“Top Ten Tuesday” is a feature started by “The Broke and the Bookish“, in which people list their top ten books that match some given criterion. It changes every week, and happens on a Tuesday. Lots (a frankly ridiculous number) of bloggers take part. This week’s topic is “Top ten things that will make me instantly not want to read a book”. “Instantly” is a little quick, I find – I tend to give books a little more leeway than that, in case they manage to salvage things. Even the worst book gets cut a little slack. However, there are definitely things that use up my patience fast – plot elements or tropes that make me much less inclined to keep reading.
The following list is in no particular order.
I’m fine with A loves B loves C loves A. You can base an interesting story around that. What I have much less time for is when A and B both love C, who struggles to choose between them. Yes, it adds drama to the narrative, but it does so at the cost of a satisfying romance. It’s hard to get invested in the romance when one of the allegedly-besotted characters spends half their time thinking about someone else. If you struggle to choose between your true love and someone else, they aren’t really your true love.
Don’t spoil a happy ending just to show how artistic you are. Don’t kill off a character unless it serves the plot or the setting. Misery in books is fine, even necessary, but not everything needs to be depressing for the sake of it. Sometimes, stories end happily, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make a work less intelligent or valuable. What does make a book less intelligent is shoe-horning tragedy in everywhere in a desperate bid to be taken seriously.
This is rather similar to the previous point. Dystopias and grimdark settings are very fashionable at the moment, and that leads to books that are just trying too hard. Every second sentence is a reference to excrement or a reminder that people in the world have sex (in a dark and gritty way, like everything else. It’s not fun). I get very tired of constant reminders of filth and squalor. It is possible to present dark themes in a miserable world without labouring the point so much. I don’t want to read the literary equivalent of someone wearing leather bracelets to annoy their step-father.
All authors have got them – go-to phrases that they return to again and again. It might be “half a hundred” or “tugged her braid” or “pretty but not handsome”. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s an inescapable part of writing. If it’s too quickly noticeable though, that’s a problem. With some authors, you learn the tells after several books, and you only notice them because you’ve read each books several times. With other authors, you learn them after a chapter and a half, and you don’t want to finish the book even once.
Messing around with time
I don’t like time travel in stories. It’s never properly thought out, and authors almost always end up hand-waving away paradoxes. As a separate issue, plots about modern people going back in time are at best hackneyed, and at worst insultingly ignorant. I also object to books in which no one travels in time as such, but the author decides to smugly play with perspective and setting – the book hops back between different generations or tells itself backwards.
I don’t dispute that both time travel and narrative time-hopping can be done well. I just think it’s very rare, and all time-related things are more likely to be a weak crutch used by a bad author than something clearly envisioned and competently written.
Treating women as eye candy
I don’t have anything against attractive characters in books. What I do object to is when an author seems incapable of including a female character who isn’t a pin-up. Every single woman is a perfectly-groomed temptress, and their descriptions start at the cleavage and work down. Oddly, the same does not apply to male characters – you get men of diverse shapes and sizes, occupying the same world as angelic (and available) beauties. It’s a little creepy.
Being too even-handed
Sometimes, in books, people do bad things. They burn villages, abduct orphans, kick kittens. They betray trusts and hurt for the joy of hurting. Colloquially, we call them “villains”. And then sometimes, in books that are linked by how much they annoy me, there’s a scene where the author pontificates on how the good guys are just as bad, because sometimes they are impatient. Or the protagonist and the antagonist make peace, because the villain killed the hero’s family, but the hero doesn’t separate their recycling.
Yes, shades of grey tend to be more interesting than stark moral divisions, but there are limits. Some authors spend so much time being morally complex and realistic that they forget that enslaving children is way, way worse than being middle class. That’s a real example, by the way, from a real book. Not everything is equally bad, and books that attempt to put everything on the same level are infuriating.
I can’t conjure fire. I’ll never ride a unicorn, or stake a vampire, or be abducted and then subsequently worshipped by troglodytic mole people. All of those facts make me sad. What that means is that if I somehow became aware that magic was real, or that shape-shifting aliens lived among us, I’d be happy. Or not exactly happy, but at least interested. I’d look into the matter further, is what I’m saying. It would not be something that I ignored or found tedious.
Protagonists get that kind of thing all the time. They find portals in wardrobes or move chalk with their minds. And them some of them, infuriatingly, do nothing about it. Or worse, they whinge about it, or run away from newly-revealed responsibilities. Reluctance for some of the specifics is fine – you don’t have to want to fight a dark wizard at age eleven. However, a protagonist shouldn’t be totally disinterested in the whole concept; I hate having to struggle through chapter after chapter of a protagonist being bored by something that is unequivocally fascinating. If the main character doesn’t want to be in the story, then I don’t want to be reading it.
I don’t like idiots. I particularly don’t like hovering behind a moron’s shoulder for three hundred pages while they blunder through the plot. There is a difference of course, between a character who is stupid and a protagonist who is more dumb than their character. Lennie from Of Mice and Men is not the brightest, but he acts within the scope of his intelligence. He does as well as the character could be expected to do, and no one could ask for more. But some characters should be smart, and aren’t. Highly-trained secret agents who forget to reload, vampire hunters who fail to question why Vlad does not appear in mirrors – that kind of thing. They don’t make the connections that they should make, and that the reader made ages ago. A protagonist who slows their own plot down is insufferable.
I know that in medias res is all the rage now, and has been for the last few thousand years. With that said, it can be done badly, and often is. You get books that start in the middle of a complex situation, and don’t bother explaining what is going on for several chapters. Many authors are so afraid of boring the reader with exposition that they bore them with an impenetrable story instead. My patience for needlessly confusing situations and deliberately cryptic hints runs out quite fast.
The parent post on The Broke and the Bookish is here.