Well, summer reading season is officially over. (Hello, rain clouds.) And if I didn’t fully acknowledge it before, I definitely know it now:
I’m a picky reader.
Maybe I shouldn’t be. I’d probably learn a lot if I were to revisit all the books I ever failed to get through. Besides the particular topics and themes those books explore, I could also delve deeper into the craft of writing itself. It’s always good to learn more about the elements that make for a really good (or bad) story.
But. There are literally thousands of books vying for my attention at the library (my favorite book hunting grounds).
Why would I spend my limited reading time on stories that cause me to bail out within the first few chapters when there are so many “better” (well, more to my taste) books waiting in line to enchant me?
Over the summer, I bailed on several books. Each one contained one or more major “turn-off” elements that I think are worth exploring.
As a reader, I believe it’s important to figure out why a particular story element bothers me in order to better understand and define my personal preferences and beliefs. And as a writer, sometimes it’s helpful to keep in mind what not to do when working on a story. After all, pitfalls are much easier to avoid if we know about them ahead of time.
Here are the five major turn-offs I encountered during my summer reading. The first three are content related and therefore more subjective; the last two are story crafting issues that all writers should pay attention to.
1) Drunken teen parties
Book I bailed on: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.
This book features the teenage descendants of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson working to solve a murder case on their prep school campus. Intriguing concept.
Unfortunately, I never made it past the second chapter because basically the first thing anyone talks about in the book is the mischief that goes on during the frequent alcohol-doused parties that happen in a basement on campus.
Whether taking place in a book or a movie, these kinds of parties never seem to lead to anything good. Characters who attend can pretty much expect to get drunk, hungover, horribly embarrassed, emotionally crushed, or even sexually assaulted. It seems like there are so many better ways to have a good time. Hence, I tend to dislike characters who choose to regularly attend and discuss (in lurid detail) what happens at such parties.
If you dislike a book’s characters, it’s hard to make it all the way through the story.
2) Unnecessary swearing
Book I bailed on: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
This book is about two suicidal teens who save each other from jumping off the school bell tower and then begin a romantic relationship with each other. I wanted to try this book because I don’t read enough contemporary/realistic fiction.
It’s too bad the narration turned out to be full of swear words.
The male protagonist is a death-obsessed bad-boy, so his copious use of certain four-letter words sort of makes sense. After all, swearing can be used to good effect as a characterization device, sometimes.
However, I think less is more when it comes to @#!$%.
Just because a character has a salty vocabulary, doesn’t mean every other sentence he speaks has to contain a bleep-worthy word. Wouldn’t Niven’s bad-boy protagonist be all the more badass (pardon my language) if he didn’t even need swear words to express his badassery?
Plus, if swearing is kept to a minimum in a book, those few remaining “bad words” will carry all the more emotional weight when a character finally can’t take the pressure anymore and verbally loses control.
So, if a story’s swearing isn’t sparing, this reader is gonna be bailing. (Ugh. So corny.)
3) Unnecessary sex talk
Book I bailed on: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Again, the main offender is the bad-boy main character and his… uh, intimate pursuits.
Again, as with swearing, some talk about sexual topics and portrayal of sexual scenes can be necessary, depending on characterization and plot.
But once again, I felt like these elements were overdone in the opening pages of Niven’s book. In the first few chapters, various teenage girls discuss the bad-boy’s sexual prowess in obvious (though thankfully not graphic) terms. Call me a prude, but I find this off-putting.
For many reasons that I won’t go into right now, I don’t think it’s wise for teenagers to be sexually active. So when the characters in a YA novel start bragging about their “encounters,” or praising the aggressive “style” (ew!) of the bad-boy—for no apparent reason other than to emphasize that he’s a bad-boy—I take that book straight back to the library.
4) Longwinded description
Book I did NOT bail on, but did tune out at some points: The Lord of the Rings audiobooks by J.R.R. Tolkien (read by Rob Inglis)
As any self-respecting geek knows, the LOTR trilogy is about the hobbit Frodo Baggins and how he teams up with some friends (and enemies) to destroy the evil One Ring. (It’s also about how everybody is in love with Aragorn.)
Even though I love the trilogy, I tended to zone out during the massive chunks of description and longwinded songs/poems interspersed throughout the story. I could take only so much description of exactly how the sky looked on that particular morning and precisely what kind of plants were growing in every single location Frodo and Co. passed through before I got the urge to turn off that super-dense audiobook and turn on some mindless pop tunes.
So, here’s the tip for writers like me. According to current writing “rules,” all description and extra stuff (songs, poems, side stories, etc.) should focus directly on furthering plot or enhancing characterization.
Otherwise, you’ll risk making your audiobook listener bail as soon as the narrator starts singing.
5) Lack of reader-character connection
Book I bailed on: Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham
This is a high fantasy book filled with typical high fantasy stuff like revenge-seeking warriors, barbarian hordes, and a powerful kingdom that’s in jeopardy because of said barbarian hordes.
The first several chapters each focus on a different character. Just when I was starting to think one character was the protagonist, the next chapter would introduce and follow someone else. Because there were so many characters, I felt like I couldn’t connect as well with them as I normally do. My emotional and mental energy was spread too thin—spread between too many people for me to really latch onto anyone and start rooting for them.
A large cast of characters isn’t automatically a bad thing (I mean, it seems to work for George R. R. Martin). And I likely would have connected more with Durham’s characters as the book went on.
Unfortunately, Durham lost me before I could get to that point. He simply introduced too many characters too fast.
So, for writers working on stories with multiple main characters, I think it’s wise to spend a bit more time developing each person before bringing in the next. Otherwise, readers may be tempted to bail just to escape the rapid-fire onslaught of protagonists, villains, and foils.
No one likes a firing squad. Especially when the bullets are characters fired from an author’s pen.
Well. I think this is the pickiest post I’ve ever written.
Thanks for reading my ruminations (or rants).
Question: Did you encounter any turn-offs during your summer reading? If so, what were they?
[All photos from Pixabay, used under Creative Commons CC0]