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Monday, March 22, 2010


A while back, Jared Diamond wrote an interesting book called Collapse on the reasons why societies choose to be successful or decide to fall apart. Environmental degradation, inept political decisions, and the inability to think about the future abounded in examples of Haiti and Easter Island. Pretty enlightening stuff, even if it was a bit of a tome to get through.

This got me thinking about the book I just finished reading today (#15 for the year!). After a somewhat promising start, the story decided halfway through to fall apart. Ugh.

What makes a novel crumble?

1. Unbelievable Characters. When the protagonist (and even secondary characters) start doing things that contradict their personalities, I get irked. When I start asking, "Why do I care about these people anymore?" then I know the story is lost.

2. Far-fetched Plot Twists. I know it's tempting to pull a Days of Our Lives plot twist and suddenly have the main character take a lesbian lover or become possessed by the devil, but RESIST! There's almost nothing worse than getting halfway through a book to start rolling your eyes and saying, "You've got to be kidding me. Seriously?"

3. Plot Holes. Readers are smart cookies. They can spot a plot hole a mile away. When I'm writing, I know where there are plot holes. I'll admit that sometimes I get lazy and hope beta readers don't notice them. They do. So I fix them. I'm often amazed that a book could get to publication without the writer, agent, or editor fixing a plot hole.

4. Writing Inconsistencies. I notice this with series. If you spend four books telling me a character's truck was pink with aqua flames and now it's purple with blue flames I'm going to be ticked. I'm also going to be annoyed if the protagonist is sixteen on one page and fifteen on the next (barring a time travel novel). This in itself isn't a deal breaker, but I was already leaning toward putting the book down, this might be the straw that breaks the poor camel's back.

I'm looking forward to the newest novel on my list- I'm going with one I've heard nothing but good things about as two of the last three I've read have been somewhat disappointing. But you have to read the good with the bad to understand what makes a good story, right?

What about you? What makes you put a book down?


VR Barkowski said...

I read all types of fiction. My only requirement is it must be character driven. I rarely put a book down with a conscious intent to stop reading. What happens instead is I'm distracted by a new book that captures my attention so thoroughly, I forget about the other book. It's difficult to pinpoint a reason other than I didn't care enough about the characters in that first story.

Natalie said...

I like all your reasons. I'll add: Long descriptive scenes that do nothing to build the story. If I get really bored, I'm not going to keep reading.

Stephanie Thornton said...

VR- I often find I need permission to stop reading. Usually it comes in the form of my husband getting tired of listening to me whine about how bad a book is. He looks at me like I'm crazy. "Then stop reading it." Oh, yeah.

Natalie- That's a big one. There was a book that looked fabulous that I put down this year because of the long descriptive scenes. At first it was neat because they were all about Europe, but after about the fourth one I had to call it quits.

Libbie H. said...

I am a sucker for long descriptive scenes, as long as the language used is really brilliant and surprising. My favorite writer of all time is Vladimir Nabokov, and he could go on for pages and pages of setting description, but it never gets boring to me because he was so darn unique in his approach to language.

But boy, I can't stand boring characters, or characters who do stuff that just doesn't seem right for them. I'm struggling with the outline for my third novel because I've got a main character doing something that just doesn't sit right with my vision of how she normally behaves. I'm not going to worry about it too much for now, though -- I'll tackle it once I've finished Book 2 and am ready to put some serious elbow grease into Book 3.

A lack of a good conflict will also make me want to tear a book to shreds. Or a film. I was sorely disappointed in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland because none of the characters had to try or work for anything at all. Everything was just too easy for absolutely all of them. Most disappointing. And bad writing, even though it's not in a book.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Libbie- I've had that problem with characters too. As a matter of fact, you've got me wondering if you're having problems with the same character I had issues with in Hatshepsut. One day we'll have to compare notes!

Bane of Anubis said...

i tend to skip descriptive scenes (otherwise I'd put down a lot of fantasy I've read over the years)...

also, books that try to be overly clever (Hitchhiker's Guide springs to mind).

Jemi Fraser said...

I tend to put down books if the characters become unreliable or if the internal logic takes a hard left turn. I don't like these changing half way through the book for convenience. Drives me nuts :)

sarahenni said...

@ Stephanie, I also feel the need to have permission! I've never walked out of a movie and, until recently, I lived in fear of a librarian yelling at me (or my mom) for not finishing a book.

Recently I read a book that was supposed to be built around this epic romance. Other stuff happened too, but I'll never know what because by page 20 they were in bed together and their other challenges seemed trivial. I found myself wondering, why do I care?

(but the remnants of my librarian/mom fear remain, and that book is still sitting on my nightstand...under a pile of others!)

Susan R. Mills said...

There is nothing worse than plot holes. I'm like you in that I can't imagine how books make it to publications without someone fixing the problem along the way.

elaine said...

I can't read books that are depressing and hopeless - or just too sentimental. Books I haven't finished are: some Nicholas Sparks book (can't remember the title), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (needed to be briefer with less profanity), and Songs in Ordinary Time (Mary McGarry Morris).

laurel said...

I get annoyed with books that try too hard to be funny. Farce can be great, but it's a delicate balance. Ditto with character voice. Ones that go too far over the top proving how "quirky" they are and send me running to google every few pages to understand yet another offbeat, obscure cultural reference--those get the boot.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I'd say you annoyed the biggest reasons. The other thing for me is if it's just plain boring. :-)

Amalia T. said...

I don't put fiction down, unless it is STAGGERINGLY awful, and I actually can't name a single fiction book that I've put down and not picked back up again. Non-fiction is another story, but I tend not to read a lot of that outside of history books, which I don't ever read cover to cover, anyway. I'm Character driven too though, so as long as I don't know how it's going to end for the character, or what they're going to do next, I'll keep reading to find out.

L. T. Host said...

I don't like forced scenes, cringe-worthy embarrassments, unclear text or description, over-the-top gore, or animal cruelty. I get ticked at plot holes and impossibilities and twists for the sake of twists, too. But-- I tend to brave it through the bitter end even if I'm screaming at my fiance "How did this crap get published and I'm not!"

That usually makes me feel a little better and then I plod through the rest so I can feel more smug about being a better writer.

I never said I was perfect.

Libbie H. said...

Stephanie -- Yes, we definitely should compare notes! It would be fun. It was really exciting for me to read your old prologue and see how you'd taken a different approach from me to the same historical figures. Totally different Ahmose! :) With a very different opinion of her daughter. But I really liked your depiction. I'm so excited to read Hatshepsut, and I can't wait for you to finish it!

I've been obsessed with Hatshepsut since high school, when MY history teacher tried to help me find a cool historical figure for a report. She said, "I know you'll like Hatshepsut. Here's a book about her." I liked her so well, my project involved a hand-made paper model of Dier el-Bahri. I got an A, and I am forever indebted to my history teacher for turning me onto the 18th Dynasty.

So I NEED MORE HATSHEPSUT NOVELS!! Gosh, there are only TWO of them that were ever published (that I know of). Compare that to all the zillions of Cleopatra novels. Hat is way under-served. And your writing is so good -- your novel has got to be killer. Represent, lady!

Email me any time you want to chat! libbiehawker at gmail.com

Libbie H. said...

@Bane of Anubis: I know my nerd license is going to be revoked for saying this, but I also couldn't force myself to like Hitchhiker's Guide. I LOVE Douglas Adams; he was a genius and did a lot of great work for the skepticism and freethinking movements. But I really did not enjoy his fiction. I just can't get into self-consciously clever writing. Oi!

Guys with beards and D&D books under their arms are beating on my door right now. They're telling me to surrender my Star Trek DVDs and come out with my hands up.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

It's simple - boring characters to it for me every time. If I couldn't give a hoot what happens to these people by the time I've dragged myself through 100 pages or so, the book is being put away.

Bane of Anubis said...

Libbie, As you intimate, he's definitely someone who would probably have been lots of fun to sit down and have a conversation with, though.

And about those D&D blokes -- unless they've got their dice with them, I think you'll make it :)

Steph Damore said...

Foreshadowing, especially in mysteries. It drives me crazy!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Bane- I've recently discovered that I'm allowed to skim or skip paragraphs or pages. I guess I always felt like there was going to be a test or something.

Jemi- I came across a couple YA books that did that recently. Annoyed me to no end.

Sarahenni- One of my favorite things about a book is a romance, no matter how small. So if it was resolved in the first 20 pages I'd be disappointed too!

Susan- Plot holes are the worst!

Elaine- I don't mind tragic books, but there should be something positive in them. I just read a current NYT bestseller that was negative, violent, and all about sex all the way through. It was awful.

Laurel- That's an interesting line to walk, isn't it? I adored Going Bovine and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series for the humor.

Shannon- How did I miss that one? That's huge!

Amalia- I should send you my stack of half-read books. You can tell me if they got any better!

L.T.- I do the exact same thing. I never claimed to be nice.

Libbie- I did my project on Hatshepsut in 8th grade because Cleopatra was taken. I didn't like my teacher much, but I owe her big time!

Elspeth- I really think I like character driven books best. There has to be a plot, but I like just hanging out with some characters, regardless of what they're doing.

Steph- I don't read many mysteries, but I could see how that would be a pain!

Elana Johnson said...

Great reasons. For me, if I can't figure out what the MC wants and what stands in his way, why do I care to keep reading? I need a problem, and I need the MC to want to overcome it. If it's just a great story, great, but SO WHAT? That's where I am in the book I'm reading now. It's nice and all, but I don't know what the overlying conflict is. Several times the MC asks herself, "What am I doing here?" and I'm like, "Yeah, I'm asking myself that too. Why am I still reading this?"

Le sigh.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm with Elana. I need a believeable character who doesn't leaving me rolling my eyes every view pages. Plodding pace? I'm out of there.

Voidwalker said...

LOL The "Days of Our Lives Plot Twist"

I remember that devil possessed Marlana :P That was years ago!

Dominique said...

True, very true.

I think my personal pet peeves are the characters doing things that make no sense for that character. I want to say, "What, did someone rewrite you irrespective of everything you've said or done in the past in the name of creating pointless drama?" If the answer to that question seems like a yes, I'll be very mad.

arlee bird said...

I have very rarely put a fiction down. Maybe a few old English classics that were just too boring. I almost put down Pride and Prejudice but stuck with it and glad I did -- loved it. Also, I put down Catcher in the Rye, not sure why, and now I've misplaced it--I really want to find it because I want to see why every one thinks it's so great.
I have put down many nonfiction books because they were really boring or overly obvious.


Lola Sharp said...

All of the above, and just poor writing.

I will abandon a book without looking back in a hot second if it's feces. (And there's LOTS of feces getting published.) I will not waste my time with a poorly written book.
Thankfully, there are lots of wonderful books out there!

That said, I believe that the more we hone our craft, the faster we can spot a dud...and the more we can appreciate a master at work.

I left you a little something on my blog. :o)


Jennifer Swan said...

I recently read a book in which the phrase "_____'s jaw dropped." The author used this expression of shock at least a 1/2 dozen times during the course of the novel.
Repetitive phrasing... hate it.

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

I hate when books are predictable. I loathe being able to spot the guy she will actually end up with from the first chapter or something inane like that.