Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why You Stop Reading

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 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.


  1. First, thanks for reminding me that I need to return my library books!

    It's funny--since starting to submit my own writing and get rejected, I've felt a lot more "permission" to stop reading a book that isn't catching or keeping my attention. One thing that stops me is iffy writing style. I get bored if the writer isn't doing anything interesting.

    I also get turned off by characters I can't get behind and fizzly plots. And plots that just go bizarro for no reason--there needs to be motivation!

  2. I'm currently reading "1984" by George Orwell. Or at least I was. I haven't touched it for about month. I just didn't feel like I was being immersed in the story, and I didn't care all that much for the almost-not-yet-existent conflict. The setting was intriguing, but I just didn't find it to be enough. Maybe it's just me, but I simply lost interest. I like my books to be more... gripping. It currently sits next to my bed, taunting me with it's bookmark placed halfway through.

  3. Well. I rarely return books, but when I do, it is because of something heavily inappropriate or the fact that the book is sooo boring. You want to have an adventure! Not some scandalous romp through a barren wasteland completely devoid of plot!!!!

  4. I stop enjoying a book as soon as I realize I don't care about the main character. Even if the main characters are horribly flawed (I actually prefer them that way), if they compel me to care about them, I'll keep reading. Even if they don't exactly turn out okay at the end, I want to be able to care about why they are the way they are. So if they're stuffy or flat, I give up on them.

  5. I choked through "The Poisoning in the Pub". My biggest problem was the stereotypical characters. I hate that. And, no, I had little to no sympathy for anybody in the book, except the pub owner. The retarded guy was used as a ruse to get our sympathy. It was a book full of flat characters.

    I haven't read the other book, but I can imagine that I don't want to. Without tension either of the mysterious or romantic kind, there's not much to hold the interest.

  6. I stop reading books when I realize they are just copycats of books that were better. It really annoys me when they take aspects from multiple good books and try to put them together.

  7. Ariel never reads her books, she just reads the endings. I think that if you read the ending without reading the beginning, then you won't be able to understand the end.

  8. Well, yeah, Luke. But at least Ariel doesn't waste her time reading books with bad endings.I am just glad she doesn't do that with movies.....

    Grace Duke

  9. A lot of people have responded to this topic.. I wonder if you should make some sort of monthly feature where you detail the books you haven't read.

  10. I don't only read the endings of books! I just (often, not always) read the endings first. Then, if I like the ending, I read the book, and if I don't like the ending, I don't read the book. Though, if a book looks really good, sometimes I just skip the "ending test."

  11. Oh, and since I frequently read the ending out of order to see if a book is really worth my time, I will stop reading books if I don't like the way they're going to end (for example a deus ex machina ending, or an ending that I just don't like). I also stop reading books that are tedious--I'd much rather spend my time reading something interesting.

  12. I agree, Ariel. I used to do that with my Nancy Drews. I new if Nancy was not going to be nearly killed b a falling stage or a submarine that the book was going to be boring.

    Grace Duke