I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish*

DNFIf you read enough, sooner or later you’ll run across a book that you shove aside in exasperation, or even disgust. I think it happens to us all. There are a lot of reasons this might happen, of course. And the challenge for authors, editors and publishers is that different readers are put off by different things.

That said, though, there are some things that really do seem to pull readers right out of a story. One of those things – and the most important thing to some readers – is credibility. And there are all sorts of ways in which you can conceive of that word. For instance, readers want their characters to ‘feel’ real. They don’t, as a rule, want characters to have superhuman powers, or behave in ways that aren’t logical, given that character’s personality.

That’s one reason, for instance, why many people find Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch an appealing character. He’s a police detective, not a superhero. He’s a normal sort of person. He certainly has his issues, but he pays the consequences when he makes mistakes (and those mistakes add to his credibility).

It’s not just characters, though. Readers also like plot elements to ring true. And that’s possible even in thrillers. For example, Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, makes the well-taken point that the most engaging thrillers focus on catastrophes that could really happen. He’s right. And he mentions Drew Chapman’s The King of Fear (a novel I’ve not yet read, I admit) as an example of a thriller that is quite credible in that way.

Another element that can pull a reader out of a book is a lack of appealing characters. And, interestingly a character doesn’t have to be someone you’d like in person in order to be appealing.  But most readers want at least one character they care about – whose fate actually matters to them. It doesn’t bode well for a book if the reader doesn’t care whether a crime is solved or not, because both the victim and the sleuth are so annoying that it doesn’t really matter what happens to either.

And that’s one reason for which Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur has been so highly regarded. As we learn about the different members of Erlendur’s team, those characters become fleshed out, and it’s easy for readers to care about what happens to them. The same is true for the various victims, witnesses and ‘people of interest’ in the Erlendur novels. Many readers find that they care about what happens to those people, and want to know what happened to the victims.

There’s also the matter of length (you were waiting for this one, weren’t you?). A book that’s very long runs the risk of being plodding. And when a plot drags on, with nothing to keep the reader’s interest, this makes the reader more likely to disengage. I’ll bet you’ve all had the experience of wading through far too many pages of description, so that you got thoroughly fed up.

That said, this doesn’t mean that a long book can’t also be really absorbing. C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels are long. So are Hilary Mantel’s (which, interestingly enough, take place during the same time period). And so is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. And I’ll bet your personal list of top authors includes some who’ve written long books. It complicates matters, too, that we all have different ideas about what counts as a book that’s too long. But for the most part, readers want a plot to move along.

They also want a plot that doesn’t depend on a lot of extreme violence and brutality. Violence is, of course, pretty much inherent in crime fiction for obvious reasons. But violence for its own sake puts a lot of readers off.

Many of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels are violent. And MacDonald doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, either. But at the same time, it’s not protracted violence. Fans will also tell you that the violence serves the plot. It’s not there for its own sake. That’s arguably one of the reasons that this series has had such lasting appeal. Of course, violence is another quite subjective element. The answer to the question, ‘How much is too much?’ often depends on which reader you ask.

And then there’s the matter of what readers think is offensive. If you’ve ever read a book that’s full of ‘isms’ that bother you, you know what I mean. Or, perhaps you’ve read a book with a lot of language that offends you, or with explicitness that you don’t like. Those kinds of things can really upset readers, so that they’re no longer interested in the story at all. Like everything else, what counts as ‘offensive’ varies, sometimes a lot. That doesn’t make it easy for authors, editors and publishers. But readers know what upsets them, and they will stop reading if a book pushes that ‘envelope.’

What about you? What’s the quickest route to the DNF pile for you? Let me know if you’d like in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again in a week or so. Psst… You can choose more than one element in this poll if you want to.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Smiths.


Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, C.J. Sansom, Drew Chapman, Hilary Mantel, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly

52 responses to “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish*

  1. So far, it looks like your audience all put the book down for the same reasons. I can’t wait to see the final results.

    Interestingly enough, this subject arose between my husband and I recently when I suggested he read one of Tami Hoag’s novels. He must’ve grabbed an older book of hers because for the first 100 pages or so he kept asking when the story would start. But I have to hand it to him, he stuck with it till the end. I can’t say I would’ve been as nice. 😀

    • Oh, I’ll be really interested in the final results, too, Sue! It’s interesting that your husband had that reaction to the Tami Hoag novel he read. I’m glad that he at least gave it a chance. Like you, I’m not always quite that patient. And it’s interesting to see how different people react when a story doesn’t have a body in the first few pages…

  2. I would have added the question of book length to the poll. I’m turned off completely by extreme violence and probably that’s the fastest way to hit my DNF pile. And a plodding plot will increase the risk of DNF for all kinds of books. But there’s a high risk of DNF with very long books, some of which would probably make better boat anchors than enjoyable reads. I will do a lot of eye rolling when I see material that obviously has been put in with a trowel at the request of some editor (must be that, could never be the author’s lack of common sense, right?), and it takes a LOT to get me started on anything over, say, 400 pages.

    • You make a well-taken point, Les, about book length. In fact, I may just add that to the poll. While some books can be both long and absorbing, that’s not common. And I agree; extreme violence is a fast route to Station DNF for me, too.

  3. I don’t like gore. I find it offensive if even a cover is bloody.

  4. Margot: Thanks for the mention of my blog and kind words. Credibility will be at the top of my reading. I find it so hard to keep going if plot is implausible. I did not see the poll coming. I will be interested to see the results.

    • It’s a pleasure, Bill, both to mention your excellent blog and to share with readers the point you make about credibility. It’s a well-taken point. I’ll be interested – very interested – to see what the results are, too.

  5. Kathy D.

    Very good poll questions and I’m not surprised at the answers so far. A lot of these plot elements put me off. Also, too many coincidences, an earthquake or other disaster happening at the denouement, saving the good guys, killing or disarming the bad guys; the cops arriving at exactly the right moment, or the male “savior” to help a woman detective, a woman detective going somewhere dangerous alone late at night, maybe with a broken or forgotten cell phone.
    But boring plots get me as well as many other traits you’ve listed above.
    Or idiotic plots or writing where the book feels like a 5th-grade reader or could be used to combat insomnia.

    • Thanks, Kathy. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the improbable coincidence. Those are often contrived, and can pull the reader right out of the story. And I’m glad you mentioned condescending plots and writing. They are irritating.

  6. mudpuddle

    i agree with lesblatt on the violence, but even worse is the sadism; when an author is more interested in blood than plot, interest palls… i just didn’t finish the latest re jack reacher; quit before the end because i didn’t like what was about to happen. it’s been an ongoing problem with his books and i don’t think i’ll read another one. (this comment may be a bit out of bounds-don’t print it if so or edit to suit….) for some time i’ve been wanting to ask if you’re familiar with garner’s books about donald lam and bertha cool: a splendid example of two radically different personality types cooperating to solve problems. the books are hard to find but delightful. many tx for your thoughtful, ongoing posts…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mudpuddle. Like you, I don’t like books with extreme violence or sadism. To me, those things don’t add to the plot at all. As to the Lam/Cool books, I’m much more familiar with the Perry Mason books than I am with that series. I’m glad you mentioned it, though, because it’s another side of Gardner’s writing that I should explore more than I have.

  7. I think any of those could make me put down a book – especially in combination. And that’s although I have that reluctance to not finish a book that has been very hard to overcome: years and years of ‘politeness’, but now finally I’ve decided I simply have too many books on my TBR pile to waste. That said, I did recently finish one book which featured a character I could not care about, was repetitive and plodding at times, had gratuitous scenes of violence and sex which didn’t always serve the plot, AND required too much suspension of disbelief. I think it perhaps it mesmerised me to see how far (or low) it could go…

    • I know what you mean Marina Sofia. I’ve done that, too: stayed with a book just to see if really would be as full of things as I thought it would be. In a few cases, it’s a bit like that compulsion people have to pause and look at a traffic accident. You’re right, too, that one of those things is annoying enough. Put them together and it’s all the worse.

  8. Sometimes it’s finding the plot amidst too much other stuff or simply being incomprehensible–that’s how I found the award-winning Gravity’s Rainbow. I tried vainly four times to finish it but never got past two thirds, and that longest was the most enervating. But for non-literary esoterica, i.e., “normal” books, there are several things which get so disconcerting that I give up (not in order of problems): 1) too many typos, 2) too many errors of history (where actual history is included), logic, etc. 3) too juvenile in adult fiction in character relationships–men who have junior high perspectives evidenced in dialogues with women for example, 4) too many cliches in dialogue or events.

    • Thank you, John, for your thoughts on this. Among other well-taken points, you bring up the issue of errors, whether they are errors of fact or what I’ll call editing errors (grammar, spelling, formatting and so on). Those things can indeed be extremely irritating, and I’ve known people who simply stop reading if there are too many of them. It really is annoying. So, as you say, is the overabundance of cliches and a juvenile tone.

      You’re right, too, that plot and characters should be paramount in an absorbing story. When there are too many distractions to that plot and those characters, it’s too easy to lose the story thread. And for many people, that’s enough to send a book to the DNF pile.

  9. A.M. Pietroschek

    Your timing came close to a divination, and as Occult Detectives are my closest to crime fiction, I meant that as a compliment. Yesterday I faced my demons in the form of ‘editing errors’, on one of my texts which are even below my own ‘ever-flawed-prose’. And on TV ran ‘Wrong Turn’, which is not a book, but a clear over-dosage of violence & a spoiler to my muse.

    Characters I dislike can often be identified before I purchase an ebook. Violence as plot-replacement sadly not.

    My thanks for another very clear article on a serious aspect of authorship.

    • Thank you, André. And I know exactly what you mean about facing editing demons. I have my own, as I think we all do. I agree with you, too, about an overdose of violence. That’s enough to send anyone’s muse running into hiding. And that kind of violence isn’t always easy to tell before one starts reading. And by then, one’s already been exposed to it…

  10. Hahaha! I fear I had to vote for them all, except the ‘Something Else Entirely’ – I think you’ve pretty much covered all the bases. In fact, I’m pretty sure you must have been reading my notes of books I’ve been reading recently! 😉 I have tried to stop saying books are too long and started using the phrase ‘too long for their content’ instead – I’ll happily read a huge book so long as it stays focused and moves along. I loved all your examples of long books, but have felt books a quarter of their length have been too long for their content on occasion. And violence in itself doesn’t bother me, but lovingly detailed descriptions of it do. Looking forward to seeing what the final vote looks like…

    • Thank you, FictionFan – I’m really glad you enjoyed this post. And I know what you mean about voting for all of the options. Any one of them (let alone more than one) could be enough to put a reader off a book. You make a really well-taken point, too, that ‘long’ doesn’t have to mean ‘excessively long.’ Some books tell the sort of story that bears up under many pages. Others…don’t. You’re right about violence, too. If it serves the story, that’s one thing. And violence is a part of the crime fiction genre. It’s when it serves no purpose and is, as you say, described in loving detail, that it’s a problem. I look forward to seeing what everyone things about these things, too.

    • I echo your sentiments ( except for bricks of say 635 pages…i delay even starting them regardless of how good they may be).

  11. Oh so interesting. I hate violence for its own sake. I cannot stand sex scenes for the sake of it and which are so embarrassing to read, especially when I have to hand on to my elderly aunt or husband. Cringe-worthy. I usually stick with a book through thick and thin in vain hope but I have to say I nearly didn’t last the course with Robert Galbraith’s Cuckoos Calling. It went on and on and on and….well you get the idea. Never read anything by JK before and doubt I shall again. I watched her TV series The Casual Vacancy and nearly lost the will to live an I know I am not alone. I purchased Cuckoo because I am not in to the Harry Potter genre and thought I ought to read something by her, such a successful storyteller….I forced myself and it took me weeks to read it. I am sure it sold zillions and my humble opinion shouldn’t put anyone off. Just set aside a month or two and have the wine handy.

    • You’re not the only one who had that opinion of the ‘Robert Galbraith’ stories, Jane. And even if you were, what would it matter? You’re entitled to your opinion. I agree with you, too, about too much explicit sex and violence. Anything like that that doesn’t really serve the story can detract from it. And as you say, it can cause some cringing…

      • A relief to know I am not alone. It is awkward when someone is so highly thought of as a writer, to criticism, especially when you are not a successful writer or one starting out, as it seems to be a case of sour grapes or arrogance possibly. But being an avid reader I think I know a little enough to have an opinion, true.

        • It may feel a bit awkward, Jane, but everyone really does have different opinions on even the most well-regarded authors/books. You’re certainly entitled to your view. If a book doesn’t draw you in, it simply doesn’t. And that has nothing to do with how highly regarded an author is.

        • I know, but I always feel unqualified to express my opinion but I hate getting caught up in the Emperor’s New Clothes as well. 🙂

  12. I hate a lack of editing: writers who don’t edit themselves, and check what they’re doing, and read it again. And the actual editors and publishers of those writers, who also fall down on their job, it seems to me. That’s what drives me mad reading a book.

    • That bothers me, too, Moira – a lot. On the one hand, I make plenty of mistakes myself, so I have empathy for writers who don’t catch all of their errors. On the other, the writer really does need to be careful and re-(re)read things to clean up errors as much as possible. And editors and publishers should also be on the watch.

  13. Kathy D.

    I should have said earlier that I don’t like gratuitous violence or misogyny in books, or accumulating body counts for no apparent reason. I never know if it’s the author who has run out of plot ideas or a publisher’s decision to include this.
    And J.K. Rowling: I’ve read her three Cormoran Strike books. The Cuckoo’s Calling needing editing, tweaking and cutting. The Silkworm had a sadistic murder and too much absurd violence. And Career of Evil had a horrible trait: the italicized chapters in the mind of the woman-hating sociopath. Too much violence. Whose choice is that?
    And if there’s too much action without character development or a good story, I’m out.
    I sent one book by an author who books I usually like to the DNF pile. The reason: too much police procedure and nothing about characters or interesting backstory.
    We are a picky bunch, but we know what we like.
    Just read a good book with all of the plot points I like, even a love of dogs, and have no criticisms.

    • You ask an interesting question, Kathy. When a book has a high ‘body count,’ or isn’t credible, or has flat or unbelievable characters, it does make one wonder whether the author made those choices, the publisher pushed for them, or someone just let them by for some reason. Your comments about Rowling/Galbraith’s novels show, too, that even a very famous name doesn’t excuse an author from writing a book with a tight, engaging plot and solid characters.

  14. Margot, I have read just two books by John D. MacDonald, including “Cape Fear” (or “The Executioners”), and I found the suspense in both intense and almost chilling. It’s a bit like “Jaws” leaping off the page — the background score warning the coming of the killer shark.

    And I voted right!

  15. Great post – my vote goes too much suspension of belief required but I have problems with everything you’ve listed – the saggy middle to a book being the most frustrating as you’ve already devoted time and attention (and often real interest) only to be let down!

    • I know what you mean, Cleo, about saggy middles. It’s really disappointing and frustrating when you’ve invested the time and so on to a book. And I’ve seen that happen even with books that aren’t terribly long. It’s as though the author loses the sense of urgency, if that makes sense. And I don’t like to give up too much of my disbelief, either!

      Thanks for the kind words.

  16. Col

    I try and see everything through to the bitter end, so it’s been a few years since I gave up on a book. The one’s I have most difficulty finishing though are where I have no empathy for the characters, irrespective of whether they are criminals or law abiding.

  17. Kathy D.

    I should also add that I must find the characters interesting and like at least one protagonist. Kati Heikkapelto’s Finnish police procedurals (and more) have one likeable woman detective, Anna Fegete, and one obnoxious male bigoted police detective. The books, however, are terrific with many assets.

  18. It’s the disbelief thing for me, usually. I once read a library book (can’t remember the details sadly – although perhaps it’s just as well) where the author clearly hadn’t done any research. It was set in a medieval monastery but had a male priest seeing to the, er, needs of the female nuns, then getting one of them pregnant, then being hauled before the abbess’s own kangaroo court, then being sentenced to complete castration, then setting off on a long journey with his lady love… then the two got themselves into such an impossible situation that the Archangel Michael had to come down from heaven and rescue them. At which point I’m afraid I not only gave up reading, but threw the book across the room…!

    • Oh, Fiona, I was shaking my head as I read your description!! Yikes! No, that book doesn’t sound in the slightest bit researched, let alone actually believable in any way at all. When a book goes that far off the mark, I get disgusted, too, and don’t blame you one bit for getting that frustrated about it. Credibility most definitely matters!

  19. I was struck, Margot by this in your post: “They also want a plot that doesn’t depend on a lot of extreme violence and brutality. Violence is, of course, pretty much inherent in crime fiction for obvious reasons. But violence for its own sake puts a lot of readers off.”
    I found that to be the case in Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls. The repetition of violence and torture was too much for my taste. I understand that violence is expected in crime fiction but once Ms Slaughter had shown the extent of the violence which her killer was capable of I did not find it served any purpose to keep repeating it throughout the novel. I got that he was evil.
    I know that I am practically alone in this judging by the rave reviews her book has received. And I don’t dismiss that she had an interesting story line and that yes, she writes really well.
    I just ordered her latest novel Criminal from Amazon based ion what I read in the read inside. I am hoping that it won’t be as graphic as Pretty Girls.

    • There is a balance, I think, between the violence that serves a crime novel plot, and violence that’s there for its own sake. Everyone has a different definition of what that balance is. At the same time, though, I think everyone does have a point where violence becomes gratuitous, and your feelings about Pretty Girls sums up readers’ reactions when they get to that point. And it honestly doesn’t matter, Carol, whether anyone else shares your feelings about that book; we all have our own thresholds.

  20. I have only stopped reading 3 books in the last few years. All were due to going beyond my level of comfort (or discomfort) with violence or threatened violence. A very interesting topic, Margot.

  21. Pingback: Give Details* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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