As writers, I suppose we all hope that readers will be so enthralled with our stories that setting them down is simply unthinkable. But as a reader, I often stop reading books before I’m finished with them. I’ve noticed my daughter does the same, but when I asked her about it, her reasons were different than mine.
In the name of writing better stories, stories that are not easily abandoned, I thought I might take some time and explore the reasons why people don’t finish the books they’re reading.
Here’s what I found:
The MC Doesn’t Want Anything
The number one reason that I shelve a book and never take it down again is that the main character doesn’t want anything and so there is ultimately nothing at stake. When I find myself thinking “this is dull,” or “I’m bored,” I can usually dig a little deeper and get to the underlying problem which is almost always tied to a lack of motivation on the protagonist’s part.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but generally when I tire of a book, I can attribute my lack of interest to the MC’s lack of interest: no mystery, no passion, no opinions, no stakes. These qualities make for a dull story.
My daughter recently stopped reading a book she had been really excited about. When I asked her why she was no longer reading it, she told me that it was too hard to follow.
She said that, with every new chapter, she had to start all over again trying to figure out who was telling the story and it was just too frustrating. In fact, she got kind of worked up about it complaining that, at the very least, the author could have started each chapter with the name of the character that would be narrating.
So take note. If you’re telling a multiple POV story, you need to make it really clear who’s narrating each chapter. Starting the chapter with their name is a start, but things like voice and perspective need to be distinct too.
There’s No Context
On his blog, Chuck Wendig (prolific writer of graphic novels) gives 25 reasons he stops reading books. The first is “it’s not for me,” which isn’t very helpful to authors considering how to improve their craft, but his second reason is definitely worthy of consideration. It’s context.
He says “I want context. I don’t need all the details, but I need some sense of what’s going on and why. I need to be rooted in the story fast as you can get me there.” This ties into the idea that those first few pages are critical. They have to do a lot.
For the record, Wendig’s third reason is “lack of stakes.” So, yeah, we’re in agreement on that one.
Author E.B. Dawson cites conflicting ideology in her blog post about why she puts books down. She says “There is a HUGE difference between having complex characters with many facets to them and having characters with messy ideology.”
I couldn’t agree more. If the beliefs in a story are sloppy, it makes the whole thing confusing. When you get right down to it, I would argue this could almost be classified as a stakes issue, but a lack of stakes is different than the confusion created when a character’s belief system is mercurial. Lock that shit down or your readers will bail.
If you go searching the web for reasons people stop reading books, you’ll also find a whole lot of “it wasn’t for me” assertions. These along with “it was boring,” and “I just didn’t like it” aren’t really helpful to those of us looking to craft compelling stories.
Because the truth is, not everyone is going to like every book. So take all of the above guidelines with a grain of salt. They are worth considering, but ultimately, you have to tell the story you have to tell and nobody is under any obligation to finish a book they’re not feeling.
This is the beauty of writing as an art. Soak it up.