Three Things That Bugged Me in a Book

by James Scott Bell

Terry’s recent post observed, “As writers, we don’t read the same way ‘normal’ people do. We have internal editors who insist on reading along with us and shouting their opinions.” That’s because we are attuned to the craft; we know the rules guidelines that should not be broken ignored lest we “pull” the reader out of the story. 

Often these are little things. I call them speed bumps. The more there are along the story road, the less the reader will enjoy the ride. Much of my teaching is devoted to speed bump removal. The downside is that it’s harder for me to read just for pleasure. I can’t help lingering over the bumps I encounter and imagining ways they could have been eliminated. 

This happened recently when I went back to re-read a novel in a popular series. I was only a few pages in when I got majorly bugged by something:

1. An eating scene that defies the laws of physics (and has no conflict)

In the first chapter the series hero sits down to dine with a client. A waitress comes to the table, takes their order and leaves. The two principals chat a bit. The speedy waitress returns with drinks. More chatting (about 30 seconds worth in read-aloud time) and the world’s fastest waitress, apparently working with the world’s fastest chef, came with our filets.

Another chat session (1 minute, 23 seconds) during which one character takes one bite of filet. Then: The waitress came to clear our dishes. We ordered creme brulee for dessert.

There follows two lines of dialogue. Two! Five seconds in real-world time. Then: The waitress came with the creme brulee

Gadzooks! This waitress must be the only human to break the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats…without a car!

Forty-three seconds more of chatting, then: My creme brulee was gone.

Holy Coneheads! These character must eat like this:

I’m sure many a reader would notice the same thing. Maybe not enough to toss the book aside, but it is so unnecessary and so easily fixed! Just a few lines of narrative summary sprinkled throughout would have sufficed. Something like: We lingered over our filets, talking about her past, her ex-husband, and the train she missed in Paris. By the time we were ready to order dessert, I thought I knew her as well as my own sister.

Plus, all the dialogue was friendly and informational. No conflict or tension. Thus, boring. Again, it would have been so easy to add a little argument, a disagreement, a bad vibe. (See my further notes on eating scenes.)

I read on, and got a feeling that bugged me further:

2. Phoning it in

“To phone it in means to make the least effort possible, to do something without enthusiasm. The expression phone it in is American, and seems to have originally been connected to the theater and acting. During the early 1930s, a popular joke among theater actors alluded to having a role that was so small it was possible to call on the phone, rather than appear on the stage in person.”

When a series gets hugely popular, and both author and publisher know that any new book will automatically hit the top of the bestseller list, it becomes a temptation to phone it in. Put in the minimum effort and still rake in the dough. I once sat next to an author of this profile at a book signing event featuring several writers—known (him) and unknown (me). Since he was so prolific, I asked him about his work habits. He told me he writes a one-page outline and sends it to his publisher so they will send the rest of the advance. He then ignores the outline and takes a couple of weeks to dictate a book aboard his yacht. That’s about as close to phoning it in as you can get. And it is noticeable. The later books show it.

Look, there’s nothing illegal about not putting in the effort to write the best book you can, and still make bank. Heck, that may even be somebody’s version of the American dream. But it bugs me.

And so does this:

3. The superfluous said

I admit the following is only a tiny speed bump, but it’s still a bump that doesn’t need to be there. So why have it at all? This is from the same novel, the third chapter, which is yet another eating scene:

The waitress came to our table with a coffee pot. “Coffee?” she said.

Well, who else would have said it? When you have an action beat before or after the dialogue, you don’t need the attribution.

“Take it away!” she said, waving her arms.

Better: “Take it away!” She waved her arms.

Or: She waved her arms. “Take it away!”

Brock plopped in a chair. “Whattaya want with me?” he asked. 

Better: Brock plopped in a chair. “Whattaya want with me?”

Now, I like said. It’s a workhorse that does its job and gets out of the way. It’s just as much a mistake to never use said (only action beats all the time wear a reader out) as it is to use it needlessly.

So don’t do that, or I’ll get bugged.

There. I feel better now.

What little things bug you when you see them in a book?

60 thoughts on “Three Things That Bugged Me in a Book

  1. Good (bad?) ones, Sir…

    I get speed bumped by small anachronisms… The current read takes place in the mid-50’s, with occasional flashbacks/backstories ton the 30’s or 40’s, and there’s one wherein a character burns the grass in a end zone on his high school football field, including the single-pole supported goal posts – this “slingshot” design didn’t show up in NFL until the mid-60’s… ?

    Now my antennae are attuned – further pulling me from the story – and up pops another one one… a reference to a calculator in a home office… adding machine, maybe, but… ?

    On the plus side, I’m more than halfway through when I tripped over these… but I’m on heightened alert for the next one and therefore not as immersed in what is (was?) an otherwise good read, and may be reluctant to pick his next release (depending on how this one finishes up).

    Thanks for allowing me to vent along with you…

    • Glad you could vent, George. Now you can have yourself a great Sunday! (Or even a Sundae, if you’re so inclined.)

      I’m especially attuned to anachronisms in dialogue in historical settings. Frequently when watching a series set in the past I’ll hear phrases that were never in use, but which the 30-something writer didn’t give a moment’s thought to.

      • I just read an author website where someone dinged him on the single pole goal post. He sounded embarrassed and said he would fix it with the H post when the paperback came out.

  2. Good post, Jim, and a great question.

    1. Verbs that are not a form of utterance used in dialogue tags. I have a few hundred in a list that I’ve collected over the years as a hobby, all culled from manuscripts I’ve copyedited. My favorite thus far is ejaculated,” as in “Put down that knife!” she ejaculated. Anything that will make the reader rock back in the chair and guffaw at a tense situation is not conducive to keeping the reader in the story.

    2. The phrase “sat and” or “stood and” when the character is already sitting or standing, plus, almost always, “reached over and”. Ugh.

    3. Telling me what the character sensed instead of letting me sense it for myself. This is usually preceded by the character name (or she or he) plus a past- or future-tense sense verb: saw, could see; heard, could hear; smelled, could smell; felt, could feel (physically or emotionally); tasted, could taste. Again, ugh. Just don’t.

    There are others, but this is probably more than enough for now.

  3. Recently, I read a psychological murder mystery by a highly recommended author. The book was written in first person, present tense point of view (POV).

    A sticky feature of present tense POV is what to do with the verbs. What this author did was to use continuous present tense ing verbs in almost every sentence, sometimes more than once in a sentence.

    The following are fake sentences used to illustrate but not identify the author:

    “I am thinking of our last conversation and feeling hurt.”
    “My mind is racing to control my rage.”
    “My hands are shaking and turning blue.”

    The book was suspenseful, but I was so inged out by the end that I’ll never read another book by that author.

    Now, I am off to decrease all the instances of “said” in my own WIP…

  4. Thanks for the shout out, JSB. You mention using said with action tags/beats. I’d expand that to ANY speaker attribution. Either a beat OR a tag. Not both.
    Spitfire dialogue that goes on too long so I have to go back and count to see whose turn it is to speak.
    I get yanked out by misused words … baited breath, peeked interest, peddled his bike.
    Dialogue that uses the author’s words, not the character’s.
    And, although it’s not wrong, I dislike omniscient POV that tells me what’s going to happen… “If only she’d seen the guy with the knife standing behind the door, she’d never have entered the room.”

    • Good points, Terry. Question: are you as bothered by a First Person narrator referring to the future? E.g., It was the low point of my existence. But the worst was yet to come.

      • That would be yes. I want the story to unfold in “real time” for me. I have the same problems with television shows that open with a high-action/characters in peril scene and then after the commercial break, it opens with “Five days earlier.”
        I’m easily annoyed, it would seem.

  5. Thanks, Jim, particularly for Numbers 1 and 3. I think I know who you’re talking about in Number 2. That there are a few different possibilities when excellent authors go relatively unknown and underpaid is a tragedy.

    The speedbump for me is the use of the phrase “He cut his eyes…” Yikes! The image that creates is certainly (probably) not what the author intends.

  6. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the reminders and for setting up a discussion that will be very enlightening. I look forward to learning from everyone’s responses.

    What bugs me: (and I list them with the knowledge that I’ve been guilty of all of them):
    1. I’m with Harvey on “Verbs that are not a form of utterance used in dialogue tags.” These make me burst out laughing.
    2. Terry’s “Spitfire dialogue.” This one really bugs me. If the writer has a “thing” for avoiding “said” or using an action beat, maybe they should turn this rapid fire dialogue section into a script format with the actor listed to the left of the dialogue, so the reader can keep track of who’s speaking without slowing down the pace.
    3. The Miracle Healing. Characters sustain a major injury, that would normally require weeks of healing or recovery from surgery, but yet they’re back in the action within a couple days. It doesn’t pull me out of the story, but I shake my head and smile.

    Have a great weekend.

    • Steve, you remind me of all those old TV Westerns. Since the good guy can never get killed, he is almost always shot in the shoulder. The next day he’s got his arm in a sling and pretty much okay. But man, that’s going to mess you up. Matt Dillon was full of lead after 20 seasons in Dodge City, but he could still outdraw anybody. And why the heck didn’t just retire?

  7. As someone who has worked as a waiter a few times in my life, the speedy waitress sets horrible expectations for real life service.

    A major item that bothers me in books is politics crowbarred into the narrative. If a book is about, or relating, to politics, then that’s fine. Some stories are set against a backdrop of political strife, etc. But when an author is writing a basic crime story and injects an out of context — even out of character— political statement, it takes me right out of the story. Even if I agree with the statement, it breaks the fourth wall because I picture the author smiling over his keyboard, proud that he’s “doing his part” in whatever political battle he’s referencing.

    Case in point, I gave up on The Outsider by Stephen King because he mentions Black Lives Matter on page 1 or 2 (fact check me using Amazon’s Look Inside feature). It has no relevance to the story. What’s worse is the NARRATOR is the one referencing BLM, not even a character, which makes it a worse offense in my book. We all know King, though a master of fiction and one who ought to be admired, is a big time Twitter SJW, but yikes! To quote President Biden, “Come on, man!”

    • Philip, later King conducted some verbal assaults on citizens he saw as holding opposing viewpoints too. Fortunately, the story was good enough and well-paced enough to keep me reading past his bias.

      • Harvey, that would pop me out of the story, and the story into the nearest . . . you know–the thing. I could forgive McCarthy for his lack of tags, his Spanish dialogue, and omission of quotes–I did finish All the Pretty Horses–but not blatant pro-con political statements. Humor is okay, if not mean-spirited, but it appears today that mean-spirited is all we’ve got. Wastebasket.

        • Yup. And in If It Bleeds, the novellette sequel to The Outsider, King goes even more strongly political, always with hateful little jabs, always very thinly and not-well veiled as a character’s thoughts. It’s short so I’m forcing my way through it, but I doubt I’ll read anything else of his that’s newer than 2018.

    • Philip, there are ways to do this and ways not to (usually we see the latter). Not everyone enjoyed the “asides” of Travis McGee, but they were part of his character (and, of course, a reflection of the author).

      But in general, the old Hollywood wisdom still applies: Just tell the story. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.

  8. Oh heck, here’s a bonus speed bump: when authors overly SHOW because they’re so afraid to TELL.

    As a reader, I don’t mind an author who once in awhile writes, “I was furious.”

    Consider the alternative: “My pulse raced and my hands rattled. I could barely catch my breath and my ears felt ablaze.” blah blah blah. Dramatic much? You were ticked off so your “hands rattled”? What does that even mean?

    • Philip, this is RIGHT ON! Heck, if you “showed” an entire novel, it’d be 5000 pages. I have a little guideline I call The Intensity Scale. In brief, when you’re at lower end of emotional intensity in a scene, you tell. When you get up into the higher regions, you show.

    • Very true, Philip. The example is a bit OTT, but on a larger scale, why spend an entire page showing Morris’s reaction and its explicatory antecedents, when you can just say “Morris was peeved”?

      Another thing writers do lately, is to insert awkward verbiage while dancing around the obvious adverb. The verbiage usually turns out to be an adverbial phrase, so no attaboys for them. Not every verb has an action-filled synonym.

  9. Good morning, Jim. You do a fine job of showing that “little” things can make a difference in fiction. Very much agree with your three “speed bumps.”

    Here’s two of mine:

    1. The lead giving us their backstory in the opening. I’ve seen this done well, and I’ve seen (and done it myself as an experiment) poorly. In certain genres, it seems to be a typical approach, but even in those, I find it keeps me at a distance. If done well, it can quickly transition to the scene at hand.

    2. The slow-pace point in a narrative, say a lengthy description of landscape, or a character internal monologuing at length, where my attention as a reader is flagging and I start to skim, just a little, and BAM! That’s the point where the author inserted a crucial to-the-story sentence* then goes back to slow narrative mode. I miss it, and thus miss a vital setup. If a landscape was important enough to describe in lengthy detail, surely an important plot point deserves more than a single sentence.

    *Ideally, every sentence in a novel should be crucial to the story, but YMMV as to how crucial 🙂

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

  10. Anything that makes me stop and think, “How is that possible?” bumps me out. I read a story recently that described a mother and child wearing masks during Covid, and the child was sucking on a red lollipop. I still can’t figure out how the POV character knew the color of the lollipop.

    Your description of “phoning it in” concerns me. I’m writing a series, and each book so far has been hard work to create something that (I hope) is fun and meaningful. But it makes me wonder how many books I can write in the series without it becoming stale.

    • Kay, I don’t think you’ll ever “phone it in.” That’s quite a different vibe than trying to keep things fresh.

      Characters are key, of course. Keep them fresh and surprising, and the readers will be pleased. Each new book can have new characters, too. That’s how Dame Agatha did it!

  11. I just saw an author I met early in her career being featured in Entertainment Weekly. It should be noted that I enjoyed her early books, and she has an aggressive marketing plan that sucked readers in. Now, her books are predictable and hit outline points—and it shows. “This is when this should happen,” and “insert requisite scene here.” She lost me a while back when she started phoning it in. I can congratulate her on her success, but I can’t read her books anymore.

    • That’s the tension, isn’t it? It’s so easy to be lazy when the dollars keep pouring in. So you lose a few readers, so what? Does not show much respect for those loyalists now, does it?

  12. These rules I can get behind. You’ve mentioned these tips before and they really helped me out. Someday I hope to develop the ultimate sitting for dinner/drink scene on par with Star Wars, when Han Solo shoots the bounty hunter.

    Wanted to say thanks.

  13. Physics goofs: The author thinks small, unimportant physical action equals scene movement. The most common version is driving from one place to the next. TV physics goofs are the worst. No, Gibbs, you can’t drive from Arlington, VA, to North Carolina, talk to your dad, then drive back to your NCIS team in Virginia in under an hour.

    Phoning it in: The most common version is “I don’t need no stinkin’ editor because I’ve been a bestseller forever.” So, blotted writing and precious scenes that do nothing for the plot or characters.

    “Said” is not a dirty word: But “argued,” “whined,” and other dialogue descriptives usually are. A typical rookie mistake.

    I’m currently reading an amateur detective cozy where the main character is what I call a manly man which is a standard main character for action/adventure, but not for a cozy. The manly man is good at absolutely everything from action to a love scene, he knows what to do whatever happens, he knows everyone so he can talk to anyone for help or clues, and his emotions and morals are always steady. He moves through the story like a well-oiled robot with impervious skin. This type of character is fine in a novel where the reader wants to be this guy, and the falling boulder and the Nazis are what we are interested. In an amateur sleuth novel, absolutely not. I don’t care about the character in this mystery, the murder victim who is so awful that I’m rooting for the killer, and the various people the hero is interviewing. His golden retriever who keeps finding clues is the only saving grace.

  14. 1. Superheroes are all a form of Deus Ex.

    2. Great comments; all resonated with me. I’ll name no names, but the absolute worst I’ve seen was a police procedural where the cops make three horrendous errors. “How on earth did we forget to check that with Dr. Putzney?” says a detective after one blunder, as if pointing at it excused it.

  15. I have been reading several mystery novels by a well known author. In each novel a character is described as being “abstracted”. I thought this was a typo since one of the novels was a free download for my kindle. When I encountered it in the next two novels I thought the word should have been “distracted”. I was jolted out of the story.

    However after looking up the definitions, the author was correct. “Abstracted” means lost in thought or preoccupied. “Distracted” is having ones attention diverted. So while I experienced a speed bump, it was due to my lack of knowledge.

    It seems the use of the word ‘abstracted’, while correct, is now considered out of date. This makes sense as some of the novels were written six or seven decades ago.

    Thanks for another great article Mr Bell.

  16. When the writer uses “minute” rather than “moment” …
    The server took Jane’s menu. “What dressing would you like on your salad?”
    Jane thought for a minute. “Ranch.”
    I’m pretty sure at about a sixth of the way through the minute, the server would roll his eyes and leave the table.

  17. Stephen King is also guilty (constantly) of the unnecessary “gave”:

    “He gave her a smile” vs. “He smiled,” “gave her a nod” vs. “nodded,” etc. If one character “gave” another a “wave,” the second character better be sitting in a hair salon.

    Rule of thumb: Use gave only when possession actually changes.

Comments are closed.