I recently returned some books to the library. Normally, I return books that I’ve read. This time it was books that I’d started and chosen not to finish. I don’t do that very often. Usually if I get a book, I finish it.
Then I started thinking about why I didn’t finish them. As a writer, I could learn a lot from why I as a reader chose not to finish a book. So, I’ll discuss the reasons below, and I’d love for you, my readers, to think about what I say. Do you agree?
The first book I started to read was Remember When by Nora Roberts. (Big caveat: I’m not recommending that anyone read her books, and especially not my young readers. Some of the situations are very adult and gratuitous.)
First off, I’m not a fan of her books or their genre, but she’s a famous writer, the library had this book, and the jacket blurb sounded very interesting. So, I started it. I liked many things about the book. I found the main character sympathetic and engaging—somebody who’d be a good friend. But I couldn’t finish the book even though I forced myself to sit down and read several times. Why? Tension. The book didn’t have enough tension. The relationship tension (will the MC and her boyfriend get together, can this relationship work, etc.) was broken very early in the novel when they moved in together. And though they initially had a squabble, it was brief and everything was hunky-dory. I felt no desire to read on about their relationship because everything was fine.
The other source of the book’s tension was a cache of stolen diamonds. I honestly didn’t care about the diamonds—I knew where they were, even if the characters didn’t. And the characters weren’t really making much of an effort to find them. On top of that, the “bad guy” didn’t seem all the bad. I kept being told he was a bad guy, but I didn’t find him all that threatening because I didn’t really see/feel his “badness.”
In the end, I returned the book to the library. I had the book for over a month and couldn’t finish it and kept choosing other books to read instead.
Basically, for me, a lack of tension killed this book.
The Poisoning in the Pub by Simon Brett.
This book had two flaws for me.
First, the book had some tension (suspense) issues, which is a big deal given that this was a mystery book. I was about 1/3 of the way into the novel and no one had died. A bunch of people had food poisoning, but other than a trip to the hospital...no harm, no foul. I assumed that sooner or later someone would die. But the dead body was taking a bit long to show up. I might have forgiven this except for flaw number two.
In order for a novel to work, the main character must be sympathetic. That doesn’t mean nice. I can put up with rotten behavior from a character, but I must be given a reason to care for the character. (In fact, I just watched the premiere episode of an old TV show called Canterbury’s Law. In it, the MC did a lot of things I could not justify. But I gave her leeway because her motives were pure. And then, in the end, I discovered something about her that, though it didn’t justify her behavior, made me understand/forgive her.)
Now in all fairness, Poisoning in the Pub is the 10th in a series, and I’ve never read any of the other books. Maybe a faithful reader will know all the sympathetic aspects of the MCs, but I didn’t. Instead, I found her a bit condescending. She’s wonderfully patient with all the people around her who aren’t quite up to her tolerant standards, etc. But she just strikes me as self-satisfied without a hint of humility.
The combination of a slow tension build and a non-sympathetic MC made me return this book to the library after three days.
Personally, I find that these two aspects are among the most important to me as a reader. I find myself overlooking a lot of things including: lame dialogue, unrealistic situations, even some plot issues if the tension is steady and building and I like the MC.
Now here’s my question for you, readers. What makes you return a book? What makes you think this book isn’t worth my time?
I’m waiting eagerly for your answers. They’ll help make me a better writer. Thanks.