If you’re writing a novel–or planning to in the near future–have you stopped to consider your readers?
Some of you write solely for the pleasure of it, never intending anyone to read your work. In that case, write however you want. Do what makes you happy.
Most of us, on the other hand, write to be read. We want to be published. To do so, our work will likely pass a number of eyes first: critique groups, beta readers, agents, editors, and finally–your target audience.
The last thing you want is for readers, at any stage of the writing process, to put down your book out of frustration.
Here are 15 reader frustrations to avoid when writing your novel:
- Too many characters. When more than just a few characters are introduced in the first few pages of a book, it’s difficult to keep their names and roles straight.
- Can’t get into the writing. If your prose doesn’t appeal to your target audience, you might lose your readers. For example, those looking for fun and feisty chick-lit might be turned off by a heavy literary style. Write for your intended audience instead of trying to please everyone.
- Sterile characters. If your characters are flat, if there’s nothing to set them and their struggles apart, we won’t want to cheer for them, and might not care enough to keep reading.
- Unrealistic dialogue. Overuse of speech tags like “she hissed,” “he snapped,” “she stammered,” get irritating fast. Likewise, reading a character’s name too often in dialogue can be a turn off. Avoid more than the occasional “um” or “well,” or “er,” and keep dialogue realistic, but more coherent.
- Inconsistency. Your writing style, tone, character motivations, or even plot might begin one way and, unintentionally, change at some point in the book. Be especially aware of small details like names, occupations, physical descriptions of people or places, which can all fall prey to inconsistencies over the course of 300+ pages.
- Experimental style. When a writer experiments with style or structure, the result can be refreshing or irritating. Your ability to pull off something out-of-the-ordinary depends on your skill as a writer, and your ability to connect with readers despite your unusual style.
- Unclear character motivations. Have you ever read a book where a character does something, and you say, “Why on earth did she do that?? She would never do that!” Ensure your characters’ actions are in line with their motivations, and if they don’t appear to be on the surface, your reader must understand why not.
- Stakes not high enough. In the movie How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a magazine columnist purposely (and repeatedly) makes herself look like a complete lunatic and stalker, for the sake of writing an article. If she writes the article, her boss will then let her pen columns on more serious subjects, like politics. Through the movie, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t she just get a job at another magazine? And would she really humiliate herself beyond belief for this?” I know the movie is meant to be a bit over-the-top, but I didn’t buy that the stakes were high enough for the amount of trouble she went to.
- Poor character description. A good number of readers don’t want to hear about “brilliant blue eyes,” and “long, flowing locks of blond hair.” We like to imagine characters for ourselves with a few minimal, relevant details.
- Info-dumping. Heaping a lot of backstory on your reader all at once stops the flow of your story. Instead, try to subtly weave in necessary details throughout the book.
- Deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is a plot device which introduces a new character or thing out of nowhere, to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem. Your reader will know immediately if something doesn’t ring true.
- Offensiveness. Any sort of gratuitous foul language, violence, or sex is going to alienate a portion of your readers right off the bat.
- Hackneyed plot. If your novel features an often-used storyline, be sure you present it in a fresh way. Readers are used to seeing similar plots, but unless there is something that makes yours stand out, they may not bother to continue reading.
- Unnecessarily long. If your story is well over generally accepted word counts for your genre, think very carefully about whether you’re adding too many unnecessary scenes or details. Use fewer words; choose better ones.
- Ineffective structure. If all the good stuff happens at the beginning, or if nothing exciting happens until the end, your reader will be frustrated with the rest of the book.
If you’re just getting started or working on a rough draft, keep these in mind as you write, and avoid them whenever possible. If you’re at the editing stage, look over your manuscript with a thoughtful eye to see if you can improve any of these areas.
Can you think of any other items to add to the list?
Join the discussion
If these types of guidelines for easy to read books would’ve been followed, Tolstoi, Soljenitin, Nabokov, James Joyce, and many more others – would not be published today 🙂
This is two-sided: following these advices you could lose the more sophisticated readers, the intellectual reader, the one who is interested more in development and characters, psychology and possibilities, not the plain story told in a different way 🙂
Just my thought
You bring up a good point, but the type of literature most people read today is far different to what it was a couple hundred years ago. Times have changed, and not necessarily for the better (I was a student of classic literature in university, and do consider myself something of a ‘sophisticated reader.’), but you can’t expect tastes to stay the same through the ages.
I speak from the point of view of what is publishable these days. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, which is why I said “avoid them whenever possible,” instead of “never never never!”
I loved studying James Joyce, the operative word being ‘study.’ It’s not the kind of thing most people would sit down and read on a Friday night for entertainment, because to fully understand it means to study its historical, social and political contexts.
I recently read a beautiful book called “The China Garden” by Christian Olsson, which happened to be quite literary in style, and it didn’t suffer from any of these reader frustrations. It was published in the last couple of years, so, eschewing the things on this list don’t necessarily equate to ‘an easy read.’
A thought-provoking post, and I also take the point dayathlin makes. I think there’s a distinction between the jobbing writer, and the artist. The artist will do what he’s going to do and die starving doing it if necessary, while the jobbing writer needs to get paid now.
What’s also interesting is that I’ve seen many recently published and very popular writers flout some of these recommendations – I’ve put down The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo twice now – a wierd unexplained prologue and then two chapters of background about two different characters and situations – 2 massive info-dumps and 3 apparently unrelated things – how did any editor get beyond chapter 1?
Well said, James.
I haven’t read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but I’ll have to try it. I think authors can sometimes get away with one or two of these frustrations, but it’s when you start to see them add up that they become a real distraction.
Poor vocabulary or overuse of a thesaurus! I hate when it sounds like the person opened up the thesaurus and found the biggest/coolest word to mean “large.” An author should consider the various shades of meaning and find the just right word, not necessarily the biggest or least common.
Good one, Ronnica.
I think the Thesaurus comes in handy now and again, but not to beef up your writing with million dollar words. It’s usually a painfully transparent cover up to a larger problem 🙂
Great (and helpful) list. My difficulty: stakes. Stakes are always the problem. Must work on stakes.
Yes. Ask yourself, would I go to the same trouble my characters would for whatever’s at stake?
Great tips! Those are the things that drive me nuts as a reader.
Morning Suzannah — Brilliant… again. When are you gonna stop beating us all to the best content so we don’t look like we’re simply surfing your wake? Nice.
Ha ha. Thank you, Larry (even though that’s so not true). If people want some truly brilliant content, I suggest they head over to Storyfix. 🙂
T. H. Mafi says
great post!! this stuff is critical for all writers to remember.
thanks for sharing! 😀
I think the very first one is a common mistake new writers make the most. They may have ideas of all these interesting characters and will try to force them into their book when they just don’t fit. There is only room for so many character and making sure that those characters have appropriate time in the book is also something to monitor.
Thanks, Brent. I just get irritated when I’m thumped over the head by twenty characters all at once. What’s also annoying is when the story features a lot of important characters, whose names you need to remember, but then all of the very minor characters are named as well. Can get confusing.
Joan Swan says
Nicely said. Will post link on next Monday Mosaic on my blog. Thanks!