How to Write a Novel Readers Won’t Put Down

by James Scott Bell

A friend alerted me this past week to an interesting “infographic” posted on Goodreads. The subject: Why readers abandon a book they’ve started. Among the reasons:

– Weak writing

– Ridiculous plot

– Unlikable main character

But the #1 reason by far was: Slow, boring.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? As I’ve stated here before, there is at least one “rule” for writing a novel, and that is Don’t bore the reader!

So if I may channel my favorite commercial character, The Most Interesting Man in the World:

Find out the things readers don’t like, then . . . don’t do those things.

I thank you.

Okay, let’s have a closer look.

Weak Writing

This probably refers to pedestrian or vanilla-sounding prose. Unremarkable. Without what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry.” You have to have a little style, or what agents and editors refer to as “voice.” I’ll have more to say about voice next week. But for now, concentrate on reading outside your genre. Or read poetry, like Ray Bradbury counseled. Simply get good wordsmithing into your head. This will expand your style almost automatically.

Ridiculous Plot

Thriller writers are especially prone to this. I remember picking up a thriller that starts off with some soldiers breaking into a guy’s house. He’s startled! What’s going on? Jackboots! In my house! Why? Because, it turns out, the captain wants him for some sort of secret meeting. But I thought, why send a crack team of trained soldiers to bust into one man’s suburban home and scare the living daylights out of him? Especially when they know he’s no threat to anyone. No weapons. No reason to think he’d resist. And why wake up the entire neighborhood (a plot point conveniently ignored)? Why not simply have a couple of uniforms politely knock on the door and ask the guy to come with them? The only reason I could think of was that the author wanted to start off with a big, cinematic, heart-pounding opening. But the thrills made no sense. I put the book down.

Every plot needs to have some thread of plausibility. The more outrageous it is, the harder you have to work to justify it. So work.

Unlikable Main Character

The trick to writing about a character who is, by and large, unlikable (i.e., does things we generally don’t approve of) is to give the reader something to hang their hat on. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, has grit and determination. Give readers at least one reason to hope the character might be redeemed.

Slow, Boring

The biggie. There is way too much to talk about here. I’ve just concluded a 3-day intensive workshop based, like just about everything I do, on what I call Hitchcock’s Axiom. When asked what makes a compelling story he said that it is “life, with the dull parts taken out.”

If I was forced to put general principles in the form of a telegram, I’d say:

Create a compelling character and put him in a “death match” with an opponent (the death being physical, professional, or psychological) and only write scenes that in some way reflect or impact that battle.

The principle is simple and straightforward. Learning how to do it takes time, practice and study, which you can start right now, today.

So what about you? What makes you put a book down? And related to that, do you feel compelled, most of the time, to finish a book you start? I used to, but now I don’t. Life’s too short, and there are too many books on my TBR list!

32 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel Readers Won’t Put Down

  1. Goodreads has it right. I don’t read books where the main character is a drunk who whines. Or anyone who whines. I am willing to put up with a slow start–like The Name of the Rose–if it has interesting characters and an interesting situation, that carries me away to a different place. I may read a book with an implausible plot, but I sure won’t read the author again if the threads don’t wrap up in the end.

  2. Slow and boring wins. Also, I don’t like to read gratuitous violence or when others kill off animals in their books. I love many different kinds of books. I won’t waste time on a book I can’t get drawn into within three chapters. I’m trying to read an old Victoria Holt novel, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, and the first chapter almost put me to sleep. I’m trying to hang in there in order to learn something about the craft. If an author really disappoints me, I won’t read anything by them again. We can’t please everyone all the time as authors but we can give it our best effort and I believe best effort shows.

    • Sometimes I wonder if I’ve just been too conditioned for things to start quickly. Many of the older novels have a slow start, lots of narrative, etc. Maybe I’ll get drawn in and I’ll probably stick with it only because many others have said the same as you, Terri. How would you compare Holt’s novels to similar novels being written today?

    • The are definitely slower, with a Victorian sense of timing. However, the female heroines and the historical themes are just so kick ass, that I love them all.

      My fav of Holt’s is “My Enemy the Queen,” set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I with historical accuracy.

      The unfolding pace is very slow and there is very little action. However, the intrigue and characters are so amazing, this little vixen challenging Elizabeth for the attention of the most dashing man in court . . ., I couldn’t resist it.

  3. Well written, but slow starts don’t bother me that much. Granted, James Michener didn’t write many thrillers, but I don’t mind a good, slow build to action. I don’t like writing about agencies, weapons, equipment, or geographic areas that clearly reveals the author’s lack of familiarity. Reading all the way to the end to find that the loose ends that are addressed are forced, and others remain dangling, will end it for that author for me. Also the gratuituous violence, etc. won’t bring me back.

  4. I finished reading a new thriller for a review last night. It hit most, possibly all, of the buttons, you mention. You might add “extraordinarily detailed description” to the list. Two examples pop out: early on it takes a character two pages to get out of her car and walk thirty feet to a mote,l room. Later, in a fight scene, a page and half are spent describing hitting someone once with a ruler.

    • This drives me nutso, too, Dana — what I call physical movement clutter. Two pages to get out of a car and into a motel? At worst: She got out of the car and went into the motel room. At best, you can dispense with it altogether because often the reader’s mind automatically fills in the physical movements. But often not. The trick is to realize when you, the puppetmaster, must jerk the strings.

    • I think that good time management and character movement depend upon the writer’s understanding of POV and voice. Elmore Leonard is my favorite in that department.

  5. Too many characters. I confuse easily. I need to relate with one main character and will then follow him/her into every alley they ever venture.

    I often put books down but will give them second chances. Lately I find I’m gravitating towards collections of short stories. They don’t interfere so much with my writing schedule.

  6. Everyone has definitely hit the high points. Here are my “see ya” criteria:

    1. Main character is a total Mary Sue. In one book by a quite famous writer, the MC was a tall stacked “ebony-haired” marathon-runner who sailed racing yachts in her spare time between mastering the martial arts and working as a top-drawer research scientist to find the cure for the disease that took her little sister when she was only five.

    I wouldn’t want to hang out with her in real life, I didn’t give a flip about her in a book. Every page was just one more glimpse into the writer’s fantasy life and I was bored quickly.

    2. Excessive physical description. Why must MCs be “Five-feet-ten-and-one-half inches” tall. Is that clever? Can’t we give the guy the extra half inch, or better yet, make him “just shy of six feet.”

    3. I’m one of those who doesn’t mind an opening scene of waking up. For me it humanizes the MC, because even Miss Marathon from above is a wreck first thing in the morning. However, it needs to move things along quickly and serve a purpose.

    For this poetry is excellent and also song lyrics. One of my favorite songs starts out:

    Well I woke up Sunday morning, with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.
    And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
    so I had one more for dessert.
    Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes, and found my cleanest dirty shirt.
    And I shaved my face and combed my hair,
    And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

    No physical description needed. This bit of inner dialogue sets scene, MC attributes, dribbles in some backstory, mood, and sets up tension for what he might find at the bottom of the stairs. When I talk about flash fiction, I go straight to song lyrics – compact and not a syllable wasted.

    4. Finally is the ridiculous plot. Even the most fantastic and outrageous conspiracy theory has to have some basis in reality.


  7. Times change, and so do popular writing styles. I attended a Don Maass workshop where he read the opening two pages of The Great Gatsby because he thought it was a wonderful example of how to start a book. We all exchanged looks. Someone said, “Isn’t that the slow-motion setting and weather intro you told us to avoid?”

    I don’t have any data, but I bet older readers (like me) are used to slower starts and will give a book a chance. Younger readers who have grown up on a different time plane than us old foggies seem to want a much faster start.

    For me, making a connection to a character has to happen quickly, and then there better be some sense to the plot (unless it’s supposed to be a comedy or on the tongue-in-cheek side). If I decide I’m not going to slog to the end, I will generally flip there to see what happens. I can’t walk away without knowing how it ended.


  8. I don’t mind a slower start–I’ve been on an Elizabeth Goudge kick, and her starts are very slow but wonderful–but the story eventually needs to get somewhere. Usually it does. But if I’ve gone half a book and still nothing has happened, I’ll bail. This seems to happen a lot with self pubbed ebooks I pick up for free.

  9. ARGH! James you stole my post for next week! I, too, saw that Goodreads graphic and was fascinating by its simplicity and truth. Luckily, I didn’t write the post yet. But a good job on riffing on it. I love this quote:

    Create a compelling character and put him in a “death match” with an opponent (the death being physical, professional, or psychological) and only write scenes that in some way reflect or impact that battle.

    That is the the gist of it, no? Yes, compelling characters but if they are not in conflict, if they are DOING NOTHING that we care about — meh.

  10. Okay, I have to bring this up:

    “Gone Girl.” Have there been two more unsympathetic, whiny, self-absorbed protags in recent memory? I recognize this story is about domestic dystopia but geez, I was glad to be rid of these people. Yet the book was impossible to stop reading. It broke a rule and worked.

    • Well, Kris…since you brought it up… I finished Gone Girl, too. It nearly killed me. Now I wish I’d bailed. Such disappointment in a story! I hated everyone. And she had plenty of opportunities to rescue the damn thing, too. That’s what I was hoping for, right to the bitter end.

    • Also glad you brought up GONE GIRL. I was at least glad to reach the female character’s “reveal” — I liked her better after that point than I did at the beginning. Yes, the book was a page-turner, but to be honest, I was disappointed I had to spend $12.99 for the book. Personally wasn’t convinced it was worth that. Tons of other people would disagree, I know.

    • Ah Kris, GG is truly a book people love to hate. And the end is esp. irksome to so many. I heard today the the author admitted having the plot, but not the ending. A definite peril, although it doesn’t seem to have hurt sales.

  11. I read the first page or chapters (Kindle samples when I can get them). I’m looking for interesting (unusual) characters or normal people caught up in unusual circumstances. I like being surprised by what happens next. But the real biggie for me is getting the sense that “something” is gonna happen. Quite often I bail on a book because of too much teeth brushing, too much pondering of the setting sun, too much info about Aunt Elma, who died a hundred years ago, childhood recollections of strawberries. Not to beat this one into the ground, of course.

    I just started my first David Baldacci story (The Innocent). He certainly knows how to deliver and keep it going. I’ll be watching for that “face in the mirror” moment at 50%.

    • Jim, I’m abut halfway through Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth.” No one would ever say he’s a great stylist but boy can he tell a story. I am willing to endure pages of esoterica on how a 10th century cathedral is built (even find it interesting) because Follett has given me characters I want to care about or root against and he always keeps the shark-plot moving forward lest it die.

  12. Good post. Improbable plots and stupid police are turn offs for me. I remember giving up on a novel when an amateur detective researched the victim’s house after the police and discovered the dead person’s day planner right on the desk. NO WAY that would happen, even with a small, dumb force. I gave up.

  13. I cannot stand to put a book down—especially when I have paid for it. But I will send it recycling for all of the reasons above.
    However, I just finished “The Watchers” by Jon Steel.

    Maybe I am slow but I didn’t get it, and what made it even harder was the author had lots of French dialogue, I did not understand. (The French dialogue added some color to it, I must admit)

    I could have put the book down anytime and not look back but the story was intriguing enough, and the characters took me by the hand (in my imagination) and led me half way through.

    “The Watchers” began making sense in a fiction sort of way—or an Angel helped me, I don’t know but I could not put the darn thing down. The next day I went out and bought its sequel.

  14. Since I’ve been reading for ages and have been exposed to high-quality writing, I’d have to say poor writing will prompt me to close a book quicker than anything else. I can tolerate slow (although not boring) if it’s well-crafted. Yes, I realize “slow” is different if it’s well-crafted.

    I can sometimes even tolerate unlikable characters (see P.J.’s comment about GONE GIRL above).

    But if an author can’t manage the very basics of good writing, that’s a deal breaker for me. And I won’t hesitate to put the book down. Like you, Jim, I know there are plenty of well-written books out there, so I dislike wasting my time on a bad one.

  15. Has our attention span gotten to be too short and too dumbed down? (Tweets & Txts are IN)?

    Consider the first Matrix movie where there was a LOT of deep philosophical ideas presented. How many viewers understood them, and how many were just “entertained?”

    All that being said, it’s interesting how people shy away from “disturbing” scenes (animals getting harmed). How do these people feel about PETA? Myself I support PETA but I don’t want to see those ugly scenes either.

    So if one wants to write a story exposing something ugly, then they’ll have to write it in a way that makes it palatable. And compelling.

    Lastly, people still love a good hero they can relate to. Somebody that they could be like. As one of you mentioned something to the effect that “we all look ugly in the morning”–that’s both humorous and interesting to think about.

    Okay, one more: I’ve heard that First Person has become more popular due to people want to think about what the character thinks, instead of just racing through the scenes.

  16. I just wanted to say I’ve only signed up for the Kill Zone in recent weeks but it is the most valuable, entertaining and educational daily blog subscription I have experienced. Thanks to all the contributors with their great advice and anecdotes.

  17. Kurt, thanks for becoming an official Zoner. We’re glad to have you here. If there’s ever a topic you’d like us to discuss, just say so and we’ll feature it on Reader Friday.

  18. Graphic violence in thriller novels is not always a bad thing. It may limit your target audience, but not by much. Anyone who monitors the Amazon Top-100 or NYT bestsellers will find quite a few novels that contain wince-inducing, gory scenes.

    James Rollins, anyone? Karin Slaughter? J. A. Konrath?

    In real life, violence is shocking, horrifying, and ugly to confront. And it should be. When we choose, in our stories, to instead present violence in sanitized form, we blunt its effect. We make light of the horror, pain and suffering it causes. Violence should have a strong emotional impact on a reader seeing it through our protagonist’s eyes… unless, of course, he or she is a psychopath.
    The protagonist, I mean. Not the reader 😉

    Gore for its own sake is rarely effective. But when a protagonist we’ve come to care about is forced to witness–or endure–something terrible, the reader should feel uncomfortable, too. Cartoonish portrayals or genteel, soft-focus depictions of violence can rob dramatic story events of their raw emotional power.

    Of course, many great novels contain no violence at all. What makes great stories great is the unflinching honesty with which they make a reader feel what the characters are feeling. Mysteries and thrillers–particularly suspense thrillers–generally do contain violence. In fact, thriller plots often hinge upon violent events. So why put lipstick on what shouldn’t ever be pretty?

  19. I’d add immersive world building. The series that I follow sweep me into another place with exquisite detail. You really feel like you’re there.

  20. I’ll add my two cents. All of the above.

    I’m more likely to put down a fiction work which is self-published, I’ve found. Generally it is because:

    • Begins with backstory. Lots and lots of backstory.
    • Begins with unnecessary details which aren’t pertinent to the story.
    • Shallow characters I can’t connect with. (In kids books these feel like a third rate Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys knock-off.)
    • Begin with a big action scene which has nothing to do with the story and/or suddenly dives from this into a ton of pointless backstory.

    And the list goes on.

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