Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I've started so I'll finish...or maybe not

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers

Confession: I watch reality TV.

Some of the shows are fun to watch, although I find it often takes time to get acquainted with the cast and build any sort of connection to the players. If the first episode is weak or uninteresting, my attention drifts elsewhere and I'll switch channels. I'm fickle, and I'm busy. I'm also not likely to come back. When a great group is thrust together, the connection starts right away and I’m immediately hooked.  

It’s the same way with books. I want instant action, strong characters, drama, and a great plot. I want to be drawn in from the first page, held to the story, and care about the cast. I'm at my most critical right after I finish a great book and start a new one. At the end of a great book, I'm vested in all the characters and don't want it to end. This makes it tough for the next author. Like a new job, I have to get to know all the new people and find out if I like it in this world. Unlike a new job, I don't have to stay long in the fictional world if it sucks.

Some readers persevere with a "bad" book and read it to the end. I've done that once; a) because the book was short, and b) because I couldn't believe how truly bad it was. The book was penned by a well-known author and I convinced myself it had to get better. After I finished, I was annoyed with myself for wasting the time, and struck said author off my to-be-read list for good. According to the reviews, so did lots of other readers. With so many great books, who has the time? 

So, what draws me in? What keeps a reader reading?

A Big Brother series just ended in the UK. Normally, I don't like Big Brother, but the cast in this series had all the right qualities and reinforced what I want to find in the books I read (what I expect most readers hope to find): drama, shock, great character interaction and strong personalities. Likable members of the cast brought out the better side of the uglier personalities, added humility, redeemed them for the audience, and brought a wonderful balance to the house.The mix created a good level of intrigue and excitement. It played out like a great story that held my interest. I had to know what would happen next. But most of all, what really kept me - I cared.

Instant intrigue draws me in to a book, but I'm a wriggly fish and the hook alone is not enough. What keeps my interest is the growing suspense and the character dynamics. I want to see the flaws exposed in the heroines and heroes; the virtues of the villain. I want conflict, both external and internal, humor and humility, a little chaos. I can't identify with perfect people, not even in the fictional world. Unbelievable characters are one of the fastest turn-offs for me in books. I don't care about them. 

Here are five reasons I continue reading a book:

1) Hook - it's got to be there or it's all over from the start.
2) Immediate intrigue and growing suspense. I want to have questions as I read.
3) Character dynamics - I must care about the characters, even the villains.  
4) Volatility. I love the unexpected, especially when I'm not prepared.
5) Good dialogue. Make it believable.

 and 5 reasons I stop (and I haven't even mentioned typos):

1) Weak plot - nothing more boring.
2) Poor motive or no motive. If the book fizzles, I'll never read another by the author.
3) Unnecessary filler and long clumsy sentences. Okay, that's two. Both drag me out of the story.
4) Unanswered questions. You can string me along for a while, but give me my answers.
5) I can't identify with either the characters or the story. Most fiction is grounded in some kind of truth. I want to relate to what's happening. 

I'm not as patient as I once was. If I'm not at least partially vested within the first two or three chapters, I'm done with the book, and probably the author. What makes you continue reading? And what makes you stop?


  1. I don't watch reality TV, but other than that, I'm with you. I like books that open fast with something happening on the first page or at least a very engaging character.

    Part of my problem with reading is that I worked as an editor for a long time, and I trained my brain to read slowly and carefully looking for things to fix. That's hard to let go of even in fiction. So a novel has to make me forget I'm an editor for me to keep reading.

  2. Some of my best friends watch reality TV. *wink*

    My husband is compulsive about finishing whatever book he begins. I used to be, but I'm over it. It's rare that I'll give a book a shot if I'm not into by page 50.

    And Jenny, you nailed everything.

  3. I watch very little reality tv, though there are one or two programs I've reluctantly become hooked on.

    I used to always finish books, but now, as I read more in order to write reviews, I find I have less patience with books that don't draw me in.

  4. If I'm not hooked, I only read the books to the end if I've agreed to review them. Like you, Marlyn, I used to stick it out, but not any more. I also find I read too much like an editor than a regular reader, and am a lot more critical than I used to be - even more reason for a book to be an instant draw.

  5. Excellent post, Jenny!

    Like LJ, as an editor, I'm so trained to look for anything that seems off or could be improved, that even when I'm reading a bestseller for pleasure,
    I often notice logistic problems or areas that could be improved in some way.

    Since I edit fiction all day, when it comes to my own recreational reading, the characters and opening have to grab me right away. If I'm confused about whose story it is or what's going on, or for any reason I'm not engaged by about page 5, I close it up and it usually sits on my bookshelf until I give it away, or on my Kindle until I delete it.

  6. I'm not sure if I'm growing impatient or just growing older, but my tolerance is waning where books are concerned. I try to get at least halfway through before I call it quits--but after that, I'm likely to put it down and not pick it up again. Part of the problem is that since I started writing them myself, my reading time is at a premium. I just don't have the time I once did. For anything.

  7. I'll usually finish one once I've started. I slogged through some pretty bad books, thinking that sooner or later they'd get better, only to be disappointed at the end and left wondering why I didn't just quit while I was ahead.

    A few I've chucked after suffering for far too long. Almost did that with Stephen King's "Under the Dome", but finally got through it. It seems like it could have been a better book at about half the length.

  8. I like "reality" TV a lot, also because of the interesting characters who tend to get selected for shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and the Amazing Race. Like you, I also keep reading a novel past the first ten pages because a character has grabbed my attention right away. Excellent post, Jenny.


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