You’ve slaved over your brilliant masterpiece for months–or even years–and finally, by some chance of fate, it ends up in my eager, avid-reader hands. So, what are the chances I’m going to make it to the end?
Without going into the usual discussion about interesting plot, compelling characters, and good worldbuilding… there are a few readerly irritations that seem to pop up again and again for me. Since I hate the phrase “pet peeves” (I might actually call it one, if I didn’t hate the phrase so much), here are some things that drive me (as a reader) up the wall, in no particular order:
Keep in mind that this is one person’s opinion, and the things that make me crazy might not be worthy of a single batted eyelash on another reader’s part. Also, I’m pretty firmly against any “always” or “never” writing advice. Anything can work, in the hands of a skilled-enough writer.
1. Unnecessary Vagueness
Whenever a book starts off with “he” or “she” or “the old man” instead of a name… I groan. Unless there is a very good reason not to tell me a character’s name (and wanting to add a dash of mystery by withholding the information doesn’t count!), this tactic usually feels exactly like what it is: a gimmick.
Likewise, the one question I never, ever want to have to ask as a reader is “What the HELL is going on?” I’m totally cool with questions like “Why is that man chasing her?” or “Why is he in prison?” or “How can he be narrating this story if he’s dead?” (oldie but goodie)… and of course, there should always be a “What’s going to happen next??” in there. But leaving me cold and clueless in some misguided attempt to be mysterious is one of the fastest ways to lose me as a reader. Not giving me a sense of setting, or opening with unattributed dialogue also falls into this category.
K.M. Weiland has a great blog/cast on what she calls ‘Exclusive Dialogue’ (deliberately cryptic dialogue), and how it can give readers a sense that they are the odd man out, listening to an inside joke that the writer has no intention of sharing. I’d argue that this applies not only to dialogue, but to narration as well. Being the odd man out is not a good feeling! You want your reader to feel they are a part of the story, not on the outside looking in.
2. False Tension
This is something I also refer to as “the cat at the door”. The protagonist is alone at home on a spooky night, and there is a scratching at the door. Terrified, she realizes she hasn’t locked it–but it’s too late! She watches in horror as the door swings open… and it’s only the cat.
This is another thing that screams gimmick. You’re increasing tension, getting me all on tenterhooks, and then it all amounts to nothing. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Doing this too often is a good way to completely lose my trust in you as a storyteller.
3. Too Much Show
Is that a little unexpected?
We’re all told “show, don’t tell”, but taking this bit of advice too much to heart can ruin your pace. Trying to show everything, especially in shorter fiction, can result in long passages of extraneous wordage or irrelevant dialogue that grind the actual PLOT to a halt.
When deciding how much to show, and how much to tell, try to weigh how important the info is in context of the scene and story, versus the relative wordcount you’re going to have to expend on showing it. Don’t cut corners on the important stuff, but if a side-character’s temperament is only of passing relevance, don’t spend three pages showing me what a bastard he is. Have your POV character internalize what a bastard the guy is because of the XYZ he pulled once, and move on. Sometimes telling is okay.
4. Manufactured Conflict
By definition, all fictional conflict is ‘manufactured’ by the author. However, there’s a difference between conflict that feels natural, and the kind that seems tacked-on, stuffed-in, or otherwise out of place.
In my experience, character conflict that feels manufactured tends to pop up fairly often in the romance genre, where much of the tension comes from the obstacles standing between the hero and the heroine. Done well, it does its job and has us turning pages to find out how on earth the characters are going overcome their differences and find their happily-ever-after. Done poorly, the characters end up seeming unreasonable–jumping to ridiculous conclusions, clinging to unfounded biases, blowing things out of proportion, and generally standing at odds for no good reason.
Event-based conflict can also feel artificial if it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have any lasting impact on the main story.
Ultimately, it all comes down to relevance. Conflict needs to be informed by its context. Character disagreements should arise out of genuine incompatibilities in individual viewpoints and personalities. Event-based conflict should occur as a natural result of preceding events, and have a lasting impact on the story as it continues.
Make sure your conflict has a reason other than “I need something exciting to happen” or “I need these characters to be mad at each other right now”. Otherwise, I’m likely to find your story pointless, meander-y, and/or far-fetched.
5. Unjustified Secrecy
This is an offshoot of the last point, because authors often use a lack of basic communication between characters as a plot device to create tension, or even to drive the story forward.
While there are legitimate reasons for characters not to share information with each other, be wary of leaning on this, especially when it’s pivotal to your plot. If you come to a place in your story where if Character X would simply share [insert significant event] with Character Y, the story problem would be solved–or vastly simplified–be sure you have a very, very good reason why they’re keeping quiet. Double that if the characters are good friends or have no reason to mistrust each other.
Then, think extra hard before you use that same device a second time.
Now… before you call me on my hyperbole: none of these things, on their own, are enough to actually make me put down your book. I’m willing to forgive any of them (and perhaps more than one) if the story is otherwise brilliant… but they could very well mean the difference between “I read it once” and “I read it three times and shilled it to all my friends”.