What makes you stop reading?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Aloha from rainy Hawaii! Waiting for the sunshine and inspired by a panel I attended on the weekend at Left Coast Crime on ‘things that make me stop reading’, I thought I’d offer my top 5 reasons for putting a book down (or throwing it against a wall!) and find out from you what, as readers (and writers perhaps), you consider ‘deal breakers’ – when you just cannot continue with a book.

The panelists (Hallie Ephron, Mysti Berry, Kate Stine, and Sue Trowbridge) mentioned a number of things which caused them to put down a book and not read further. Here’s some of their (abbreviated) list:

  • Stereotypes
  • Lack of clarity – where the hell are we, when are we, who is talking etc…within the first few pages.
  • Gratuitous violence, sex or animal cruelty
  • Lack of character pull – the character fails to draw them in
  • Geographical inaccuracies (like someone flying all the way from San Jose to San Francisco!)
  • Prologue that seems gratuitous, manipulative or contrived

Reducing these issues to a list always seems to lessen the impact of the discussion but I agree with all that was said and with the panelists’ assertion they will forgive almost any of these if the writing is sufficiently compelling to keep them interested.
As for my top five list – well here goes:
  1. Characters that make me a yawn- if I’m not drawn in by them then I’m not going to keep plowing through the book.
  2. Set up requires more than just a suspension of disbelief but putting aside all reality.
  3. Clunky, awkward writing that requires way too much concentration – I want the story to flow, to draw me in – I don’t want to have to take out the paddles and brave the rapids to get there.
  4. A sense of manipulation or self-awareness – if I sense the author pulling the strings I’m taken out of the story (and I’m pissed off).
  5. Blatant inaccuracies that make me doubt the writer. I think when you start a book you place a great deal of trust in an author and if that trust is broken too quickly by inaccuracies or false steps it’s hard to regain it and keep reading
So what are the deal breakers for you – what makes you stop reading a book? What about in a series – when does an author ‘blow it’ and stop you from continuing? For me bringing back dead characters (Patricia Cornwall anyone) is a deal breaker – If I want that kind of plot twist I’ll tune in to General Hospital…What about you?

22 thoughts on “What makes you stop reading?

  1. Here’s hoping the sun comes out for you, Clare. Things I hate? Most instances of coincidence will stop me. If the coincidence is obviously for the convenience of the author, I usually put the book down. I also get turned off by a character telling another character something they already know solely for the purpose of dumping the info to the reader. In both instances, I consider it lazy writing. Oh, and clichés. I consider a cliché a sign of a mind at rest. There’s a saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché.

  2. I have to confess, I can count the number of books I’ve stopped reading on one hand. It’s an OCD thing with me, even if I skim throuhg at light speed, I finish.

    Things that will make me skim throuhg at light speed? Bland writing, implausible plot points, too much suspension of disbelief, dialog that reads like either speeches or narrative.

  3. What makes me stop:

    1. Too much backstory in the opening chapters. A little helps with reader bonding, but must be marbled in with great discretion.

    2. The opening chapter turns out to be a dream.

    3. Over lyrical prose, announcing, “Look at me. You’re in the presence of a great writer.”

    What I like to see (and teach):

    1. Opening disturbance. First line (first paragraph at most). Can be anything, small or large, so long as it is a ripple in the ordinary world. (Avoiding what I call the “Happy people in happy land” opening).

    2. Dialogue. Makes it an immediate scene. Or at least has the possibility of dialogue.

    3. A bit of “unobtrusive poetry” (H/T John D. MacDonald) in the style, contra #3, above)

  4. I’m the opposite of Dana. I have to have a list of top five things to make me CONTINUE reading! I must have ADD instead of OCD. My attention will wander and I swear, I actually lose track of the book if I don’t become immediately engrossed by 1-2)a compelling atmosphere and situation, inhabited by 3) a motivated character, who finds himself opposed by some kind of 4) major conflict, all knit together with appropriate pacing!
    Oh, and I also don’t like to read books that start the first chapter with dialogue. I think that smacks of YA-sleuth dramas (I should know, I used to write them!).

  5. I think the thing that turns me off the most is when the writer doesn’t get his/her facts right. For example, the old silencer on a revolver thing.

    Too much boring description. I tend to skim over it to get to the good stuff.

  6. Oh…

    I knew soon as I hit post, I’d remember.

    As far as the deal breaker with series… Endings that are so obvious a ploy to get you to buy the next book.

    I was reading the Left Behind series. Buying them in hardcover soon as they came out until the 8th or 9th book. I was so angry I refused to buy another.

  7. Too much anger or negative emotions in the early stages of the book when setting up the characters tends to turn me off.

    The inability for me to bond with the characters is also a turn off.

    Storyline that drags, or multiple threads and I can’t figure out where the story is heading – definite no no.

    Scenarios that are unrealistic.

    Location descriptions that are inaccurate or just downright incorrect.

    But like Dana King, I like to finish the books, even if it means skimming or skipping ahead. I really do try not to abandon a book if I can help it, though I’ve got so many books in the TBR pile that I’m learning to be a bit more ruthless with it.

  8. Ack, in my post it should be “first paragraph at LEAST.” (Which is an argument for good editors.)

    Which is also a turn off: when the editor missed the overused word or phrase. If someone “writhes in pain” in ch. 1 and another character “writhes in pain” in ch. 2, and then fog “writhes along the coastline,” etc., I get cranky.

  9. Thanks to Jean for reminding me about the series question.

    I give up on a series when it becomes too repetitve, or when the author starts going throuhg the motions. Best personal example is the Robert B. parker Spenser series, which is a shame. I really liked the earlier books.

  10. Hey it’s 6:30am in Hawaii (my boys are of course awake:…) but I’m impressed we have such a terrific list of deal breakers already! I agree with all of them – God, the cliches and the lame dialogue irritate me – I can sometimes forgive repetition or unnecessary ‘dumps’ of information but only if the character and story have drawn me in. I also find that too much ‘shock value’ for the sake of it (violence, sex, language) just makes me grit my teeth. I don’t like to think the author is deliberately trying to shock me because he/she can’t write a good story! Dana and Daz I’m a skimmer too – I don’t often totally stop but I just start to skim read to the end – I usually want to see what happens even if it’s a clanger! James, you also make a good point about ‘lyrical prose’ – if I think an author is just showing off or being a ponce I will start to doubt them. It’s the show don’t tell thing again – show me your a good writer don’t tell me…I think that goes to your point, Joe, about lazy writing. It should be seamless and smooth not obvious or showy. Kathryn and Basil, I can see you are hard task masters! Oh and Jean, I agree – why have the boring stuff in there if a reader is just going to skip it?!

  11. I’d have to say I’m more like Kathryn. The book has to give me a reason to keep reading. I regret to say that I have a number of dust covered books, a few by once favourite authors, that have bits of book mark hanging out of the first chapter.

    The things that turn me off most are:
    1. Cliches or dumbed down dialogue. Don’t give me an international assassin with what is basically a 3rd grade vocabularly with the exception of the “F-bomb” being dropped every second syllable.

    2. The “F-bomb” being dropped consistently in dialogue…come on, I was a Marine, even I know there’s a limit to how often you can use that word in a sentence.

    3. Gratuitous sex, or pornographic descriptions of sex. If I wanted porn I’d get it elsewhere. When my favourites put it in I skip over the sections, but sadly can’t recommend the book to my teen son or his friends so it ends up in a rubbish heap in the end.

    4. Purposeless violence, if killing the dude doesn’t advance the story in a specific manner then let him live.

    5. Inaccurate descriptions. I’m Alaskan…In 40 plus years I’ve never seen an igloo other than the one my kids built in our front yard…do the research.

    6. Writing styles that sound like the author should have retired two books ago. If you have to force the words out know that we can see it. Quite while we all have good memories of great work, and while we still want one more story. Don’t wait until we can’t stand to see your name anymore.

    Anyhow, that’s my bit. But who am I anyway?

  12. Oh yeah…and one other thing.

    7. People who write too long of a post in someone else’s blog

    sigh…its a self loathing monday. damn clouds

  13. First off, I love your posts, Clare!
    This exact post urged me to write a post of my own on my blog (with maybe a follow up in a few days), which can be found here. I figured it would be easier than writing it all in a comment.

  14. I don’t mind unsympathetic characters if they serve a purpose.

    But I find myself drifting away from a book if it has a mini-lecture embedded in it, some sort of obvious agenda that isn’t the story itself.

    And backstory/history/description that lasts for pages. Just get on with it, already. Trust my imagination, please!

    Have fun in Hawai’i, Clare! It’s snowing here, so enjoy your rain!

  15. I just can’t deal with ridiculously idealistic characters. Especially if they are politicos. I stopped reading one book when a young up-and-comer was made out to be a political savior, and fighting against all the corrupt fatcats who were dug in like ticks. Sorry, maybe I’m cynical, but I call bullshit. There is no such thing as that idealistic hero, in EITHER political party. Anyone who says otherwise is either a fool or selling something IMO. It’s one of the main reasons I couldn’t read Joel Rosenburg’s books. Come on, most of those characters were like Rambo and Einstein rolled into one. Sorry, not buying it.

  16. Thanks Kathrin – I’ll check out your blog and boy am I with you Fran – the mini lecture, the data dump and the ‘hey look what I know!’ inserts drive me nuts and unfortunately in many historical novels all of these happen…

    And what is up with the ‘super’ sleuths Einstein and Rambo rolled into one is exactly right – and I can’t stand it when a nerdy bookish character can ‘suddenly’ manage to be an action hero at the same time. Give me a break…That’s why I have given up on almost all action movies – I mean how idealistic and unrealistic can one man (or woman – I’m thinking Denise Richards in that James Bond movie…)) be?!

  17. My ‘life is too short to read crap books’ criteria:
    ~If I find myself not caring about the characters
    ~When I find out the author isn’t really writing the book, but is sending an outline to a writing team to write the book and he/she puts the ‘I’m a star’ polish on end product.
    ~Ego font of author’s name on the cover
    ~Putting out a book that’s crap, knowing it’s crap, but thinking people will still read the crap because of the author’s name (in ego font on the cover)

  18. Jake said: ” . . . most of those characters were like Rambo and Einstein rolled into one. Sorry, not buying it.”

    Agreed. This is the biggest problem I had with the Robert Langdon character in THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS AND DEMONS. He knew EVERYTHING. No one knows everything. No one is THAT smart.

  19. Too many subplots and too many characters on too many pages with small print. All the things mentioned in the blog post and by bloggers are justifiable reasons to stop reading.

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