Top 10 Ways to Lose a Reader

top-ten-list-top-95717_960_720Or maybe that should be bottom. These are ten of the … what should I call them? Mistakes I commonly see in indie books. Pet peeves. Maybe just the kind of things that will turn me off when reading a book.

I’m no David Letterman, but we’ll try it his way.

Top 10 Ways to Lose a Reader

10) Making a geographical faux pas. If you write fantasy, or science fiction set in the future on a planet in a galaxy far away, you get a pass. You’ve defined your own world and all is well. But set your story in a real place in contemporary times and there is a limit to how much you can get away with before you’ll throw the reader who knows the area out of the story or even pass the point where some readers will no longer be able to suspend disbelief. A general rule might be that the importance rises as the place is better known and the more specific you get in your other details. For example, the book that took place in my small-ish, little-known city got a pass for giving the protagonist a twelfth floor apartment where not even the grain elevator (the highest structure in town) comes close to that height. But turn east from Chicago when headed for Des Moines or experience a four inch snow storm in Orlando without a good explanation and we’ve got a problem.

9) Over doing an accent. This would apply to any strange quirks a character has. It’s a balancing act between adequate characterization and bogging the reader down in interpretation. A little bit goes a long way in this area.

8) Starting with an information dump. Your first few pages need to grab the reader’s attention. Do that with action or conflict. Flashing lights in the rearview mirror or a woman slapping the protagonist and walking out works. A meeting with a series of speakers droning on forever, doesn’t. Saving the information dump for chapter two or moving it to a prologue isn’t much better. Anytime you’re spending multiple pages doing nothing but dumping back story on the reader, odds are you have a problem.

7) Unrealistic … anything. The American teenager saying she’s “going to the loo.” Not likely, unless she’s a fan of Masterpiece Theater. The character who magically has knowledge on a subject about which they couldn’t possibly have a clue. For example, making a comment about the habits of another character she first met seconds before.

6) Contradicting facts already in evidence. These are usually little things. A character changing from a blonde to a redhead. An office building jumping from downtown to the suburbs.

5) Too much back story. Even if it isn’t dumped on the reader all at once, there can still be too much back story. I know authors are encouraged to understand their characters, even going so far as to write a character biography for reference. That doesn’t mean all of what you know about the character needs to go in your book. If it doesn’t pertain to the story or serve a clear purpose in characterization, it doesn’t belong.

4) Head hopping. Multiple point of view characters are fine. (In the romance genre, you always have at least two.) But for each scene (even better would be each chapter) stick with one point of view. There are exceptions. If you’re writing from a third-person, omniscient perspective, then your narrator, by definition, is all seeing and all knowing. He, she, or it might be jumping from head to head. It’s also hard to pull off well because if it isn’t very clear whose head you’re in, the reader will become confused. Thoughts from two characters in a single paragraph is almost always going to be a problem.

3) Proofing and copy editing misses. Included in this are typos, grammar errors such as using the wrong pronoun or verb tense, and homonym errors. This would be number one on the list, except I’ve already written about it twice, in this post on proofreading and another addressing homonym errors.

2) Show, don’t tell. This is one of the most common of issues. Don’t tell us she was mad. Show us her red face as she stomps off. But this can also be the most overused of “writer’s rules.” Some things are best told. If your character drives across town, it’s okay to just tell us if nothing important happened along the way. But there is probably no need to give us a turn by turn account of the trip. Robert Parker may do this in his Spenser novels, but few authors are Robert Parker.

1) Repetition. Repeating yourself. Telling us the same thing over and over and over and over. This issue takes many forms. Sometimes it’s almost as blatant as what I just did. Other times it’s using the same word multiple times close together, as when one book described a character’s actions with a sequence of sentences that read like monotone speech. “He did this. He picked up that. He went here.” Mix up sentence patterns and word choice. Repetition can even be a problem between two distant parts of the book. Using an uncommon word choice a handful of times throughout the book will make that word jump out and jar some readers out of the story by the fifth occurrence. Flashing back near the end of the book to a scene from the beginning because you want the reader to have it fresh in their mind might be okay. However, repeating everything is overkill. This only indicates you don’t trust the reader to remember.

As with all rules, there are exceptions to many of these. I’ve mentioned some. What others can you think of? Are there issues you consistently find in your own writing or that of others?

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

68 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Lose a Reader”

  1. Nice piece, Al. Another rule I think of is the R.U.E. or Resist the Urge to Explain. There are things in the story that needs only to be hinted at and leave the readers fill the gaps in their imagination.

    One can tell more with what’s hidden than with what is described.

    1. Thanks, Massimo. I agree. Your R.U.E could fit in so many contexts, too. It applies to the “too much back story” and in other contexts is often what immediately follows the repetition scenario I discuss in terms of a flashback as well as many other situations.

    1. Thanks, Lynne. I’ll resist the first response that popped into my head. 😀
      At least I have the disclaimer at the end about breaking rules.

      1. I’d be careful Ms. Cantwell, BigAl cracks a mean whip! IJS

        BTW, great post BigAl. 🙂

  2. Okay, this a weird one, but I don’t need to know every last stitch of every person’s clothing. And I’m a girl! Throw in a scene where you describe her ball gown, certainly, but I’m just not caring about every last thread and shoe. I don’t care if your hero wears expensive suits or a flannel shirt, or if your heroine changes outfits six times a day, and please keep the brand names out!

    1. LOL, Melyssa. No product placement for you? A lot of the things on my list (and although it doesn’t fit the heading, this is the kind of thing I was thinking of in the last part of the show don’t tell section) can be okay in small amounts for characterization, IMO. Certain brands can convey something about the character. But I agree, a little bit goes a long way.

  3. Great post, Al! I’d add the Alfred Hitchcock advice to the list – drama is life with the dull bits taken out. So, be more dramatic by saying less. Less really is more in most situations.

  4. Excellent post! I learned the hard way with the first novel. DO NOT (or at least minimize) use HAD. As pointed out, past tense isn’t conducive to present tense action. The work contained 1200 uses. That was whacked to 200. Amazing how a little word gums up the works.

    One other point, don’t trust word get it right especially if you’re using exotic names and places. I found the name Boirarsky spelled correctly until I found the word Boilermaker. WTH? Even the editor missed it. I learned that even with the best editor, the author MUST re-read their work to avoid embarrassment.

    1. We’ve all got words that are problems, Jeff. (Mine is ‘that’, but at least it doesn’t change the verb tense.”

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. I also noticed “that” pesky word rearing its head in the most inopportune moments. After hacking away at had, the sickle was on the dull side, and allowed a few of them to remain standing. Also, the word just, just needs to go.

          1. “That” and “just” are probably the most commonly overused words. The “had” bit I bend on a little. A story in past tense sometimes references past events. A few are occasionally needed for clarity.

    1. I agree Yvonne. Anything that makes the reader think you see them as stupid isn’t going to make them want to read more. Some of the items on my list can fit that category depending on the reader perception. Repetition (when you’re repeating something that happened earlier in the story) feels that way to me.

    1. Thanks, Tiffany. I suspect everyone has some of the first two sneak in. It’s just a question of fixing them in editing (self and otherwise).

  5. Another one is bad and overused metaphors/analogies! I recently read a hugely hyped (overly hyped, IMO) hyped traditionally published novel that was literally metaphor after metaphor…of the worst variety! One of them…I can’t remember what the exact metaphor was, but imagine a scene where a child doesn’t get his way, and the author says this:

    “But that’s not fair!” he wailed, like a child wails who doesn’t get his way.

    Yeah, it was that bad. I love a beautiful metaphor as much as the next person, but too much is just awful.

    Another I see all too often in new authors is the desire to introduce every new character with a feature-by-feature description of them….often right in the middle of an action sequence! Please don’t stop in the middle of a battle scene and say, “She was taller than most girls, and she was very slim. She had long brown hair with a slight wave. Her eyes were blue as cornflowers. She was wearing a man’s tunic and a sword on her belt, but her face was gentle, with delicate, arching eyebrows and a small, rosy mouth, and a nose that was just small enough to be childish.” UGH NO!

  6. This is very useful information for authors. I am an editor for an indie publisher, trying to explain to our authors,most of the things on your list, plus the ones listed in the comments above. Very helpful! Thanks all.

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. I think everything is easier to see and understand in someone else’s prose. It’s the reason why everyone needs an editor.

  7. Great article. 🙂 A couple of things I’d like to mention/add.

    #1 is about #1; those faux pas needn’t be only geographical. Within the last couple of years, I have run into two books that ‘threw me out of the story’ because details relating to the main character’s line of work were unbelievable.

    In one, a young woman who is supposed to have earned a degree in Hospitality/Hotel/Restaurant and worked in the industry for a while gives a restaurant a makeover, changing the style, price-point, etc., without doing any research first to see if it will fly (what we in the industry call a feasibility study). That book got round-filed early on.

    In the other, the male lead is meant to be a secret agent of some kind who was planted/went undercover as a rock star. I’m guessing we’re meant to believe that government agencies can control the popularity of rock musicians? That they predicted when they got this band together for garage rehearsals that they would one day be in a position that the agency could exploit? Sheesh.

    Anyway, on to…

    #2. One of my major peeves is when authors/editors adhere so closely to the style ‘rules’ that people throw out into the universe (Reduce extraneous words! Never use ‘just’!) that the flow and rhythm of the writing is butchered. Sometimes extraneous words really aren’t; instead, they are there to keep a sentence from sounding ‘clunky.’ Writers should worry less about striking every use of ‘that’ or ‘just’ and concentrate on listening to how their writing sounds.

    For anyone who disagrees, consider poetry or music. Poets and lyricists often employ filler words to adhere to the rhythm and flow of the poem or song. This can (and should) apply to prose as well.

    1. LB, thanks for the comments. You’re right on #1. IU’s “Get it Right” series is aimed at that exact thing.

      #2, I also agree. In fact I had a discussion about repetition with an author today who questioned a quote I’d used from one of the IU authors that repeated a word three times in one sentence. I thought it was okay (even good, which is why I chose to quote it) because it helped emphasize three ideas mentioned in the sentence and gave it a rhythm which read rather than clunked, at least IMO. I’m not going to say “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” should be rewritten to take out the duplicate “it was the.” 🙂

  8. Great list! One thing that bugs me is summing up at the ends of chapters. Give the reader credit for catching that dramatic note you dropped a few sentences up and END there. And agree with what LB Clark said above. Listen to the rhythms. I read out loud as I edit my own and other authors’ work. Sometimes you do need that “beat” and don’t need to slice EVERY extraneous word. The answer to nearly every writing questions is “it depends.”

    1. Thanks, Laurie. I think the answer to almost every question in life is “it depends.” If we can figure out the general rule, then we’re ready to start finding the exceptions.

  9. Great advice. I went through my latest deleting “even”; finally; up; down and, of course, just. Strange how it sounded so much better without them. And I agree we have to have a flow, and I also read out loud, normally on tape so I can listen to it later.

    1. Thanks, Linda. “Even” is even one of my words. (Using it there not only sounds bad, it sounds pretentious, doesn’t it?)

  10. ‘Starting with an information dump’ seems related to the issue of “not knowing when to bring the curtain up on a story”. Quite a puzzler for new writers like me!

    If a curtain rises too early, the writer must contend with giving details of action (or non-action) that simply don’t matter to the story. If the curtain rises too late, the story beats won’t make sense because the writer is cramming details into key action. Those details slow down and interrupt both pace and cadence.

    I’ve committed both of these errors. It took me a while to figure out why, when reading aloud my story drafts, things became bumpy and uncomfortable.

    Thanks for a most thoughtful post, Al!

  11. I found myself going yep, yep,yep a LOT with that list. My own personal bugbear is a narrative that jumps time frames constantly, it just slows down the story and you don’t know which strand of the narrative you are following especially if lots of characters are involved. I especially found this frustrating recently when reading The Night Circus. Also be careful telling tales in the present tense, it’s not easy to do and do well.

    And lastly, lack of character development, your readers really need to engage with your cast, if you’ve got lots of characters but not enough definition, they’ll quickly stop caring and dump the book. Don’t be in a rush to get the book out if the tale doesn’t vividly sparkle in your head.

  12. OK, I’m really late to this party, and as per usual when you’re late, all the best lines have already been taken. I certainly think that all your points, Al, are good guidelines for a writer, and I would agree with most of the comments your post has stimulated.

    I’m not sure whether this should be a guideline or not but it can lose me as a reader. My pet hate is something that not just new or indie writers are guilty of but also well established and best selling writers: the over use of multifarious adverbs.

    Excellent article, Big Al.

    1. Thanks, TD. I call that the Stephen King rule. I’m sure he wasn’t the first to suggest that, but possibly the most famous. Another good one.

  13. I agree with your point on showing too much when the story needs to move along. I read a crime drama written by a Veterinarian. The main character in this story was…you guessed it a veterinarian. The story itself wasn’t that bad, except whenever the author got to an area where her expertise comes into the story, she stopped being a storyteller and began teaching and explaining all the unimportant details of her trade… e.g. in this story we learn about sticking a tube down a horses nose to pump oil into its intestines. This did not help solve the murder or move the plot in any way.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Leo. I’ve noticed two situations where authors seem more prone to telling too much. One is the person who is an expert on a subject like you mention. The other is when they are trying to make a point, usually political or religious. They’ll try to cram enough information in to completely make their case and the story suffers for it. They’d be much better served to include only the information needed for their story and include an author’s note pointing the interested reader to references to find out more. A more subtle approach that is, IMO, more likely to work on readers who are open to their message without ruining the story.

    1. Agreed, Rosanne. At least most. I would say #3 (lack of copy editing and proofing) is not an exception, but even there the better the story the more forgiving a reader is likely to be.

  14. Great list, Al. I’d like to see you add repetitive word usage to #1. Almost nothing drives me nuts more or faster than seeing the same word or phrase used twice or more in the same sentence or paragraph. By the third time, my brain shuts off.

    1. I think you’re repeating me here, Kat. 🙂

      My theory on repetitive word usage is it depends on the word and the length between uses. The shorter and more common the word, the closer together it can be reused. For example, is the duplicated ‘on’ in my last sentence that bad? Or my many usages of ‘the’ thus far? But some uncommon words (if I have to look the meaning up with my Kindle directory it might qualify) used four or five times in a book is going to stand out to me. The first few times I’ll think the author was going for a more precise or evocative word for emphasis. By the fourth or fifth time I wonder if they’re just showing off that they own a thesaurus.

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