"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why Wasn't I Hooked?

Too many times, it seems, I find myself not being able to read a lot of the books I’ve piled on my reading stack. It’s become a bit disturbing. Is it me, or the books? It used to be that when I started a book, I felt obligated to finish it, no matter what. Maybe it’s just a function of getting older and seeing time shrinking, but I've come to the conclusion that there’s not enough time to read books that don’t interest me. I won’t say they are “bad” books, or poorly written, but there is definitely something in the way they're written that doesn't engage me. I can’t blame it on the subject matter, because I won’t start reading a book in the first place if the subject matter doesn’t interest me.

Naturally, I have to ask myself, “Why wasn’t I hooked?” Well, for starters, sometimes it’s simply the tone of a book, or the author’s voice and style of writing that I can’t relate to. For example, there's a “snarkiness” nowadays in our society that appears in many of the contemporary books. It doesn't mean it's bad; it's just something I personally don't care for, so I'll skip books with that particular tone. There also seems to be a trend for heroes and heroines to be “anti-heroes” and “anti-heroines” to the extreme; i.e., there is nothing commendable about them at all. They have no redeeming qualities. They are not people you would like in real life or want to have anything to do with. I’m okay with my protagonists having flaws and being far from perfect, but if they’ve got something really amiss, I'd at least like to see them trying to overcome it. In other words, a guy who’s a serial killer is not going to be my hero, no matter how you paint him.

Another reason I get unhooked from a book is because I’ve never been able to trudge through a lot of narrative, description, and introspection in the first chapter (or any chapter, for that matter). I have always preferred stories that dive right in.  Bore me with pages of “setting up the story” by “telling” me about a person, and you’ll lose me. I want to know just enough about that character that I get a sense of who they are, and the rest I’ll learn along the way. Don’t bog down the first chapter with this stuff! Don't slow the book's momentum with a sagging middle either. Give me information only in small, sweet, dark chocolate servings–please!–and in just the right place and at just the right time. However, I would like to say that I’ve read authors who can use, in abundance, everything I just said not to use and they do it brilliantly. Every word is a gem that can’t be skipped. So, as always, there are exceptions, but it takes the exceptional writer to pull it off.

I want a story to move forward. I want to feel immediate compassion or some other sort of connection to the main character. I want to get the sense that whatever started the turning point in the main character’s life (which is where the story should begin) is significant and that things are going to get worse before they get better. I want to feel that something is truly at stake for the protagonist, and I want to see how he or she is going to handle this life-changing situation through inevitable twists, turns, and bumps in the road. Even if the life-changing situation appears insignificant on the surface–i.e., something barely visible just beneath the surface of a pool of murky water–I want the sense of suspense and tension that will keep me engaged long enough to see what that “something” is.

I confess that I usually find myself analyzing every book I read from a writer’s eye, but I will also try to give another writer the benefit of the doubt. I will usually always trudge through three chapters before giving up. If I can get engaged in a story and forget to analyze it, then, to me, it’s a really good book. I get excited when I find myself slipping into a story so much that the writing becomes invisible. I find myself even more excited to actually complete an entire book and admit, “That was a darn good book!” Of course, the writer in me always asks why was it a good book. And the answer is always the same: the writer just knew what to say, how to say it, and precisely the right time to say it.

So, my last few questions are to those of you reading this post: “As a reader, what makes you start skipping through a book you thought you were going to like? What makes you give up on a book entirely? Are there parts of a book you always skip, like prologues or excessive narrative, etc? And, lastly, what makes you fall in love with a book so much that you wouldn’t think of skipping any part of it?”


Eunice Boeve said...

If a book doesn't catch on with me for whatever reason, I will maybe skim it or maybe I'll just skip to the ending, or just sent it straight to the Goodwill pile. I'm not much for the in-your-face romance, I like a little depth to a love story. I usually skim lengthy descriptions, and those books where something is said once in one way and then again in another,as if it's being used as filler. Sometimes I don't connect with the characters and so I don't care what happens to them, which is not to say I wouldn't care about real people I don't much care for, but these are paper people in more ways than one. I hate the F word even if it's the bad guy using it. It sounds fake to me, although I know tons of folks who use it, even with their kids, like my father-in-law used to use son of a bitch, even in the presence of small children. I hate explicit sex, I like to feel something, some warm emotion, some real love, or at least what feels like real love, which might give me a little flutter in my tummy as I can relate to that. :-)Sex just to titilate or stretch out the story is quite boring. I love those stories that go with you in between your chances to sit down and read some more, and those will often follow you for several days afterwards. And books you can't give a way, even though you've read them twice already.

Anonymous said...

Linda, great post.

Once, I stopped reading a thriller after the prologue. It was of a serial killer who kidnapped children, killed and preserved them. The prologue was of the heroine and others finding the children in an dugout room. The author was so good in the vivid description of what they found that it made me ill. I was not going to read anymore about this killer and read his viewpoint. I didn't want it in my heart and soul!

Sometimes, I'll skim through narrative to get to the action and dialogue. If I'm reading a who-done-it but the writing is tiresome, I'll skip ahead to find out who the culprit is.

Another thing I'll skip to get on with the more exciting, faster pace plot lines are love scenes. I wish I could blame this on my age, but I can't. I like to get to the meat of the story, and if something gets in the way of that, I'll skip until I'm pulled in again.

As I get older, my interests change, and I become stingier with my time and books. I like suspense and mysteries. I like certain authors so I won't be experimenting with those I don't know. Unless, they come highly recommended by, lets say, fellow Bsers.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

I might skip parts of non-fiction but I never skip when reading a novel. It had better grab and hold me all the way. I choose pretty carefully to start with. If I lose interest for whatever reason(s)I don't read the book. That doesn't happen often and I almost always give a novel a 3 chapter chance -- or more.

Will Edwinson said...

Hi Linda. This was a very provocative post. I'm going to start by answering the questions at the end of the post first and then finish up with a few further comments.
Question #1.

What makes you skip parts of a book? I would have say excessive narrative; especially that which includes a lot description not related to the actual story, but is just a lot of filler and fluff. When I run across this, I start turning pages until I get back to the story. At my age I haven't the time nor patience to wade through a lot of fluff.

Question # 2.

What makes you give up a book entirely? The lack of a good hook early on and keeping that hook alive throughout the story.

Question #3.

Are there always parts of a book you usually skip? Not really. I have to get into the book to know where I want to start skipping. I will scan the prologue, however, and if I see no characterization there, I might skip it. But I have sometimes discovered skipping a prologue was my loss.

Question #4.

What makes you fall in love with a book so much that you would never skip? A good balance between narrative and actual action.

Now for a few additional comments.
I usually give a book about 50 pages to draw me in. If I'm not drawn in by then I will likely abandon it.

I like stories with a lot of dialogue. That's why Robert B Parker is one of my favorite authors. He uses a lot of short clipped dialogue with a minimum of descriptive narration.

I have not reached the point yet where the writer in me tries to analyze a book. I just don't think I'm quite seasoned enough for that yet.

And I do agree with you about contemporary books putting too much emphasis on the "anti-" side of heroes and heroines. I think this has a lot to do with contemporary editors and publishers. I think it's because they think books need a lot more tension and conflict these days.

And speaking of conflict, I attended a presentation one time where the author said a book without conflict is nothing more than a story about life. While I agree a story needs conflict to be interesting, I think his analogy was in error. If you write a story about life, you've got all the conflict you need.

Anonymous said...

I have to relate to the characters. Even a villain has to hold my interest, no caricatures please! Long narratives have me skipping like mad unless the narrative is so well written that it becomes like music whispering to my soul. I find explicit sex scenes juvenile. Give me a teaser (like the elevator scene in Top Gun) and let my imagination fill in the blanks. Also, I like a little humor, especially in a mystery or horror novel. Give me a funny sidekick and I'll follow that author anywhere.
I've had books that stayed with me long after I've reluctantly said goodbye to the new friends I've traveled different roads with. They all started out with characters that drew me in, made me comfortable, and let me follow along through whatever adventure came their way.
Thanks for the great post, Linda.
Sue Anne

Linda Sandifer said...

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment with details! It sounds as if we all have our own likes and dislikes, but one common thread seems to be that no one likes to read long passages that stop the action or appear to be filler and fluff. Everyone inherently "tunes out" when confronted with material that doesn't move the plot forward or offer crucial information. Something for all of us, as writers, to pay close attention to.