If 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.