old information, you’d better have a new take, or explain why it’s more relevant now than ever. Also, if the information is something I can easily find on the internet for free, I probably won’t invest the time in the book. You need to provide more detail, new information, or uncommon information (perhaps something that only your experience can teach).
Nobody does anything.
Books where characters just sit around and talk are boring. People are made to do stuff. If they’re not doing anything, they’re not chasing a goal or trying to improve their lives or the lives of others. Likewise, a book that’s just the author telling the story and info-dumping all over the place doesn’t get it for me. Give me a good mix of action, dialogue, and storytelling.
The story doesn’t match the promise.
If the book is advertised as a thriller but it’s nothing but romance and sex, or I’m promised high adventure and I get literary fiction, I’m probably moving on. Make sure that the book description matches what the book is about. Sometimes the author gets no say in this as the publisher writes the blurb and the ads, but if you have a say, make sure the description is fair and accurate. Misleading readers is a great way to make them move on.
Too much preaching.
I’m not talking about religion, necessarily. I’ll read religious books. What I don’t like is when the author has an agenda or cause and pushes it relentlessly. Issue-driven fiction exists and done well can convey a powerful message. But too much just crosses the line into preaching and I don’t read fiction to be lectured to.
Even in non-fiction, I generally prefer a less biased approach to the information, although sometimes the topic requires bias. Just tread carefully when trying to push an agenda. Too much partisanship can actually push people away if they’re seeking more balanced coverage of the issue.
Stilted or weird dialogue.
If I can’t understand the characters, or the dialogue doesn’t feel natural, I’ll put a book down. If you’re trying for dialect, make sure it’s still accessible to people who don’t speak that way. If you’re using a lot of foreign expressions, “text speak,” or cultural in-jokes, make sure others can understand them. Don’t get too cute with dialogue tags, and don’t write all the “Um’s,” that regular people say. I’ll also put a book down if characters spend too much time explaining stuff to each other, but they’re really explaining it to the reader. Real people don’t explain known things to each other in detail. There are other ways to convey information.
Excessive description of everything.
Yes, sometimes you need to describe things that are unfamiliar to the reader, or to set the scene. What will drive me to DNF are lengthy descriptions of common places/things like modern offices, bedrooms, shops, etc. I don’t need to know about every stick of furniture, every picture on the wall, and the texture of the carpet. Just give me a couple of details that enhance (or are necessary to) the character or the story. I can imagine the rest. Even a lot of fantasy goes too far overboard in this area. I can imagine a medieval castle, for example, or a dragon. Just hit the highlights and save the description for the things you’ve created that I’ve never seen before.
Too many “tricks.”
I recently read a book (I’m not naming names) where the author wrote it as a regular third-person novel, yet the characters kept interjecting their thoughts directly into the storytelling. It was odd and distracting. Breaking the fourth wall can sometimes work, but this was excessive and I couldn’t focus on the story because of it.
If you’re going to throw in tricks like this, do so sparingly and make sure it’s not bothersome to the reader.
It aggravates me to no end when an author doesn’t even check basic facts. If you’re going to write about history, science, or anything “real” like a place or famous person, get it right. I’ll forgive a lot, but if I keep running into incorrect facts, it pulls me out of the story. When it happens too often, I lose trust that the author can carry this story off at all and I’ll put it down.
My mood is wrong.
Like most people, there are simply times when I’m not in the right frame of mind to appreciate something I might otherwise like. This isn’t the author’s fault. It just is. Life changes, circumstances, global events… Any of this may cause me to temporarily lose my taste for something I normally enjoy.
The nebulous, “It didn’t click.”
Sometimes there’s no obvious reason why I DNF a book. The author may have seemingly done everything right and yet there’s just no connection for me. These are the hardest to let go because I feel like I should want to finish it, but for whatever reason, I just don’t. It’s okay. Not every book is for every person, and sometimes there’s just no mojo there.
(Photo courtesy of iGlobalWeb)