Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Don't Burn Your Reader

As a book lover, there is nothing more disappointing than shelling out precious book money for a story that lets me down. I have been drawn in by your cover, intrigued by your premise, and have been given a promise that I am settling down for a specific type of story.

There are times when I have been "burned" by the author and regret the purchase. It doesn't happen terribly often. However, when it does, I never forget it.

Let’s look at a five ways writers “burn” their readers:

1. The Bait and Switch

This happens when you promise your reader a specific type of story, but give them something completely different.

If you promise a thriller, you need to deliver high stakes, tense action, and a protagonist you can root for. I have picked up a five separate thrillers of late that were duller than ditch water. If you haven’t made me care by the third chapter, I stop reading.

Another book I read was pitched as a comedy, but turned out to be about sexual abuse by a family member. Sure, there were a few funny lines, but that sort of content needs to come with a trigger warning.

I have also picked up a few mysteries that were actually love stories with the thinnest cloak of mystery. While I don't mind a love story as a complication, I do expect actual clues, sleuthing, and the solving of a mystery.

2. The Cliffhanger

This happens when you don’t tell the reader how it ends. I realize this is done at times for artistic purposes, but it just makes me throw the book across a room. The whole purpose of reading the book is to find out what happens at the end. To leave me hanging is cruel. It doesn't even have to be a happy ending. If it is part of a series, you should provide a satisfying end to the story arc for each book as well.

3. The Dream

I just bought a NYT bestseller whose premise promised shivers. I started the book, got suspicious, flipped to the end, and discovered none of it really happened. The whole thing was a hallucination. I loathe this tactic. Books like this end up on my "to be burned" pile.

4. The Addendum

This happens at the novel’s conclusion when the author tacks on a chapter that explains how it really happened or offers an alternative viewpoint. I stopped reading one of my favorite authors after having been burned this way.

5. The Page Stuffer

This is where the writer inserts gimmicks like letters, journals, newspaper articles, chunks of backstory, or fact-filling to drag out the page count. The ultimate high for me is a wholly immersive ride. I start on page one and don’t want to put it down until the last page. I will stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it. Sadly, this doesn't happen as often as I'd like. A large percentage of books I read are the equivalent of a nice jog through the park rather than a race to the finish.

In my opinion, speed bumps like these are weak writing. If the information is critical, there are skillful ways to deliver it without resorting to gimmicks or, my least favorite filler, pages of italics. Filler tells me you don’t respect your readers enough to craft an immersive story.

When I curl up with your book in my hands, I am investing minutes of my life I can't get back. Please don't make me regret it.

Remember, an angry customer is rarely a return customer.

Related posts:


Does Genre Matter?

Avoiding Speed Bumps

Memories and Flashbacks




Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

20 comments :

  1. I totally agree. Authors need to provide "customer service" to their readers, and that means delivering a quality product that lives up to its promise.

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    1. Keeping your promise every time gains you a faithful following.

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  2. Excellent points, Diana. Our stories must absolutely live up to our promises. Shortchanging our readers isn't an option if we want to be on their favorite-author lists. On the other hand, I don't mind occasional brief flashbacks that move the story forward and don't mire the reader down in lengthy backstory. The same goes for short scenes in italics that shed light on a character's present reaction or predicament. We all are products of our pasts, our experiences. For me as a reader, those insights -- concisely written and sparsely included -- give dimension to the characters and make them real. Great advice and great post.

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    1. I don't mind well-crafted backstory or flashbacks, even a dream or two.

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  3. The entire it's a dream or hallucination thing is the worst to me.

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    1. I've had that kind of book. It was so annoying! Shades of Bobby Ewing's death (Dallas) all just a dream....

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  4. I hate waiting too long in a series for the next book, and then don't remember enough about the characters to get into the flow. Or something seems "off" because maybe the author has forgotten too much too?

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  5. There have been a few series where the lag was long enough that I ended rereading the first couple of books. But there are very few series that earn that honor. Usually, if I forget the series, I never finish it.

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  6. One of the reasons (and there are many) that I'm such a lousy marketer is that I always worry that I'll over-promise and under-deliver ... given the process of advertising, that is an unreasonable fear, but it is there none-the-less ... sigh! Annnnywaaay, Homey is off for his annual tree-hugging fest in the north woods ... maybe I will get inspired to finish my next poorly marketed tome.

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  7. I agree with most of your list, Diana, but #5 might be more of a reader preference/perception issue and the way a book is promoted. I'm reading a wonderful novel by Leif Enger (Peace Like a River) that might seem to have some of those elements with quoted poetry written by the POV boy's sister, but they enhance rather than distract from the story. And a character-driven novel, even a mystery, may include journal entries or letters without distracting, simply because the book is properly categorized in genre and intention so the reader is not misled. It's true, you don't want to pick up a character-driven historical novel when you're eager to read a fast-paced thriller...but I think that's more about the marketing than it is the writing.

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    1. Good point, Patricia. And I think most of what Diana presented has leeway for the exception to the rule.

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  8. Genre classifications and blurbs (cover description of plot) are special interests of mine, and I write about them all the time.

    In most cases, it isn't really bait and switch but a total misunderstanding of what genre the author thinks she is writing as well as utter cluelessness of what various genre and age-of-reader tags mean.

    I won't go into specific detail here, but, if you're interested in the subject, go to my blog and click on the "book blurb" and "genre" links on the right side of the home page.

    I also take questions so feel free to ask me about the subject.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com

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  9. I will certainly check out your blog.

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  10. Yes to all the things! Another thing that burns me is continuity failure, whether it's timeline- or character-wise. Sometimes it's an honest mistake, but many times, it's just lack of caring or effort. A particular ghostwriter who shall never see a penny of my hard-earned cash has a reputation for continuity fails across the board.

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    1. I call it the "What happened to Bob?" plot hole. :)

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  11. Good list. Author Michael Ondaatje once said, "I see the poem or the novel ending with an open door," which is the way I love to wrap a story. But the challenge is to open a door to a new room while also answering the major questions raised in the room we're leaving behind. Ondaatje is one of my favorite authors, but in one beautiful book of his I felt that he left me hanging on a major question. I was pretty ticked when I finished, because the book had been so beautiful and the disappointment was so unexpected. I doubt he saw it the way I did or he wouldn't have done it.

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    1. I get the whole "life is a mystery" and leaving the ending open to interpretation artistic approach is a viable option. I just don't like it. It is the same with movies or TV series, especially with a series that gets cancelled and we never learn what happened.

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  12. Sorry I'm so late to the party here, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the post, Diana. Good points for all writers to consider, especially those new to the game.

    Regarding the open ending, I think that can work in some circumstances, but not so much in genre or category novels. People who pick up a romance or a mystery or a fantasy novel want at the very least a satisfactory end to the story with major plot threads all neatly tied up. With more literary and mainstream fiction, short stories in particular, the open ending can work. I have used it in many of my short stories that have a more literary bent, and readers have not complained about the story not being neatly wrapped up.

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  13. The Addendum reminds me of the tacked on ending for the Castle TV series!

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  14. Sorry I'm so late here. Couldn't agree more with your list. I like everything tied up, and if not completely, at least so the reader has a positive feeling about where the story is going after the last page. Readers don't like to be left hanging.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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