Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Book abandonment

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog, about raising the stakes for your protagonist in order to keep readers hooked — thus avoiding the reader deciding to DNF your book.

But what storytelling elements should you focus on?

I humbly suggest an element that might not even be on your radar: the stakes, or the negative consequences of failure. Without stakes, your protagonist doesn’t have a reason to keep on pursuing his goal. Readers may question why he perseveres despite the obstacles mounted against him. Once readers question the plot, they’ll disengage from your story. And once they disengage…well, book abandonment becomes almost inevitable.

With stakes, however, the protagonist does have a reason to continue—and there’s no cause for readers to disengage. Not only that, stakes put readers under tension. That’s because they don’t know how your protagonist is going to avoid those nasty negative consequences. The only way to relieve that tension is to—wait for it—finish your book.

Read the whole thing, if you feel so inclined. I don’t disagree — sure, it’s important to produce tension and yes, high stakes are important. High in emotional terms; in a romance, the protagonist(s) are probably not saving the world, so there’s low stakes in that sense, but high stakes personally.

Anyway, sure, high stakes and rising tension, good in principle.

But.

I’m not completely sure I’ve ever DNF’ed a book because of low stakes. I don’t quite remember that ever happening. Don’t get me wrong; I think the advice in the post is pretty good advice. Like this:

The fate of a nation. The fate of the world. Objectively speaking, these are high stakes indeed.

However, it might not feel that way to readers—not at an emotional level. That’s because these stakes are too vast to grasp. Subjectively, these stakes might not generate much emotional weight. As a result, the reader experience can become more of an intellectual exercise, and your story may not contain the emotional intensity you anticipated.

That’s why, if you want readers to invest in your novel, you should draw their attention to the plight of a few individuals within the larger group comprising the stakes.

I think this is very true, and in fact not so long ago I re-wrote a scene in which a lot of people died, in order to let the reader focus on just one of those people. Instant increase in pathos of the scene by about 100x, because the death of one character you know is much more powerful than the death of several hundred characters you’ve never met.

However! I still don’t think I’ve ever abandoned a book because of low stakes. For me, I think it’s nearly always lack of investment in the protagonist, grading into active dislike of the protagonist.

OR

It’s too-gritty worldbuilding. If the author mentions urine, feces, or vomit in the first pages, then the story is probably not for me. The wrong kind of mutilated beggar sitting by the side of the road, a gibbet with a decomposed body and carrion flies . . . no. I DNF’ed a book a year or two ago because it opened with young losers taking drugs and experiencing weird effects, and nothing at all about that scene worked for me. Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong: I can handle some grittiness, but not up front like that. I am much more likely to tolerate it later, after I already care about the protagonist and the story.

Boredom with the stakes . . . I cannot offhand remember setting a book on the DNF pile for that particular sin. Lack of interest in the protagonist or being turned off by the worldbuilding: those are the things that make that happen.

Oh, one more thing: if the actual sentence-level writing is not very good, then I probably won’t get too far into the book in the first place.

Okay, a top-five-turnoffs list:

  1. Stakes too low; story not exciting enough
  2. Protagonist boring or actively repulsive
  3. Worldbuilding too gritty
  4. Sentence-level writing not that great
  5. Dog dies

What is most likely to make you abandon a book you’ve started? One of those, or something else?

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14 Comments Book abandonment

  1. Elaine T

    Well, let’s see, I’ve dumped several samples in the last few days –
    1) didn’t believe the world building – character is apparently poor in a low-tech world, knows how to read, marriagable age but able to run the streets apparently all day unmolested and unworried, and doesn’t worry about chores/duties at home, and the princess pays a personal non-private visit to family home to get illegal drugs. Yeah… no.

    2) unpleasant multiple POVs – out of 4, only one seems sort of tolerable. So there’s a sample of your #2. Perhaps a stake problem, too – it was named, but why it mattered wasn’t clear. Just putting dragons in doesn’t mean exciting.

    3) the writer had several books out, professionally published even, but sentence level not that great – it hit my ‘trying too hard’ meter. Again, dragons need good writing.

    4) For whatever reason, I just don’t believe in the reality of the characters. They’re going through the motions, it ought to be plausible, but … they ring false.

  2. Pete Mack

    1. Writing style. Too, this often is a sign of other problems
    2/4 Boring protagonist or otherwise unengaging characters.
    3. Bad worldbuilding.

  3. kootch

    Protagonist and secondary characters are the deciders for me. Doesn’t matter what the stakes are, I DNF books once I realise I don’t really care whether they live or die. Also, supposedly smart protagonists who keep making stupid decisions.
    Obviously the writing style hooks me in; or not.
    5. Dog dies – oh, yes! Or too many of the secondary characters that I like are killed off. There’s at least one fantasy author who seems to like killing off lots of the secondary characters. I don’t read his books anymore.

  4. Megan

    Hm, thinking on books I abandoned . . . unbelievable/dislikable main character is probably the biggest (and those books that were giving me warning flags and I kept going, I pretty much universally regret).

    Books that decide message is more important than story, and the story is basically just a sermon (the worst one I read completely abandoned the main character by the end in order to go off on a screed about how ultimate knowledge would allow mankind to surpass God….. well, I didn’t read 500 pages for a lecture, I wanted to know what happened to the kid we’ve been following for the last 495 pages).

    Bad writing. There was a book I wanted to like that started off with the main character reading an extremely dry and info-dumping article in a newspaper. I gave it a few more pages anyway and then found about a dozen other reasons to drop it. Although on this note, I can be more forgiving of not-so-great phrasing or grammar as long as the characters are likeable, the plot is entertaining, and it’s funny. Just don’t be boring and go off into the weeds over-explaining details that if relevant would be better off shown or somehow organically worked in.

  5. SarahZ

    High stakes don’t keep me reading, characters do. If I don’t care about the characters then I might skip to the end out of curiosity, but “how does it turn out” isn’t enough to make me read the book.

  6. Rachel

    Interesting comments! I hadn’t thought of “just plain unbelievable worldbuilding” as a problem for me, but yes, it can be. Also, very definitely a story that segues into a sermon would be a problem for me. These days, a story where the author is obviously checking off A Set of Diversity Boxes can make me roll my eyes, though I may go on with the story anyway if the writing is good enough in other ways.

    But Megan comments, “I can be more forgiving of not-so-great phrasing or grammar as long as the characters are likeable, the plot is entertaining, and it’s funny.” I’d kind of forgotten this, but me too — specifically, if the dialogue is snappy and funny, then I can skim over clumsy phrasing in the exposition and description. There are other instances where the writing is not great, but not really bad either, and I can tolerate the writing because some other aspect of the story appeals to me. Sometimes it’s not even clear why a particular story works for me despite poor-ish sentence-level writing while others don’t.

    I do remember reading a not-great vampire story by someone, I do not remember who, and then starting Fledgling by Octavia Butler. Having read the earlier book made the sentence-level difference stand out in high relief. Butler was SUCH a great writer. The same thing happened when I read something-or-other and then started The Left Hand of Darkness. I didn’t even like Left Hand — I did not find the protagonist engaging — but the writing was SO much better than whatever I’d been reading earlier. There’s nothing like reading something not-great to really showcase fantastic writing.

    And yeah, I’m with Kootch. If I’m told a character is smart, I don’t want the character to act stupid. In fact, no matter what, I do not want the protagonist to act stupid. Doesn’t matter much if the protagonist is young, or naive, or impulsive, or whatever. I just cannot tolerate characters who continually make stupid decisions. If the author doesn’t appear to know how stupid the protagonist is being, that’s even worse.

    I see we mostly agree that if the protagonist is deeply unlikable (or boring), that’s probably going to be a dealbreaker.

  7. Allan Shampine

    Agree with all of this. An engaging yarn with likable characters can cover a lot of flaws. I care a lot more about that than I do about craft. Having said that, better craft = better product, and at a certain point I can’t read it anymore. But I have nothing against workmanlike authors who rapidly churn out solid but unexceptional genre fiction. I love David Weber, Simon Green and Ilona Andrews, and man do they blast the books out. The fact that Ilona Andrews is two people no doubt helps, of course.

  8. Hanneke

    Counterargument: the many readers of Andrea K. Höst’s Touchstone trilogy who (like me) went on to buy and enjoy the Gratuitous Epilogue, and then Laura.

    I agree with Allen.

  9. Herenya

    I usually decide to read a book after reading either reviews by people whose taste I trust or else sample chapters, so that helps with (but doesn’t totally guarantee) weeding out unappealing prose and stories too dark or gritty for me.

    Other than that, the main reasons I DNF:
    1. I’m feeling annoyed by, or very indifferent to, the protagonists;
    2. There are other books I want to read more.

    I’ve never identified low stakes as the reason for becoming disengaged, but it might be a contributing factor — maybe if the stakes were higher, or more accessible, I’d be more engaged.

  10. Rachel

    Allan, I’m not sure I’d put Ilona Andrews in the same category as David Weber. I don’t dislike Weber’s books, but I’d argue that his writing is just not as good as Ilona Andrews. Though by “as good” I may mean “snappy and fun.” Andrews do snappy and fun very well, while I agree that Weber’s writing is just workmanlike — good word.

    But Weber also has habits that detract from the quality of his sentences. For example, if someone breaks off in the middle of a sentence, or is interrupted, it is ALWAYS at a conjunction. This gets annoying once you notice it (sorry! now you will notice it!). Plus he goes way over the top with perfection of characters. Stephanie Harrington is super-brave AND super-lucky AND super-cute AND a complete genius AND a natural leader and even I started rolling my eyes, even though I like uber-competent characters.

    Having said that, I’ve read the original Honor Harrington series many times.

    Hanneke, without the Touchstone trilogy, would you have been at all interested in The Gratuitous Epilogue and In Arcadia? I wouldn’t have been, probably. It took the Touchstone trilogy to get me invested in the characters, after which I was happy to read about everyone setting up housekeeping and just going on with their lives.

    Herenya, I agree, I feel as though if I thought about it when I found myself disinterested, low stakes might turn out to be a contributing factor to the disinterest, even though I’m feeling bored with the characters rather than specifically bored with the plot.

  11. Kim Aippersbach

    If I’ve rolled my eyes more than 4 or 5 times, I’ll probably put the book down. The eyeroll might be because the character did something stupid, or the worldbuilding doesn’t make sense, or the plot or premise isn’t believable, or the writing is cringeworthy. Bad books usually have a combination of all these things.

    But I agree that good characters I care about cover a multitude of flaws.

    Gratituous Epilogue and In Arcadia were definitely readable because we know and love the characters, but also because the setting is really compelling and it’s just great to spend more time there.

  12. mona

    I pretty much agree with these, except #5 would be any relatable character that exists just to die in the first chapter or two (mysteries excluded). And I have to say, if it’s the first book in a really long series, I am way less likely to even start it. Although I do eventually get around to reading them if they’re really well recommended.

    In the last few months, I’ve checked out and returned unread 3 books that just didn’t entice me enough to finish: one of them was high stakes but I found the interaction between the characters was unkind and distasteful given the type of story; one was part of a long series and also kind of gritty; and the last was literary when what I needed was something comforting.

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