Give Details*

PollingNot long ago, I asked you to tell me what elements in a novel are most likely to pull you out of the story and keep you from finishing it. That’s a rather difficult question to really get into, if you think about it. For one thing, people are all different with respect to what bothers them. For another, we all have different ideas of what counts as ‘too much’ (violence, sex, profanity, suspension of disbelief, etc.).

Still, I found out some really interesting information. Many thanks to all of you who took the time to respond to the poll. There were 76 total responses (and remember, you had the option of voting for more than one category, so these are votes, not individual people). Let’s take a look now at what I learned from you.

Here are the results I found when I asked the question: What’s most likely to make you stop reading a book?




To me, anyway, the most interesting finding here is that no one element dominated all of the others as the reason you stop reading books. It’s true that plodding stories got the most votes (16). But that’s only about 20% of the total number of votes. We could say the same about the element of extreme violence, which got 14 votes (roughly 18%).

If you look at the other elements, you see a similar pattern of no one element standing out. Each of them (except for ‘Something Else Entirely,’ which I’ll return to shortly) got between 8 and 13 votes (10-17%), with none really dominating. That in itself is an interesting pattern.

One thing it may suggest is that no one of these elements is more off-putting than another. To put it another way, you folks have about as much dislike for, say, characters you can’t warm to as you do for, say, too much suspension of disbelief. You may notice (and therefore really dislike) plodding story lines a bit more than you do those unappealing characters. But overall, none of these elements is the one that everyone resoundingly dislikes.

There were a few votes (4, or just over 5%) for elements that I neglected to put on this poll. That’s what that handy catchall term ‘Something Else Entirely’ represents. And each of those votes might represent something different. What that tells me is that, for the most part, you folks are all put off by similar things, the things on this list.

There are, of course, plenty of complexities in the issue of what puts people off a book. Just to give one example, there’s the matter of sub-genre and type of novel. What people consider ‘extreme length’ might vary depending on the sub-genre or topic of the novel. The same might be said for violence (too much violence for a thriller is not the same as too much for a cosy mystery, for instance). An ‘ism’ that offends you in a contemporary novel might be more palatable in a novel written during an earlier time.

It’s also worth noting that there were 76 responses here. The data might look different if I’d found a way to include everyone who reads crime fiction. The data might also look different if I’d added more elements.

That said, though, I’ve drawn a few very tentative conclusions. One is that there may be a constellation of things that drive people to stop reading a book, with none of them really being an awful lot more significant than any other. Another is that there seems to be a common group of such things. That one’s a bit more tentative, though, since as I mentioned, I only included seven elements. Oh, and finally…you folks are most helpful, and you taught me a lot here. Thanks.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Manfred Mann’s Tribal Statistics.


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26 responses to “Give Details*

  1. Fascinating results as I would have assumed we all found one thing much more off-putting that this seems to show! I think maybe once a reader has a dislike for something in particular, in my case too much suspension of belief, then you tend to notice it more and it becomes the foremost thing but all the things on your list can cause me to be removed from the story in varying degrees.

    • I think you have a point, Cleo. When people do dislike something, they’re probably more sensitive to it. So they do notice it more if it’s there. And suspension of disbelief is definitely one of those things! It’s funny, too. I also thought there’d be one factor that everyone would find much more off-putting than the other factors. I was a bit surprised, myself, to see that didn’t seem to be the case.

  2. Howard

    What does it for me is usually this: an author who makes too many giant leaps in the narrative, without good explanation, and expecting the reader to be able to follow and make sense of what’s happening. If too much of this kind of thing happens, I’m outa there.

    The other thing that makes me quit is just plain bad writing. I don’t put all the blame on the author for this. I am sure that writing is very much a “heat of the moment” thing. But, a writer should be able to critically read their own output, and fix as many mistakes as possible. Also, writers need proofreaders and editors. If these are skimped on, or just not doing their jobs, some very poor writing can slip out into the world. Too much of this will make me put a book down.

    • You make a well-taken point, Howard, about writing. All writers make mistakes (goodness knows I do!). They’re human. But when something is going to be published, it really is important that someone go through that something carefully. It doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be a typo once in a while. But in the main, you’re right; sloppy writing generally means someone was careless. And it can pull a reader right out of the story.

      It’s interesting, too, that you mention those leaps that writers sometimes make. On the one hand, most readers don’t want to be given every single detail; it can get tiresome and slow down a story. But too many leaps and one can lose the thread of a story. There’s also the risk of loss of credibility if the author doesn’t give enough information.

      • Howard

        Yes, and it’s not just typos but errors of fact that are sometimes the zingers.

        One of the worst I ever ran across was a car being referred to as a 1957 Chevy Thunderbird. (Note: this was not an alternate-history Science Fiction novel.)

        A good proofreader would have caught this. I can’t say that running across this error made me put the book down, but it sure didn’t help me to keep on being involved in the story.

        • I can see why, Howard. And the thing about errors like that is that they are easily enough caught if someone proofreads carefully. And they’re less likely if the author does her or his ‘homework’ during the writing process. Of course, no-one (least of all me!) is perfect. So errors do happen at times. Still, that kind of factual error really is preventable.

  3. Margot: Maybe being a lawyer makes me most conscious of disbelief. Next in causing me to abandon reading a book would be a more nebulous category I would call “I-am-not-enjoying-this-book-but-don’t-know-why”. Sometimes there is no clear reason for me.

    • I know what you mean by not having one specific reason for not enjoying a book, Bill. There are times when I’ve not liked a book, but couldn’t really say why.

      You make a well-taken point, too, about the impact of profession on one’s perception. That makes a lot of sense when you think of the way career influences our way of thinking.

  4. Patty

    I missed your poll, and the subject is of huge interest to me. I agree with the comments above, but I have a few idiosyncratic pet peeves:
    1) killing an pet. I was reading a book a while back about a man and his dog and he shot the dog. I put that book down without any wasted motion.
    2) Flashbacks. I am probably alone on this one, but I really dislike long flashbacks. Once skipped 70 pages of flashback and didn’t feel I’d missed a thing. If the writer relies on them too much, I just give up on the book.
    And this one is related:
    3) moving back and forth in time. I mean centuries. I know that moving back and forth in recent time is now a favorite device of most TV shows and a lot of new books seem to depend on that ploy, too (arouse interest?) but it can be confusing and exhausting for the viewer or reader, I feel. But jumping from one century to another puts me off a book completely.
    I enjoy your polls very much. Love hearing what other people’s responses are, to what they are reading.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Patty. I really enjoy learning from what other people think, too. I agree completely with you about pets. I don’t like that plot point at all, and I’ve stopped reading books because of it. I know that not everyone agrees with me, but I really am put off by that. As for flashbacks, I’ve known them to be successful, but if they’re not done deftly, they can be confusing. And you’re right; if they take up too much time, that drags a story down. You make an interesting point, too, about stories that move back and forth in recent time. I don’t have the data to support me, but I think it is a development we’ve seen more of lately. That might be an interesting topic in and of itself, so thanks.

  5. mudpuddle

    a point that wasn’t addressed is the fluidity of style; i learned to love a certain style by reading H. Rider Haggard; his prose just flows like magic. lytton strachey and edward gibbon both enhanced my appreciation of good prose, and conan doyle was good also. unfortunately, some writers(not ms. Kinberg, though) seem to specialize in jerky, awkward language which gets irritating after awhile…

    • I think style really can influence the reader’s experience, Mudpuddle. As you say, there are some authors whose style draws the reader in and is fluid. There are other authors whose style isn’t that way at all. Thanks for bringing that up.

  6. Fascinating! But am annoyed with myself because I thought carefully before voting – but didn’t realize I could vote more than once. I cannot be trusted with democracy, can I?
    And, I want to agree with Patty – flashbacks and double time schemes can be maddening. I don’t mind a double time frame IF it is crystal clear what is going on and where the reader is at any point. But am infuriated by the arrogance of writers who want the reader to do all the work of keeping track, with small unclear headings, and dates close together.

    • That bothers me, too, Moira. It’s one thing to invite readers to use their imaginations. It’s another altogether not to orient them so they can. Sometimes flashbacks and double time schemes really can be confusing.

      And thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you voted; democracy is safe in your hands.

  7. Kathy D.

    I so agree on the two time frames, and even with two different settings. I find it hard to go back and forth and then wait for a long time to see how the two plots merge.
    Just finished a book with this plot device. All the chapters set in the past were marked except the last one.
    But I wish authors would find new methods of jazzing up a plot.
    Also, I thought about a few books I stopped reading in the past. One had only police procedure and no character development. One was simply
    boring. I kept rereading the same page. One was written at a grammar-school level, I swear, although kids these days are reading more sophisticated books.
    One book I finished but sweated through and it should have been a DNF, just a downer all the way. And another was far out of my comfort zone and in some ways too brutal, but I learned about another culture abroad, so something was gained.
    I have to resort to DNF. And although I haven’t come across peticide, I’d stop reading. That prevented me from watching the touted TV series, “House of Cards,” — and in the first episode! Not for me.
    Also, I’m not fond of misogynistic violence to women or plots with
    children as victims of violence. Just don’t like it.
    And I can live without unreliable narrators — in first person present, like those “Girl” books. (Although The Girl in the Spider Web was not of that ilk and was good.)

    • Your post brings up an interesting aspect of writing style, Kathy. Readers don’t want to be insulted by a condescending or low-level writing style. At the same time, if a reader has to stop every few sentences to look up a word or make sense of some information, that can pull the reader out of the story. Achieving that balance isn’t always easy, but you’re right that it matters. I agree with you, too, about the multiple timelines. They can work well, if they’re handled effectively. So can two different settings. But if they’re not handled well, they can be tiring and confusing.

  8. For me it’s a character, particularly a protagonist, that I do not like or find interesting. Definite no-go. But I also stop reading in there is not a distinct voice, which I would chunk into the just bad writing category. Enjoying these polls.

    • Thank you, MMO. And you’re not alone in your views about characters. I think a great number of people find it hard to keep reading a novel without interesting characters. You make a well-taken point, too, about author’s voice.

  9. These are really fascinating results. Because I took the poll early on, I wasn’t sure what the end result would look like. It’s interesting that a slower pace novel puts more people off than a character they can’t relate to. I also think, even though there were only 76 of us, this group is a good representative of crime readers in general.

    • You do have a point, Sue, that there’s quite a diversity among you folks who were kind enough to be a part of this poll. You all have different backgrounds and different tastes in crime fiction. And I was really fascinated by the results, too. I learned a lot from them.

  10. Interesting results – since I voted for them all I’m not totally surprised that they all came out fairly equal! Fascinating discussion too – again I agree with every point people have brought up. Animal cruelty – or constant fear of it – will do it every time for me. Mo Hayder wrote a book in which a dog was tortured. So was an old woman, but I was much more upset about the dog! And if there’s a split timeline of multiple POV, then it must be clearly signalled. Peter May usually does it by having one first person and one third, or one past tense and one present, which works (despite my dislike of present tense). But I read another book where both POVs were women writing in FPPT and half the time I hadn’t a clue who was ‘talking’. Which leads me to another point – if using multiple narrators, they must have different voices! If not, then I’m always too aware that the single voice is the writer’s rather than the characters’…

    • I’m completely with you on the animal cruelty, FictionFan. If I know that’s going to be a part of a book, I choose not to read that book. It’s terribly upsetting, and really (at least to me) doesn’t serve plots.

      As to the POV and timelines, it is difficult to do that well. As you say, May makes it work (which speaks volumes for his skill). But in general, it’s very hard to split timelines and POVs clearly, so that the reader can follow the action and keep the major thread of the story. And I find that the minute I start to get confused about who’s ‘talking,’ I also start to lose interest in the story.

  11. Margot, I will also go with Patty’s three points. Killing pets even in a work of fiction is inhuman and needless. I don’t like flashbacks and back and forth in the narrative either, though I won’t put down a book for those reasons. The poll results provide a fair indication of people’s reading habits. I’m not surprised that “extremely length” did not score high because length has no bearing on a good book. Thanks for the poll, Margot.

    • I agree with you, Prashant. A compelling book will keep the reader engaged even if it’s long. And I think we’ve all read our share of dull books that weren’t long at all. You’re right, too, about harm coming to pets, even in fiction. To me, it serves no purpose. As to changes in timeline, they can work if they’re handled very well. But if not, they can be distracting, and even confusing.

  12. tracybham

    I agree with the killing of a pet. I don’t usually stop reading books now once I start, but I may do that more in the future, because I have too many books to read and if I am not enjoying a book, I just need to move on.

    • I know what you mean about having a lot of books to read, Traci. I feel the same way. And about killing animals? I’m with you. I usually y will stop reading a book if that plot point is in it.

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