When a book just doesn’t work for me, sometimes I can actually figure out why

Yeah, still at the show, but though I don’t feel up to REAL writing, I do feel up to writing blog posts. So . . .

So, Greg Stolze’s SWITCHFLIPPED, which did work for me as you may recall from a recent post, got me thinking about why some books don’t.

I occasionally find myself reading along and thinking: Why is this so boring? Why am I not engaged with these characters? We have all this conflict, all this drama, one crisis piled on top of another, and I just don’t care. Why does this happen? I’m sure that sometimes happens to you, too.

Problems with tension or with emotional disengagement from the characters are often, it seems to me, actually problems with plotting.

Does the story’s primary conflict somehow seem to involve everyone but the putative main character? Is there a series of problems, but they don’t arise from or connect to a single main conflict? Is there no identifiable main character at all, just a large cast of secondary characters, each with his or her own problems?

These are problems with plotting. I say this as a reader who prefers character-driven stories to plot-driven stories: Big problems with the plot produce big problems with reader engagement, even if the reader is primarily reading for character. A tight plot is going to produce a more satisfying experience for almost any reader, even if the reader isn’t able to put a finger on why one book succeeds and another fails.

Let’s take the problem where there is a whole series of main characters – or characters, anyway, none of whom are really main characters – who are all going along with their own separate plotlines in a story whose overall plot barely links them together. Wow, look at that, I’ve just described modern epic fantasy!

But I’ve also described SWITCHFLIPPED. Of course the plotlines are in fact connected, but the connections are not clear for a long time and one important plotline does not get resolved during the course of this story (which is why the book needs a sequel!). Nevertheless, SWITCHFLIPPED is fun to read. This is because:

a) Stolze is good at getting the reader to invest emotionally in multiple characters, and

b) All the plot threads do tie together eventually and most (if not all) important plot elements do resolve as the story progresses.

But I can think of other stories where scattered plotlines pretty much kill the book, because you (or at least, I) just don’t care about some or most of the main characters and/or because the separate threads of the plot are too separate.

I have an example in mind.

Elizabeth Moon’s recent return to the Paksenarrion series (the Paladin’s Legacy series) doesn’t work very well for me, even though I loved her first trilogy set in this world, and the reason is that:

a) I don’t care about Arcolin. Why didn’t Moon choose a more interesting character to carry that part of the plot, if she had to show it at all? Like Stammel, maybe? Or hey, that new guy, the half-blind captain, Arneson? He’s got this great backstory and tons of potential, though we hardly see him. Yes, Arcolin’s in charge, but the guy in charge doesn’t have to be the point-of-view character and sometimes shouldn’t be, particularly because people lower down the hierarchy may have more opportunities for conflict and tension.

b) I don’t care about Kieri. Wow, how tough for him, figuring out how to be king. And I despise the elf queen. What a total idiot she is. I’m sick of her, and of people like Kieri making excuses for her.

c) I don’t care about Prince Mikeli. He barely has a personality.

d) I like Dorrin, though.

e) And the thief, Arvid! He’s a great character! About the only time I was really engaged by the second book was his chapter. Alas, he only had one section, because Moon spent tons of time with everybody else.

f) Plus, plausibility? I totally don’t believe you can have two countries separated only by a river, not even an ocean for God’s sake, that know absolutely nothing about each other’s societies. Yeah, right, tell me another, okay? A serious failure of plausibility is a different kind of failure of plotting, and this is unfortunately a stellar example.

Interestingly, if you look at Moon’s other books, HUNTING PARTY is fabulous and has just one main pov character and, if I remember correctly, one important secondary character gets some pov time late in the book. The first few books of that series are very good, and then as the pov characters multiply and the plot(s) scatter all across creation, the books become (for me, at least) notably dull. I recall reading one or another of them (it was one of the Esmay Suiza ones) and thinking halfway through that the book simply didn’t have any main character at all, just a lot of secondary characters. It was the first book I ever read where I really noticed this happening and actually understood why I had lost interest. In that sense, it was an important book for me.

And I will just add that Elizabeth Moon’s TRADING IN DANGER series is also fine. It’s another series where the books mostly stick to one pov character – and when, later in the series, the pov scatters, it doesn’t scatter too widely. I can think of three important pov characters in the entire five-book series, and they all work for me. Plus the overall thrust of the plot is consistent: some unknown enemy is trying to wipe out your family! That’s a big, clear, understandable problem. A big, clear, understandable problem is important, and often seems lacking in modern epic fantasy.

If modern epic fantasy stands out for scattered pov and diffuse plotting, what genre in modern fiction stands out for consistently tight plotting? Go on, think about it. I’ll wait. [Twiddles thumbs.] [Whistles.]

Why, yes, that’s right, Young Adult! Which is not actually a genre, so I sort of cheated in how I phrased the above question, I know. But whether you’re talking YA contemporary, or YA fantasy, or YA historical – it’s all characterized by tight plotting. I’m sure there are some YA stories that fail. But if you want to look at tight plotting, YA is the place to go to find it. In my opinion – and I’m not trying to claim that I’ve read even a representative cross-section of the genre fiction published in the last five years – but the average YA fantasy being published today is just better than the average modern adult fantasy. And the most important reason it is better is that YA editors make their authors tighten up their plots and adult fantasy editors don’t think it matters that much, or (if they’re editing epic fantasy) don’t seem to think it matters at all.

And I say this as a reader who often enjoys a slower, more leisurely pace. Because I’m not conflating tight plotting with pace at all. I’m declaring that a tight plot is one where:

a) There is only one main conflict in the story, and it revolves around one or a small number of clearly identifiable protagonists, who drive the action,

b) The smaller conflicts in the story all echo, support, or arise from the main conflict,

c) The tension steps upward through the story, reaches a clearly identifiable climax, and resolves.

Now, you can stretch a point. In a book with two protagonists, they may both have their very own main conflict. But if they do,

d) Though it doesn’t have to be this way, you will often find that the individual dilemmas driving each of two main characters are actually in opposition with one another, thus creating a huge overall conflict – I’m thinking here of THE SCORPIO RACES by Stiefvater, but there are many good examples.

e) And, to the extent you’re going to have multiple pov characters and/or a diffuse plot, you have just got to have exceptional skill with characterization, voice, and dialogue — which are all really aspects of the same thing — in order to make that work. Which Stolze does, and Moon — in the Paladin’s Legacy series at least — just doesn’t. (I know, right? I really do love a lot of Moon’s work, and THE SPEED OF DARK is absolutely incredible, yet for this new series of hers, sorry, but characterization, voice and dialogue are all flat. Sorry! It’s true!)

So if you are reading a book and think: This is dull, this is boring, I just don’t care about any of these characters – well, that may look like a problem with conflict or tension, or like a problem with characterization. But I suspect that whatever immediate problem has caused you to lose interest, the ultimate problem is that there are too many pov characters, that you don’t find most of them engaging, and maybe that the plot is diffuse and fails to create a sense of building tension.

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3 thoughts on “When a book just doesn’t work for me, sometimes I can actually figure out why”

  1. Interesting coincidence that you post this today when our 16 year old has been bending my ears about CJC’s FORTRESS series, including why, in her opinion, ICE isn’t very good. Too many POVs is at the top of her list. Also unclear stakes, and mischaracterization of previously established characters as well as contradictions of previous established events. She doesn’t think Tristan is written at all the same “too cold!”, and no pigeons, etc. But she’s been saying it starts with the POVs, there are too many and a lack of focus.

    I agree that ICE isn’t nearly on a level with the others, but she’s much fresher on it than I am.

    I can see what you’re getting at with the Moon’s, although I never loved Paks, so I haven’t picked up the sequels to the trilogy. (With Paks Moon never successfully got across to me why her heroine was so special. ) Overall I tend to agree with you about the problems with adult epic fantasy, which is why I mostly don’t read it any more.

    Which reminds me, have you picked up Helen Lowe’s WALL OF NIGHT? 2 books of a planned 4 are published. I gave them a try because the same guy who pointed your work out to me suggested them. They sound like they ought to be cookie cutter fantasy, but I like what she’s been doing with the characters, and she surprised me rather a lot in the second book. Somewhere on her webpage she said she’s not trying to write an original story, she’s trying to write something using the standard epic tropes and make it uniquely her own, (or wtte). 4 POVs, IIRC, and while all have private issues, it looks like the resolutions could all be satisfied if they find the right way to tackle the Big Problem.
    Also, for whatever reason, I keep confusing them with Andrea Host’s work.

  2. I totally agree with your daughter. I was very disappointed in Fortress of Ice; the new points of view didn’t grab me at all and I agree there were problems with people not staying in character. I don’t remember about continuity issues, but I wouldn’t be surprised by that, either. I’m impressed your daughter is such an analytical reader already; I don’t think I was at her age.

    I haven’t read anything by Helen Lowe, but now I will. Being confused with Andrea Host is definitely a recommendation!

  3. I think the last thing that really bothered me about a multi-POV book was that it gave me too much knowledge. It was the second book in a series and the first book had just one POV character who ended up separated from her companions. There was so much tension in not knowing what happened to them or if she’d ever see them alive again. In book two, all of the sudden there are like ten POVs, some of which only last for a chapter or two, and, in addition to the girl from book one, you get one of her missing companions. All of the sudden, instead of worrying about him, you get to be annoyed by their near meetings or all the times they are working at cross purposes. I can see how those things were supposed to create a different kind of tension, but it just didn’t work for me. It also didn’t help that the pacing slowed down considerably so that we could see what everyone was doing during the same slice of time. This in turn caused the author to make time jumps for characters to move things along… Which mostly made me think, “Really? She stayed with them for four months? What in the heck happened to her? She used to be so smart!”

    Now, I CAN get really caught up in a well written novel with a bunch of POVs… They aren’t something that will make me immediately leery of novel.

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