Write It Sideways

15 Reader Frustrations to Avoid in Your Novel

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Offensiveness. Any sort of gratuitous foul language, violence, or sex is going to alienate a portion of your readers right off the bat.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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?