Bookish Turn-Offs?

Last week I asked: what gets you to read a book?

What works to convince you to pick up that book and start reading?

That post generated over 180 comments.

It’s actually pretty enlightening — I’d suggest that writers and publishers and anybody peripherally related to the publishing industry poke through those comments. It’s a long read, but contains some surprising answers (f’rex, blurbs figure in more than I would’ve imagined).

This week, I want to look at the other side of the question:

Once you’ve picked up a book, what gets you to set it down?

More importantly, what ensures you won’t likely pick it up again?

What is it about a story, the writing, the author that stops you from reading further? What for you is the story-killer? Something about the wordsmithy? Something about the content or about a character? I will, as always, hang up and wait for your answer.


256 responses to “Bookish Turn-Offs?”

  1. I almost never stop reading a book. It takes me about three chapters (depending on length) to decide if I’m going to finish reading, skim or stop reading. It usually takes at least two of the reasons below for me to give up on a book, but if they’re really bad it at (and there’s nothing really good to make up for it), I’m out.

    1. Grammar and Spelling: Aside from purposeful “mistakes” in dialogue or style, if the editing wasn’t good enough, then I can’t handle it.

    2. Slow Plot with Bad Writing: A slow plot works sometimes, but I had the hardest time getting through The Lord of the Rings because I got so bored with all of the descriptions. The story’s solid, but the writing made my head hurt.

    3. Characters I Don’t Care About: If I dislike the character, but not enough that I keep reading to see them die horribly, then I don’t keep reading.

    4. A Silly Plot: There’s only so much I can take before a plot becomes too contrived. If I start to get too annoyed with it, I have to quit reading.

  2. Content is not a turn off for me. I can follow a writer anywhere if it serves the story.
    However, any and all of the following kill the experience for me:

    -I dont’ care about what happens to the protagonist and her people.
    -I don’t believe in the force that opposes her.
    -The story is internally inconsistent.
    -Description, dialog, narrative summary, and characterization work at cross purposes.
    -The writing is a not transparent window that keeps showing me the movie in my head, but rather a mirror that reflects nothing but the face of the author.
    -I am kicked out of the fictive dream (this happens once, and I’m not going back in).
    -The author doesn’t stick the ending (if it seems tacked on or rings false, I’m pissed that I read that far, with avid interest, only to end up with blue balls).

    I think that covers my peeves…

  3. Basic competence issues: Poor grammar. Misspellings, Improper punctuation. Sentences that. Stop and re-start for no apparent reason. Ellipses every other sentence. Random and Pointless capitalization.

    Stylistic issues: Apostrophes in names. Unpronounceable names (with rare exceptions where the unpronounceability is the point). Paragraph-long sentences on a more than occasional basis. Highly unusual words used over and over – you get one “tesselated” per book, not per chapter. Highly unusual words used incorrectly – “tesselated” has an actual meaning; it isn’t just fantasy-speak for “fancy”. Different POVs rendered in different fonts or colors – I should be able to tell who the POV character is without a visual cue.

    Story issues: Plots that only work because the characters are irredeemably stupid. Plots that wander all over the place for no good reason; likewise, subplots that proliferate until you need a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. Characters who never actually do anything but whine or cry. Characters who don’t live up to their role – it’s not enough for all the other characters to say that Oleg is a genius, he has to actually do geniusy things. Characters who have the snot beaten out of them and then two hours later are effortlessly jogging 10 miles cross country. Long descriptions of every meal a character eats, every piece of clothing he wears, and everything he looks at. Contrariwise, no description at all of anything anyone eats, wears or sees, Description that is inappropriate for the POV character – a botanist isn’t going to notice “trees”, she’s going to notice a mixture of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine.

    Worldbuilding issues: Implausible social structures – I don’t demand absolute realism but food has to come from somewhere and you can’t run a castle with a staff of two maids and a cook. And speaking of castles, if they’re not just historical hold-overs but are actual working castles, that implies a certain level of warfare tech depending on their design and a narrowed range of social structures to produce and operate them. Some grasp of this would be nice. Some grasp of the roles (note the plural) of women would also be nice. The Lady of the castle does not sit on her ass all day being read poetry by her ladies-in-waiting. (For that matter, the ladies-in-waiting have actual work duties.) Running a castle is a lot closer to running a major hotel than it is to running a suburban household – it’s *work*. If I never see another medieval fantasy where all the noblewomen sit around eating medieval-style bon-bons, it will be too soon.

    Final note: Women do not spend a great deal of time thinking about our breasts – a bit more time than we do thinking about our elbows, perhaps, but not much. For most of us, most of the time, they’re just body parts; they’re only salient when we’re planning to use them. Every time I see a female character stare at her boobs for no reason or give them cutesy names, I check to see if the author is male (he always is) and then sigh heavily. If the story is otherwise good, I’ll keep reading, but I never forget that the author thinks I’m a member of an exotic species and I take that into consideration when his next book comes out.

      • Somehow, I’ve managed to find plenty of books which don’t irritate me enough to put them down. Some of them are even classic sf, though I admit that many of those are, for me, unreadable due to the way the female characters are written.

  4. Surprisingly, bad writing will NOT make me put a book down IF the story is compelling. I’m reading a book right now where the author is annoying repetitive, but the exciting plot keeps me turning pages.

    It’s long descriptions of setting that always do me in. Three pages about the mountain? A page and a half describing all the object in the room? I’m very likely to put my bookmark in it and never return.

  5. Surprisingly, bad writing will NOT make me put a book down IF the story is compelling. I’m reading a book right now where the author is annoyingly repetitive, but the exciting plot keeps me turning pages.

    It’s long descriptions of setting that always do me in. Three pages about the mountain? A page and a half describing all the objects in the room? I’m very likely to put my bookmark in it and never return.

  6. There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to what turns me off a book.Most of the time I am not even aware of what it is about a particular book that feels so wrong, And I rarely make a conscious choice to put down a book forever, I put it down because I am bored or too preoccupied, and then I never pick it up again.

    But, when I do know why I don’t like a book I am pretty unforgiving, authors who turn me off for some reason have a hard time getting back on my reading lists.

    Jean M Auel: I loved the story of Ayla, but after the Mammoth Hunters the books became a total nightmare to read, filled with endless repetitive descriptions. And by book four I stopped buying into the seemingly flawless Ayla. .

    George R. R. Martin. Game of Thrones was amazing. I started A Feast for Crows, and I had to put it down. It was too complicated, too many new characters, cultures and threads to make sense of. Reading it felt too much like a project, and I read to be entertained and transported away, not to have to keep notes on who did what, so the plots will make sense later. I hate to say it but I actually prefer the TV series to the books.

    So I guess you could say that excessive descriptions, plots that are too complicated and plain unrealistic plot turns off.

    • Completely agree with you on the Earth’s Children series. It starts off really well in The Clan of the Cavebear; gripping and emotive. The Valley of the Horses starts to get a little more flowery in its descriptions, but it shows real character development. The Mammoth Hunters is a nice variation because it shows our flawless heroine interacting with strangers for the first time. But by Plains of Passage it starts to become mired in boring descriptions that, unless you’re actually into pages and pages of landscape description, is a chore to get through. There are some interesting parts, but a journey across a land should be more interesting than what it is. There are some interesting bits in The Shelters of Stone, and it’s good to finally see all these people Jondalar has been talking about for three books. As for The Land of Painted Caves… my god. I spent the entire book waiting for something to happen. And then everything happened in the last 5 pages. AVOID! It was incredibly dull.

      I think the problem with Ayla is that Auel designed her to be child-like. She’s grown up away from cro-magnon humans and so is often unwittingly ignorant to their ways. Not only is she kind, caring and understanding (because she herself knows what it’s like to be an outsiders) oh and brave and practically an Einstein when it comes to inventing things, but her every thought is rationalised logically inside her own mind and explained so well that actually, there’s very little mystery to the character. She has too many perfect qualities, including AMAZING beauty, and every man wants her, yet she’s totally devoted to her mate…. blah blah blah. It feels like what could have been a very interesting character was eventually turned into a partial Mary-Sue.

      • You’ve just almost word for word explained all my frustrations with these books and I agree so wholeheartedly with you on Ayla’s characterization. I probably could have forgiven the long boring descriptions and the storytelling choices Auel made, if Ayla had evolved. But there isn’t much difference from Ayla of the Clan of the Cave Bear book to the Ayla of the Plains of Passage book. And while I certainly could relate to Ayla being an outsider and her endless capacity for kindness and love, I couldn’t relate to her perfection. If she had just fooled around with some of those men who lusted after her, she would have made so much more sense.

        And as for the inventions. Oh my god, when she (forgive me if I remember wrong, I haven’t read them since I tried and gave up on reading Shelters of Stone) invented that bone needle to the amazement of everyone, I mentally gagged. Come on! I have a sneaky feeling that Auel tried to make Ayla the center of evolution, of progress. As if she was the sole force of intelligence and good in this world. Hogwash!

        • I read these books about 15 years ago (when I was 15), and all I remember is how awkward I felt at the soft-porn descriptions of Jondalar’s man parts. I got bored halfway through Plains of Passage and gave up.

    • I completely agree with you on Game of Thrones. Completely. They do make a good tv series, but I stopped reading in book two. I found that I couldn’t invest in characters because (a) there were just too many, and (b) they would probably die or their story would go on forever without much happening. This series made me realize that, as a reader, I love having at least one character to cheer on. To bleed with, be horrified for, and sometimes mourn with when they lose in the end. I’m not saying there are bad character’s in Game of Thrones, far from it. The characters are all complex and interesting. But for some reason I can’t invest in them. Maybe Ned Stark killed it for me.

      I was watching or reading an interview once about the tv show Lost, for which I only saw the first two seasons. But what the guy (sorry, I don’t know his name) said was that the main male doctor was originally written to die in the first few episodes. He was asked to change that character’s fate because specifically “You can’t ask the audience to invest in a character on that level and then take them away. You will lose them.” They will stop investing. On the one hand, it was awesome that Kate was supposed to be the hero. The main character. On the other, I would have been pissed to invest emotional energy into the doctor only to lose him.

      That is what it is, isn’t it? Emotional energy. You are asking the reader to emotionally invest in characters (good & bad).

      Sorry, started out as being a quick agreement/camaraderie on Game of Thrones and turned into a proper rant. My apologies.

      • Also, in the few seconds I ran away to make room for more coffee… ahem… I was thinking about why, even with good characters and a good/complex story line, I stopped reading Game of Thrones. I realized it was because I was bored. That is about 95% of why I put a book down: I am bored. (The other 5% is bad story-lines/characters) Game of Thrones had so many characters that he switched between that the story-lines were too far apart. You would just get invested in a line and then he would switch. This works fine in most novels, but because there were so many lines it would take to long to get back to the one you just finished. By the time you do, you almost need a complete refresher on what the fuck was going on with that character! It made the book feel slow because it took half the book to get back to a story line in which time hadn’t passed that much.

        Okay. Sorry about the rants. I’m out!

  7. I started reading a western once, and on page two the tough pioneer woman was putting dinner into some Tupperware. I took that as a good spot to quit.

  8. I would sooner read Mein Kompff again than another novel, or any piece of media, that is infected with the Hero’s Journey plot structure. The rantings of one of the most evil men in the history of the world is a far more enjoyable than seeing the schlub everyman hero be coerced into an ‘amazing new world,’ murder his bizarro-father, and bring the macguffin back to the mundane reality to resume a more cushy status quo.

    I like to think of Joseph Cambell as the Albert Einstein of the creative world: a well meaning guy who made an amazing discovery that’s being used to commit atrocities.

  9. Too many point of view characters. This is less a failure on the author’s part than on mine, I willingly admit, but there it is. Even when the author keeps the POV shifts within chapters or sections, rather than jumping mid-paragraph, more than two or three is just too much for me to follow.

    I loathe the framing device in a lot of historical-related work of a modern reader or scholar who’s reading about the historical character, and/or whose life parallels theirs. I do, however, enjoy time-travel stories, so if the two of them actually meet at some point, that’s fine. The Historian is, off the top of my head, the only exception to this I’ve ever encountered (and just hits my POV limit, which is usually about three, MAYBE four).

    Main characters who largely just have the plot happening TO them, rather than actually being involved and making choices that affect it in any real way.

    Tomboys who are set off as special and superior to all those boring, useless girly-girls. Especially noticeable in historical fiction and fantasy, but shows up plenty of other places, too.

    Badly-written children. It’s not that hard to research linguistic development, for instance — and when kids start talking, there IS a logic to their words. They may say “goed” instead of “went”, but that’s an entirely sensible construction for someone who doesn’t know all the ins and outs and idiosyncracies of a language yet.

    A rushed ending — so many books, I’ll be enjoying, and then all of a sudden they’re over, without any winding-down. Usually there’s a deus ex machina involved in these cases, but not always.

    Gratuitous violence. Obviously this is one where everyone’s personal threshold varies, and there are a couple of specific things that are just personal DO NOT WANTs for me and may not be for others. But, for instance, War Brides, which had this subplot of one of its main characters’ twin sisters being hunted by the Nazis for experiments. The rest of the book had some violence in it, but going into the POV of a Nazi scientist performing experiments on twins was SO jarring, so completely out of place in the rest of the book, and so completely unnecessary, it pretty well destroyed my enjoyment. Basically, if I get the sense that this is in here just to up the ~grittiness~ quotient, I’m done.

    I’m fairly grumpy about my books, is what I’m saying.

  10. I should clarify that by poor writing, I’m including a wide range of problems. I just stopped reading a new book last night which was well written enough to keep me engaged through about a quarter of it, up to the point where something totally illogical happened (evidently in order to keep one main character near a second main character so their interactions may continue). Totally unnecessary and unconvincing and counter to the second character’s very nature and abilities as they’d been set up. There are any number of ways that could’ve (should’ve) been done better to not jarringly go against character. So, I’m done.

  11. – Mistaken assumptions by the author about what the reader knows. I just read the caster chronicles, and at one point the characters open a mystery box and then begin to discuss the item inside and interact with it BEFORE the author explains that what they found was a notebook. Things like that really throw me out of the narrative.

    – A change in the pov in the middle of a scene.

    – Stories in which the romance is the main plot, especially when this was not made clear in the blurb.

  12. – Casts of thousands. When I have to meet and remember character after character after character who are all vital to the plot, it’s just tiring.
    – Main characters that are hard to like. Not that they have to be good people, but there has to be something about them that I can like.
    -Verbiage. If there are pages where there should be paragraphs, or a lot of repetition of the same thing/thought/word/etc.
    – Boring or bad start. If it doesn’t grab me in the first chapter or so, I’ll put it down. It seems unfair now that I’ve written that down, but in a world of endless media, I’m more interested in finding the bits that do grab me than simply reading a book so I can say I did.

  13. I think this is a much more difficult, and probably less helpful, question. Why you pick up a book has less to do with the actual book than why you might put it down, and therefore the reasons you put it down are much more subjective. People put books down if they don’t like them. The list of reasons why people don’t like books is long and varied. In the meantime, if they picked it up for it’s rec/title/blurb/cover art/etc, you can hope they paid for it and will try to read it through.

    The books I’ve bought and don’t finish usually either bore me to tears or annoy the hell out of me for some reason. I can’t qualify in great detail why a book might do either, except maybe to say if it’s full of racist/sexist/homophobic cliches I will most likely toss it. Otherwise, it depends on what buttons it pushes for me, what mood I’m in, if I’m tired or have a lot of time to read, and so on.

    • From poking around through the responses here, there are some commonalities; most of them come down to good writing, though, so maybe not all that actionable as “how do I keep readers hooked?”

      I will say that, for me, while I read a lot of books, I don’t go on to buy many of them. Also, when I do buy them, I tend to buy new, and hardcover when my budget allows. I try to support the authors that I love, so they will keep writing things that I can buy.

      Even for people that do buy books new (instead of relying on the library to an obscene degree), if they don’t like a book, they won’t buy anything from that author ever again. That seems like it would be a very bad thing for that author’s sales in the future.

  14. For me it happens rarely but it’s usually one of three things:

    1: Writing that doesn’t flow. I find that poorly worded sentences jar me out of the story, whether this is a typo (forgivable, unless there are very many), confusing sentance structure or characters saying or doing the same things over and over again. My pet hates are overly wordy sentences and dialogue that is just a stream of he said, she said, he said. This is all acceptable if the story has that magic ‘something’ that makes it work anyway though.

    2: Characters or events that you just don’t give a shit about. This one is sometimes me, sometimes the writer and sometimes the time they were writing in/of/for.

    3: Mood. This one is all me. If I’m in the mood for Hitchhickers Guide but try reading War & Peace instead, I will (usually) hate it.

    I also have a friend that won’t read fantasy or sci-fi because she finds it too hard to imagine something that she hasn’t actually seen. This makes me sad but I think visualisation is important. If its an effort to see the story, it’s unlikely that you can get swept away in it.

  15. I can only remember one book that I’ve stopped reading on purpose. I actually started it at least twice, but couldn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. The two main characters had no substance and were basically acting as victims of circumstance – they didn’t DO anything, they just reacted. Plus they were a wangsty mess, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the female character started walking around with the back of her hand pressed against her forehead, swooning onto random pieces of furniture.

    There are lots of things, though, that will turn me away from a story (movie, book, whatever) or convince me not to pick up the next book in a series. Whiny protagonists, or protagonists without personalities make me grate my teeth. I don’t want to wander through a series, wondering why the protagonist is supposed to be interesting enough for me to read about (sometimes the rest of the world/characters are interesting enough to make up for it). And if you give me an ideal character, one who has chipmunks braid her hair in the morning, I had better see him/her have to make some hard decisions down the road. Perfect characters are annoying – there has to be some sort of character development. Also, characters who are unrealistic or just plain idiotic are hard to tolerate.

    The REALLY big thing for me is if there’s rape or not. If the story is about rape, that’s one thing. If the rape is only included to show how [adjective] such-and-such character is, it’s NOT okay. Especially if then no one deals with it – it’s mentioned, or it happens, and none of the characters have realistic reactions to it at all. If it was important enough to the story that the rape happened, it should be important enough to the story to have the characters working through it. Same with other sorts of violence (especially those that are out of the ordinary – a world where violence is the norm works with a slightly different set of rules in terms of what would be shocking to the characters who live there). Mostly, I think the inclusion of rape is a result of laziness or ignorance (which is just another kind of laziness). Plenty of other people have mentioned this point, too, so I guess I can stop my rant now.

    The last thing that actually makes me ANGRY is when I’m going along through a plot, la dee da, then all of the sudden the plot twist is WELL IF THE CHARACTERS BELIEVED [THIS] THEIR LIVES WOULDN’T SUCK. Preachy books are not that great (but perhaps redeemable), preachy books that jump out in the middle and surprise you with morals are reprehensible.

    Apart from all that, I can deal with some amount of pacing and craft issues. Some people have mentioned they don’t like lofty language, but some of my favorite books have had pretty advanced vocabulary words. They were used very well, though, so that I could infer their meaning in the sentence without distracting from the story, so maybe the books others are mentioning are also poorly-written. The character also spoke in the exact same manner as she narrated, so there wasn’t any jarring difference between description and dialogue.

  16. It is very rare that I don’t finish a book. I always convince myself that it might get better… yeah, right. Especially if I have paid for it, or if I am reading it for a book group.
    1. The writing: the more I write myself, the more I notice annoying sentences. My latest is the ‘she let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding’ sentence. Ugh. I also beta for people and find it incredibly hard to turn that off. If the writing does NOT engage me enough then I start to notice spelling mistakes and continuity errors. And then I am done. It changes it from recreation to work. I will still finish it, but by then I am annoyed and even less forgiving.
    2. Turnoffs: unsympathetic or really stupid characters.
    3. Ridiculous situations or scenarios. (I love fantasy and sci-fi – but it still has to make sense and obey its own rules.) If you say something takes six months to do, don’t do it in six minutes later in the story.
    4. My mood makes a difference. There are some books I have started and then put aside; even for a couple of days, before I can read them. The same way as you don’t want to watch cartoons all day. Okay – maybe that was a bad example. Who doesn’t want to watch cartoons all day?

  17. I rarely stop reading a book for good, as I am one of those people who wants to know the ending no matter how bad the book gets. However, the one thing so far I’ve found that I won’t stand for is when characters do something that is not only exceedingly pointless but goes against who they are without any ramifications for their actions. An example of this is excessive violence. I’ve encountered this particular one many times from characters who before the outburst were not only against violence, but were supposed to be the “good guy”. The author explains the outburst away as something that needs to be done, but then the character goes right back to being the way they were before they were violent. That kind of thing is unacceptable to me because a well developed character who goes against their own morals will have at least some kind of hesitation, remorse, something. They don’t just go back to their regular scheduled programming without thinking about it. So yeah, senseless actions that go against a character’s normal behavior with no proper reasoning or effect on the character development in the story is something that will make me put a book down and not pick it back up.

  18. I’d have to agree with several of the comments about poor writing being the first show stopper for me. There are a few exceptions where the story is compelling enough or a character is strong enough for me to push through the writing.

    Starting out with too much sex or sexually related topics is also a reading turn off for me. I can’t recall the title or author, but the gist was a female character was at an intergalactic slave auction to buy a male of any random species to travel with her to a planet where her sister was being held captive because the planet was male dominated and all the women on the planet were slaves. The first chapter (or two?) contained numerous descriptions of penises and while I do enjoy a nice penis, it was overkill.

    False heroes/heroines are also a disappointment. I hate books that try to make me think a character is triumphs over adversity when that character is still every bit a victim at the end of the book.

    Books that challenge some sort of canonized legend and give no reason or basis for the changes. Example: Sparkling vampires who have sworn off feeding on humans and who also have no tears or saliva, but somehow have sperm to impregnate teen girls. FAIL!

  19. I’ve only recently gotten over my compulsion to Finish Every Single Thing I Start, Damnit. I’ve read a lot more since I got over that, as not being obligated to finish a story means I can start anything that even glancingly catches my fancy.

    Things that make me drop books:
    – I’m bored. If I have to psyche myself up to start reading again, I won’t bother.
    – Atrocious editing. Occasional typos/homonyms/punctuation/etc. are unavoidable. One per page = fuck off.
    – I don’t know what’s going on, and neither continuing for 2 chapters/40 pages nor backtracking that far is able to get me back on track. Or, all the actions sequences are straight-up incomprehensible.
    – Flat characters. Really, this is just a common way for books to bore me. I do not care in the slightest about cardboard cutouts, I like people!

    Things that make me throw books across the room:
    – Blatant stereotyping/token people. When there are repeated flat characters that are walking stereotypes, rage begins seeping in. I do not like feeling murderous.
    – Characters repeatedly make decisions that Make No Damn Sense. Since we don’t know much about the secondary characters, I’m a lot more forgiving of their nonsensical decisions than those of viewpoint characters, but my patience is not endless.
    – Rail-shooter plots. As in, out-of-nowhere shit is obviously happening just to further to plot, “deus ex nauseum,” to steal a phrase from Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary.

    Engaging plots, interesting worldbuilding, and clever wordplay may make me keep reading longer, but I won’t read anything else from the author even if I do finish it.

    To give a (probably popular example), I decided to read Twilight because (literally) every female coworker of mine had read the series and was having heart palpitations over the first move coming out soon. I did finish it, as the plot was oddly compelling, but even after reading the teaser chapter for the next book (at the end of the first book), I had absolutely zero desire to read anything else by Stephanie Meyers. The characters were flat, the plot was totally rail-shooter, everybody was an idiot, and the underlying -isms were enough to make my teeth ache. Still, I did finish the damn thing, because the plot was compelling. In retrospect, I have no idea why the plot was compelling, but there it is.

  20. I try my hardest to slog through a book even when I really REALLY want to just abandon it, so it’s hard for me to say what’s the ultimate book-killer for me. There are plenty of things that make me wish I was less stubborn so that I could put it down, however. A badly developed plot, characters I don’t give a damn about and/or can’t relate to, things presented as fact that it takes all of 30 seconds on Google to prove false, and a heavy emphasis on romance at the expense of an actual story are all deal-breakers for me, and will make me wish I’d let myself stop reading it. (I never claimed I didn’t have issues…)

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