Books I Didn’t Finish, AKA, What Killed it For Me

I like keeping lists. And I like books. So I guess it makes sense that I have a lot of book lists. Books To Read, Books I’ve Finished, Books I Want to Buy, and possibly the most informative one: Books I Didn’t Finish. As a reader, it happens quite frequently that I’ll start a book, and for whatever reason, my attention wanes and I end up putting it down unfinished. As a writer, I want to know why this happens so I can avoid making the same mistakes in my own stories. The reasons behind a book’s failure to grab my attention are varied. Some of them I see often in books I read; some offenses I’m guilty of committing myself. Because of this, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so we can all try not to replicate these errors in our stories.

For this first installment, I’m pulling from a book I was really looking forward to reading…well, let’s just call it Book A (I’m a positive person, and since this isn’t a review, the title doesn’t matter). Regardless, this book was historical fiction—one of my favorite genres that I find in short supply—and a retelling of an old myth. The cover was gorgeous and the back copy contained an accurate summary of the story. The writing itself was strong, the descriptions evocative. So what killed it for me?

Pixabay

In the first chapter of Book A, the heroine’s life had taken a dramatic turn which included a global move away from her family and friends to a place she’d never been. And when she got there, everything was great. Her new home was luxurious, her benefactor doting and accommodating. In this new place, she was actually better off than she’d been at home.

Zzzzzzzz…

I was underwhelmed at this point but continued on to chapter two, hoping things would pick up—and I did find a vague undercurrent of danger, the feeling that all wasn’t as it seemed. But it was too vague, too distant. The character wasn’t concerned, and she didn’t seem to be in any real danger, so I wasn’t worried about her. And I never made it to chapter three.

Clearly there was a lack of tension, but why? What was it about this story that put me to sleep? When I examined it further, I realized that I didn’t know the hero’s goal; she wasn’t thinking about what she wanted or discussing it or wishing for it. Because she never revealed her greatest desire, there were no stakes for her should she fail to achieve it. It didn’t seem to matter one way or the other if she got what she wanted, so I didn’t really care if she succeeded.

For readers to be involved in your story, your main character has to have a goal. Simply put, this is something she wants to accomplish by the end of the story. Goals come in many shapes and forms. A character may want to discover his own identity (The Bourne Identity), make a living and survive in 19th century Paris (Belle Epoque), or find his birth father (Elf). If you don’t know what your character wants, then the reader won’t know, either. Figuring out the hero’s goal is the first order of business.

The next important step is to reveal this goal to readers through the context of your current story—through dialogue, the character’s thoughts, through action, or a symbolic keepsake or memento, etc. And the sooner you do it, the better. In the movie The Bourne Identity, we’re all of eight minutes in when Bourne, who has clearly lost his memory, says with great emotion, “What if it doesn’t come back? We get in there tomorrow, I don’t even have a name.” With this simple bit of dialogue, viewers see exactly what Jason Bourne wants. We know what he’s going to spend the rest of the movie trying to accomplish, and we spend that time rooting for him to do just that.

Because I have a fear of overstating things, I tend to be too vague when it comes to my character’s goal. Through consistent feedback from my trusty critique partners (What’s she after in this scene? I don’t know what she wants, etc.), I’ve learned that it helps, in the drafting stage, to state the goal outright. Mention it more than once. Then, when revising, soften those references and turn them into examples of showing rather than telling. Maybe remove a few of them altogether. This has worked well for me to make sure readers know my character’s goal without smacking them over the head with it.

So, to summarize: 1) know your character’s overall story goal, and 2) reveal it at the start of the story so readers will know what needs to happen for the hero to succeed.

Hopefully this information will come in handy for you and will help you write stories that readers can’t put down. An understated goal is one big reason why books fall flat for me, but there are definitely others. I’ll be writing more posts in this series as those reasons become clear. Enjoy!

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Wanna check out the rest of the series ? Here are the installments:

#2: Characters Who Aren’t Endearing

#3: Too Much Going On

#4: Clichéd Characters

#5: Weak Writing

#6: Action Too Early

#7: Issues With Sequels

#8: Personal Preferences

#7: Issues with Sequels
#7: Issues with Sequels

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Also, Angela’s at the DIYMFA today talking about Flaws, Emotional Trauma, and the Character’s Wound. If you’re interested in figuring out why your character is the way he is, she’s got some not-to-be-missed info for you.

Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Characters, Tension, Uncategorized, What Killed it For Me, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Books I Didn’t Finish, AKA, What Killed it For Me

  1. Pingback: Books I Didn’t Finish, AKA, What Killed it For Me – WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™ | !nk+Engineer

  2. If the myth it was retelling was Beauty and the Beast I’ve read this book! At the time I had literally nothing else to entertain me and had bought it and several of the other books in the series on kindle. I ended up finishing it and it was ok but it did have a very…. boring character. The other books in the series aren’t really like that and the author is my favorite and I just don’t understand why it was so awful 🙁

  3. Pingback: What Killed it For Me #5: Weak Writing | My Passion's Pen

  4. Pingback: What Killed it For Me #6: Action Too Early | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  5. Pingback: What Killed It For Me #3: Too Much Going On | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  6. Becca–
    What you say makes sense: without some sense of conflict, there’s not much motive for the reader to turn the page. But I don’t think this should be thought of as the only way to engage readers at the beginning. In my novels, I initially try to generate an aura of–for lack of a better term–disaster. What follows the opening is an introduction to the story-proper, and the main character. It’s here that a goal is introduced. The opening scene’s consequences and the character’s goal will arc towards each other as the story unfolds.

  7. Pingback: What Killed it for Me #2: Characters that Aren't Endearing | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  8. I don’t recall if I’ve had the pleasure of visiting your website before Becca. But I must say what an excellent way of explaining our goal as a writer. You made it simple and clear. Show the MC’s goal and conflict. No goal, no tension. Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. Thank you. 🙂

  9. Julie Musil says:

    Becca, such a great point to remember. I re-read Plot & Structure before I draft each book. James Scott Bell reminds us to use the LOCK system. The O in LOCK refers to objective. I have to keep reminding myself what my character’s objective is, so I don’t lose sight of it as I’m writing. I need all the reminders I can get!

    By the way, have you read any of Jody Hedlund’s books? Or Phillipa Gregory’s? If you love historical fiction, these books are winners. Of course one author writes inspirational and the other writes a bit saucier, but that’s what keeps it fun 🙂

  10. Jessi Gage says:

    Great post! Yes, tension is key.

    One thing I’ll DNF a book for is raising too many questions in the first chapter. I hate artificial mystery. If your plot is sound (GMC), you don’t need to keep the reader guessing…unless you’re writing a mystery, of course.

    –Jessi

  11. I agree about hero having no goal stopping me. And yes, writing’s changed. The speed of the computer and the fact that we have such instant access to information have addled our inner time clocks. People aren’t willing to wait to see what gradually develops in a book. That’s sad. I hope my grandchildren will read the Anne Books and the Shoes books and Little Women and Mark Twain. These would possibly be rejected by todays publishers.

    • I know. It would be a shame if my kids missed out on some of my favorite books growing up, but I guess it’s inevitable. My dad liked Dickens and it didn’t appeal to me at all :(.

    • Marie says:

      In particular the Anne books, I think that it can draw in because it starts with something happening. It’s not a big thing, but Matthew does something completelly out of the ordinary, so we know that there will be action.

      To me, convince me within the first couple of chapters that there will be action, and I’ll sit through quite a bit of development.

      I won’t if the only reason I know that something’s going to happen is because you told me so on the back of your book.

  12. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    So true!.
    “Make your character want something right away, even if it’s only a glass of water.” I don’t remember who said this, but some writer many years ago.
    I’ve never forgotten it.

  13. Great insights, and I think I’m going to expand my list-making! Right now it’s just TBR and books I loved and want to dissect. A list of what I’ve read would help me find one that I can’t remember the name of (and make me feel very accomplished), and listing ones that didn’t work would be interesting too. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

    • I started keeping a list of all the books I read because my library doesn’t have any way of looking of past books I’ve checked out. I was trying to find the name of a book I read, and when I called them to look back over my check-outs, they said they didn’t have anything like that. That seems so weird to me. So I decided to keep track of it all myself. *hugs Goodreads*

      • Cathryn Cade says:

        Becca,

        That’s actually the library’s way of protecting your right to privacy. No one can come and ask to see what sort of things you’ve been reading. And Homeland Security, FBI, etc has done this.

        Would be nice if you could have a private record, though, i agree.

  14. I have to understand the writing style of the writer before I can commit to reading a book. I don’t want to start from the beginning, because we all know writers are supposed to grab us from the beginning….

    So, I open to the middle and start reading. If there are action sequences which pain me to read, like the ones where he slips his hand into his coat pocket and finger into the trigger, then pulls the gun out and aims, then fires a shot….I WILL PUT THAT SHIT DOOOOOWWWWWN. Oh my GYAWD.

    It’s sad when you like the concept of a story, but can’t stand to read as if the book were experienced in slo mo. You know?

    • This is really interesting, Diane. I’m a painfully linear person. If I tried to flip to the middle before reading the beginning, my brain would blow a gasket. But this is what I love about writing books. Readers are all different. So there’s hope for all of us writers ;).

  15. Great post! Getting that balance of not overstating, yet giving enough can be difficult. Thank heaven’s for CP’s! 🙂

  16. Jade champion says:

    I see what you mean, I’ve picked up book aftet book but some don’t quite catch me…others just don’t have drive, power or love to them. It’s even more hard to find a goal for a chatacter that your writing, been writing one for six years and it’s the background characters thay grew one I’m trying to write a story about! But that one begore, no goals.

  17. Johanna says:

    I used to push through books even when they didn’t draw me in, but lately I’ve been setting them aside to allow myself to read things that inspire and entertain.

  18. Southpaw says:

    Well said. Something’s gotta happen to intrigue us readers.

  19. Laura Pauling says:

    Becca – I’m with you. I have too many books I want to read and sitting on my Kindle and in my library to read through a book that isn’t grabbing me. But honestly, sometimes it’s me, not the book. I like certain aspects in stories, no matter what the genre, and if those elements aren’t there, I might lose interest. But like you said in your great post, if there’s no danger or reason to keep reading, then I def. put it down. 🙂 Unless the voice and writing is absolutely fantastic, then, I might give it longer. So many factors go into it.

    • I never thought about this, but it’s true for me, too; if a book is lacking in a major area but it’s strong in other important areas, I’ll give it a longer go before quitting. For me, strong writing and unique voice are essential.

  20. The lack of interest in the main character always killed a book for me too. I’ve found that the goal is not always important for me to latch onto a character, though it helps. In the first chapter, I like to know more about why I should care about these characters. The goal definitely helps give me a reason, as does a good sense of tension, but if nothing about the character is interesting, that’s another reason I will abandon a book.

  21. Marissa Graff says:

    Wonderful post! A few books I’ve read in recent weeks come to mind for what you’ve described. As long as the character doesn’t really care about anything, the reader doesn’t care either. Some of those books manage to highlight an internal goal, but forget that in the meantime, we need an external goal to keep us going while the internal is evolving. I think it’s so true that we have as much to learn about writing from books that aren’t working for us as though that do. Thanks for opening up this discussion!

  22. Something I need to mention more clearly. I have him mentioning he wanted to find somewhere to call home, but not stating outright, that he wants to find his place in this world. Will have to fix that. Thanks!!

    • This is such a tough line to walk. You’ve got to make the goal clear, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t turn readers off. I can hardly ever tell when I’ve done this right/wrong in my own writing; this is where crit partners come in so handy.

  23. Kessie says:

    This will be a good blog series! I’m always analyzing books, too. One book like the one you stated is The Little White Pony by Goudge, except its like 70 years old now. The pace was a bit slower back then. It does take a few chapters for the heroine’s goal to come out, but eventually it does, and its such a nice book. But modern books can’t pull that off anymore. Different audience. 🙂

    • It’s amazing, how accepted writing techniques have changed. One of my favorite books is Anne of Green Gables, which I re-read from time to time. It’s a great story, but the descriptions! Yikes. Paragraph after paragraph of the flowers and trees and the river and the wind…Enough already. 🙂

  24. Thanks for the reminder. Super post.

  25. What a great idea keeping a list of books you didn’t finish and the reasons why. That would be helpful. I usually make myself finish a book even if I don’t like it. On the other hand, I’m reading a very popular book right now that is a good page turner but strikes me as creatively flawed and I’m intrigued how it got the huge buzz it’s getting. Also something worth studying, huh? Anyway, excellent point that we need to feel the MC’s conflict right away.

    • Kim, from conversations I’ve had, I think most writers prefer to finish books rather than put them down. I think I’m flawed in this area, lol. I just have so little free time; no time to waste on books that are a drag to read ;).

  26. That sounds like a pretty accurate retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth. In the myth, Psyche’s new home is all that and a bag of chips; the only thing she lacks is human companionship. Perhaps the author should have played with the myth some more and either made Psyche’s new home not so perfect or given her a goal she couldn’t accomplish at her new location.

    • This was a different myth, but the same problem with no goal or tension. As I was telling someone else, what’s sad is that I’m sure the hero did have an overall goal. It just was never stated. And the result was at least one eager reader who will never purchase it. This is something we have to get right as writers.

  27. jeffo says:

    Nice summary of a major problem with some books, Becca, thanks!

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