Disclaimer: These are my opinions. I do not represent every reader out there.
1. Too much description.
As a reader, I don’t like to dwell too much on the world that is around the characters. I like to focus in on the characters. I want to know what they’re doing, what they’re saying, and what they’re feeling. I like enough description to get a picture of the setting the characters are in, but I don’t want to be weighed down by so much description that I know every detail on a character’s clothes, exactly how a room looks, or how many blades of grass are in the field. Okay, the thing about the blades of grass are an exaggeration. No author I’ve read has ever said how many blades of grass are in a field, but for all of the heavy description they use to make sure I can see everything in that scene, they might as well have.
I also find it distracting that when characters are having a conversation, the author will insert random thing that doesn’t add to the scene. If characters are discussing a necklace, then yes, describe the necklace. But if the characters are discussing a necklace, why go into the color of the chair across the room or the sound a bird is making from outside? That has no bearing on the conversation, and all it does is pull me out of the story. I know why authors do this. It’s because they’re told to include all “five senses” into every single scene. Even I fell victim to this terrible technique after going to a critique group, so I understand the author’s plight. As a writer, you want to make a book that fully engages the reader.
But from personal experience, it’s much better to keep the reader’s attention on what is happening to the characters. Fiction is a story seen through the eyes of the character. If a character is having a serious conversation, would they really care about the design on an antique lamp in the corner of the room that has no bearing on the conversation? No. They would be worried about what the other character is telling them. Always keep the focus on the what matters most to the character when you’re writing a scene.
2. Character Info Dumps
There have been books I’ve read where I’m pretty much told everything about a character right away. I don’t want to know everything about a character as soon as I start the book. I’m not sure why some authors do this. It’s almost like they decided to do a character bio in order to learn who the character is and then forgot to remove it when they published the book. Instead of being told who the character is, I, as a reader, want to learn who the character is as I read the book.
Storytelling is about layers. Those layers are uncovered a little at a time as the story progresses. Information comes about by the character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings. Just as we don’t get to know everything about a person when we meet them in real life, we shouldn’t know everything about a character as soon as meet them, either.
Also, reading is a subjective activity, so it should be up to the reader to decide whether or not they like a character. The author shouldn’t come in and say, “This is the person you’re rooting for, and this is the person you should hate.” Let me, as a reader, decide that for myself. The ability to allow a reader to make their own judgments on a character is one of the most effective storytelling tools in a writer’s arsenal. If a writer can make a reader feel strongly about a character (whether good or bad), then that, in my opinion, is the sign of an excellent storyteller. I’ve read plenty of “meh” books, but those that made me feel strongly for a character are the books that have stuck with me for years.
3. Useless repetition.
Repetition can be a powerful storytelling technique when done right. If it adds to the tension in a story, it’s good, and it should be used. For example, there was a short story I read where the main character killed a person, and during the story, he’s worried he’ll get caught, so he is in a cycle of repeating the same thoughts to himself over and over. He ends up breaking down and screaming that he did the crime when a police officer is ready to leave. He would have gotten away with the crime if he had just kept his mouth shut, but by use of repetition, we see how his conscience ended up getting the best of him.
I am not opposed to repetition. What I’m opposed to is repetition that has no point to the story. Its only purpose seems to be to fill up the pages because the author wanted to increase their word count. Or, perhaps, an author worries that the reader won’t understand what the theme of the book is or that the reader won’t know this is the character’s love interest unless the reader is told this repeatedly.
Every scene in a book has to contribute to the overall story. And breaking this down, I also think every sentence in the book should contribute to the story, too. If there’s a sentence that doesn’t need to be there, throw it out. There’s no point in making the reader groan by adding stuff that doesn’t need to be there. All you’ll end up with is a reader who skims the book. And sadly, I’ve skimmed a lot of books over the years.
Since I almost hit the 1,000 word mark, I’ll stop here.
What about you? Are there things that drive you crazy when you read books? If so, I’d love to hear them. Please don’t say the author or the name of the book. I want to keep this focus on a storytelling technique gone wrong.
All of the above.
Description works better if the character is interacting with the setting, not having a satellite view of the whole world! Or should I call that a drone-view now – double meaning, there!
And dialogue can have action tags, but it needs to reflect on the internal conflict – why is she picking at the lint on the couch and avoiding the question?
And I agree that every sentence must have a reason to be in the story, no filler, no dumping, no tells that aren’t internal to the character’s voice (the viewpoint character).
And repetition? Done well it can liven up and enlighten – done badly, it’s a lost reader (not just for this book, but potentially, for every book by the writer).
I agree with everything you said. I got a chuckle out of the “drone-view” comment. 🙂
You make an excellent point with “why” is she picking at the lint on the couch and avoiding the question. This type of thing is exciting to me when I come across it in a book. I love the little distractions that come into play, and in that case, adding the description helps to build up the tension.
I find that when it comes to “too much description,” what counts as “too much” depends heavily on the story being told. For example, Gothic fiction requires PLENTY of description of the setting, especially at the beginning. You have to make sure the location feels real, after all. But in a novel set at your average American high school, we don’t want lots and lots of description on the layout of the building and the kinds of posters on the walls and whatnot. We just want to get to the meat of the story and enjoy some high school drama.
True, it does depend on the genre. With Gothic fiction, I think description is part of the story. You have to have it there to build up the atmosphere. I also think the amount of description depends on the world you’re in. If you’re in the real world like a high school setting, you don’t need as much description since the average reader knows what a high school looks like. But if you’re in a different world (such as an alien planet), it does help to give the reader plenty of description so they can picture the world the characters are in. The more different the world is, the more description it’ll need.
Just as long as it’s not an annoying info-dump, right?
An info-dump would only get me to skim right past it, so the author would have wasted their time writing it if their intention was for me to read it. 🙂
Yeah, that would be a problem.
Just keep doing what you do. You are correct. I enjoy knowing about the surroundings, but not to the point of boredom. You are one of the best authors I have ever read.
Thanks, Melanie. 😀 I do like some description to help me understand the world I’m in. It’s just a balance to how much is enough. If there’s not enough, you can lose your reader, and too much will definitely lead to boredom.
I so agree especially #1 & #2! I also have trouble with to many errors! Wrong words, wrong punctuation, repeat of words, etc….. I’m not talking one or two, I’m talking about constantly! Also books that have more thoughts and descriptions then dialogue!
I agree with the wrong words, punctuation, and repeating words a lot. That kind of thing is jarring and will pull a reader out of a story, no matter how good it is.
I didn’t think of little dialogue compared to thoughts and descriptions, but yes, that annoys me, too. I’m a dialogue person. I love dialogue when I read a book. To me, it helps the story move along faster when a character is engaged with another character. Too much time alone with the thoughts and feelings, and I’ll skim through it.
I’ll agree with you on the over descriptive writing that derails the plot line. I think it would be ok to name this writer- I developed a great love for him after reading Charles Dicken’s ” A Christmas Carol.” But before that, as a child, I didn’t appreciate it. I figured he’d written way before tv and felt he had to describe every sight, sound, and smell. Now, I don’t appreciate it if a writer omits even a small description of the characters’ physical appearance. It’s like a voice speaking from darkness. I have to make it up in my mind, and I can- so well. I have to wonder if the writer knows his/her characters at all.
That writer is okay to mention, especially since you gave him a compliment. I was just worried someone would name an author they hated. I didn’t want to start bashing authors in this post.
I think most people like a lot of description. They say it puts them into the story. I prefer an outline of the setting because my mind automatically fills the scene in without me even trying. I also like to pretend I’m the main character and I put in people I know for the other characters, so I don’t want to know everything about a character. If I know too much about how they look, it makes it harder for me to imagine the “actors” I want on stage. I’m a weird reader. 🙂
My dad used to tell me writers back in the 1800s were paid by the word, so you’d get books that had entire chapters dedicated to how something looked. Later on, a friend said it was because they didn’t have TV and it helped to show a reader who never saw something if the writer described it to them.
I brought a book from an author I haven’t read before there were so many errors that I started marking them in purple. I flipped through the book it looked like half the book was marked. I also hate when an author brings in a character at the first of a book but never mentions them again. It’s confusing. Example: A couple adopted a young male mid way through a book but he was never mentioned again. Why bring him in and never talk about them again. I read a series where the author constantly said she said it in a whisper. Fifty times, whats with that was the character sick. ????
Wow! That’s insane. No book should be published that is as bad off as that. In the past, I’ve edited books for authors like that, and I always hoped that they cleaned them up before they published them. I’ve stopped editing for authors, especially those who are new to writing, because it’s too time consuming.
I don’t understand why the writer would mention the adopted boy and then drop him. Was this part of a series where the boy has a role later on? I could see working it that way, but I can’t see the purpose of doing it out of the blue and then dropping it completely.
I got a chuckle out of your last comment. 😀 I once read a book where the character “strode” all the time. The character didn’t have any other way of walking, and this character “strode” in almost every scene. I didn’t use that word for years after reading that book.
Mary Sue characters, or characters with special skills that there’s no way they would have – like a kindergarten teacher who hates violence and who’s schedule is absolutely full who suddenly three chapters in whips out ninja skills. There was never a mention of her having this knowledge, and there’s no where in her over-described schedule for her to be even taking classes, so what the what?
I agree completely! I don’t care for Mary Sue characters, either. It’s hard to be emotionally invested in a character who has everything handed to them. The best characters are those who struggle to learn a new skill because they’re relatable.
I’ve been enjoying every comment on this subject. As with Ruth Ann Nordin’s original essay, I’ve been agreeing with the input! I hope I never come across some of the books mentioned, and if I have already, I’ve probably skipped to the last chapter, and if it isn’t good- book DELETED! Doesn’t all of this make us appreciate Ruth Ann’s humor, great characters, sensitivity and continuity all the more? One of my favorite authors, right up there with Dickens and Austen- for certain!
A long time ago, I learned that I shouldn’t write for everyone. Readers’ opinions differ way too much. What one person likes, another doesn’t. I finally decided to choose to write the way I prefer to read because I figured if no one ever reads my books, I will, and I should at least be happy with it. It’s just a bonus that others like what I write, and I have always appreciated the fact that you’ve stuck with me through the years. 🙂
I got the inspiration to write this post after watching some You Tube videos where readers discussed things they like and didn’t like. I thought the topic was an interesting one, but instead of making a video, I wrote instead. I prefer writing over talking. Talking’s never been my strong point. I think better when I write. Personally, I’m glad there are differences in what people like out there. The world would be boring if books were all the same.