Always striving to improve my writing, I make notes when readers complain about what they don’t like in a story. I reviewed my notes recently because I’m working on a rewrite of a new novel. Here’s a long list of  dislikes from readers on a mystery listserv I participate in:

  • portents, particularly the “had-I-but-known”
  • cliffhangers at the end of the chapter or the book
  • an abundance of coincidences
  • too little character background for series protagonists (assuming the reader has read the previous books in the series)
  • clumsy dialogue that doesn’t sound natural
  • insufficient sense of place and/or time
  • characters that are TSTL (too stupid to live)
  • rushed endings, particularly done with exposition rather than actually solving the clues to solve the crime
  • abuse to women, children, or animals…done for shock value
  • a prologue that either isn’t really necessary or that diminishes the impact later of the plot
  • characters with similar names
  • hackneyed plots
  • thin characters
  • an unconvincing voice
  • weak, bland prose no matter what the style
  • pretentious prose no matter what the style
  • stylistic repetition that seems lazy
  • badly edited texts
  • deja vu: “I’ve read this before”
  • the author trying too hard at whatever
  • the author seeming to revel in cruelty

I’d like to think my stories don’t fall into these patterns, but I confess, I occasionally use a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter.
Readers: What can you add to this list?
Writers: When and why do you break these “rules” in your novels?

  1. I’m torn about the “cliffhanger at the end of a chapter.” As a reader, I sometimes want to be able to finish a chapter and put the book down because I have other things to do. Cliffhangers bug me because I want to know what happens next! As a writer, however, it’s not a good thing if your reader can put your book down to go finish a task and not NEED to get back to it to see how it ends. My editor once told me, never end a chapter with your character going to sleep. Your reader will, too.

  2. This is a good list, because I hate those things as a reader, too. But it occurs to me that a lot of them are subjective. A plot that seems hackneyed to one person may seem fresh to someone else, and what seems too coincidental to one person may seem natural to someone else.

    I hate the similar name thing, though With George R. R. Martin’s stuff, I’m always trying to figure out which “Ned” we’re talking about… 😉

    @Gayle, funny you say that about ending a chapter with going to sleep. On my last read through of my novel, I realized I’d opened a lot of chapters with people waking up and closed them with people going to sleep. I didn’t change all of them, but I hope I changed enough that it’s not so obvious anymore… 🙂

  3. I think the question is; can make it work, apart from bad formatting and technical issues,

  4. Coincidence is something I say you could never have. I’m not so solid on that now. I think if you use coincidence to push your plot, you’re cheating the reader. But sometimes fate throws curveballs. I think if fate is layered on top of an existing plot then it isn’t necessarily coincidence. But it’s a dangerous thing to try.

  5. Like Gayle, I am also torn when it comes to “cliffhangers” at the end of a chapter. I think it works for certain types of books (thrillers, horror, mysteries), but not so well for others. Personally, I like them as a reader as well as a writer…

    Now, the complaint about “abuse to women, children, or animals…done for shock value”…Well, guess what? Maybe people need a little shock value, as well as a reality check. My full time job is in the law enforcement field and it’s ALL I see, day in and day out. Abuse exists people! I commend writers that don’t hold back when it comes to sensitive subjects. (sorry for my rant!!)

  6. I like the cliffhanger, as long as it is not at the end of every chapter, and definitely not at the end of the book. My biggest hate as a reader, not a dislike but an actual hate, is to read a great book, usually a mystery, and find at the end there is/was no motive whatsoever for the killing(s). I recently read one just like this and I’ll never read another by the author. I was so pissed off. In my opinion, it made the entire novel senseless and left me wholly unsatisfied as a reader.

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