Episode 37: Reader Frustrations to Avoid While Writing Your Novel
In this episode, JT talks about reader frustrations and why you need to take the time to avoid them. We look at the most popular reader turn-offs, why they frustrate your readers, and how you can stop doing them.
You can listen to the episode right here. The transcription is below the player. Feel free to add your comments using the comment section below.
Episode 37 Transcript
Note: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and humans, as such, it may contain errors. Please, double-check the audio file before quoting anything from this page.
00:00 [JT Pledger] Greetings, kids! Today I want to cover things that really frustrate your audience since there are things we do as writers that really piss off our readers.
Let’s discuss what those things are and what you can do to avoid them. Stick around, we have a lot to cover.
00:39 [JT] It’s no secret that readers are fickle. One minute they love every word you are writing for them and are excited to turn the page. The next minute, they don’t agree with a twist or turn you made and are your biggest enemy. By the end of the story, they are on your side again, but the adventure between the first word and the last is a fragile and exciting one.
01:04 One of the biggest challenges we face as a writer is keeping our readers entertained while avoiding anything that will frustrate them. Reader frustrations are things that the author says or does that result in the reader closing the book. As I have stated repeatedly, a reader closing your book is detrimental to your reviews, future book sales, and reader retention.
What are Some Reader Frustrations?
01:33 Having this knowledge means little. If we cannot correct the reader’s frustrations, we are doomed from the start. Let’s take a look at some of these reader frustrations so we know exactly what to avoid.
01:50 The first thing that pisses readers off is having a shit ton of characters. You have to remember that you spend a great deal of time with your story, you mull over it when you aren’t writing. The longer you spend with and on your story, the easier it is for you to understand.
02:14 Your reader, on the other hand, picks up your novel and it thrust into the story without spending a lot of time figuring everything out, like you have. It is easy for a writer to add characters. We think that having someone talking or doing on every page is crucial. When we get tired of writing for one character, we just invent another.
02:44 While we are able to keep all of these personalities, names, and storylines straight, our readers generally cannot. It is difficult to get into a story when there is a new character introduced page after page. We know who is speaking, we wrote the words, but the reader has to keep everything straight in their head. The more lines to read from different characters, the more difficult it becomes. Do it too often and the reader grows frustrated.
03:22 Whether they have to continually go back a few pages and reread sections to remember what is going on, or looking back to remember a name, or five, gets old. It stops the movie projector inside the reader’s mind, and they close the book.
Raise the Stakes!
03:43 The second biggest reader frustration is a story or character that doesn’t have enough to fight for. When I talked about story and character arcs, I mentioned that the protagonist has to have a reason to get off the couch. To reiterate this, if you picture your hero, going through the growth stages, in the beginning, he or she is enjoying a bag of cheesy puffs on the couch. There must be something that causes them to spring into action.
04:22 This catalyst is important to your character, but it is even more important to your reader. This catalyst has to be big enough, important enough to get your hero willing to move his ass off the couch. However, it has to be big enough to make it worth it to your reader. If the stakes aren’t high enough, the reader won’t care. Being exciting, and methodical in the catalyst that moves the story, the “why” if you will, is more important to your reader than your main character.
05:06 If you can’t get your reader to push for your main character to get their lazy ass off the couch, they won’t care about the story. If they don’t care about the story, they grow frustrated, and as we know, a frustrated reader closes the book.
Dialog Tags are Frustration Catalysts
05:28 Shall we keep going? Let’s discuss dialog. I continually harp on using only said, asked, or thought. These words disappear. When the reader goes over your pages, the dialog is read but all of the “he said,” “she thought,” and “they thought” disappear. They are read, but they don’t register. When you start using things like “he exasperated,” or “she screamed,” the reader takes notice. When this happens, it causes the mental movie projector to stop or skip.
06:10 Using dialog tags is important when done correctly. The correct way is to not use them when you don’t have to. It is also important to let the actions do the acting. Think about a movie scene. The character speaks, but we don’t need a narrator to chime in with “he said, with furious anger.” The actors on screen act. Their words, actions, and meaning convey if they are angry, happy, upset or indifferent.
06:50 The same needs to hold true in your writing. Remember, you are writing a movie. It is a mental movie and it is designed to be viewed by one, but it is a movie nonetheless. Don’t fill your mental movie with dialog tags that don’t need to be there. This will frustrate your reader to no end.
Make a Pretty Picture, Not a Complete One
07:16 Stay relevant. When you are building your scenes and introducing new characters, it is important for the reader to picture what is going on. You want them to see things how you see them, but remember, this is a movie for them. A reader enjoys when they can piece together what a scene looks like, or how a character is dressed.
07:46 Yes, you need to describe things. You need your adjectives and descriptive text. You also don’t need to overdo it. Unless it is imperative to the story, there isn’t a need for your main character to have Amazon forest deep green eyes. The reader knows they have eyes. If they were missing an eye, you would have told them. However, it is unlikely that their green eyes mean anything to your story. Get the color the hell out of your words. Leave it to the reader to color the character’s eyes, you need to get the fuck on with your story.
08:33 A few descriptive words is good enough. If your character is taller than most, say so, if they are chubby, say so. If they always wear a flannel shirt like they are stuck in the Seattle grunge of the 90s, say so. Your reader will enjoy that. What they won’t enjoy is trudging through page after page of the red and green flannel shirt that never seems to allow the buttons to meet the buttonholes. No one cares. Move on.
Follow the Structural Norm
09:09 Let’s talk a little bit about structure here. You are writing a novel, you aren’t reinventing the wheel. Stick with what works. Too many new authors want to try their own structure. You know what? It might work. You may have the next biggest thing since pants with pockets. I will tell you right now, lose it. Forget it. Stick with what works.
09:41 If your reader is expecting a certain structure and you deviate from that, you will lose them. While it isn’t impossible to change the direction of the wheel, you don’t need to break the fucking thing off the axle. Instead, stick with the story arc and story structures that have been around for thousands of years.
10:04 Now, once you are a known name, you have a following and people are buying and reading your books, then (and only then) are you allowed to bring out your new structure. Establish yourself first. No agent, publisher or experimental reader is going to spend any time at all on you if they notice you deviate from this structure.
10:32 Dean Koontz? He can come out with a new structure. J.K. Rowling? She can, too. You, little unheard of no-name writer? Nope. You cannot. Not yet. Get your new structure written down somewhere, then stick it in a locked drawer and feed the key to your neighbor’s snake. It isn’t time yet, so don’t lose your fans and potential future readers by being different.
Your Novel is not a Dump
11:05 Another thing I harp on all the time is research information dumping. Yes, as a writer you are expected to know every last detail of every scene in your book. If your character is a surgeon, you better know what type of scalpels they use and why your character prefers the number 10 to the number 8. If your character is a clerk at a corner store, you as the writer better know which candy bars are on sale this week and if a Snickers has peanuts or not.
11:40 What you don’t want to do is dump all of your researched information into your books. Never do this shit. Everyone hates it except the person who wrote it. Yeah, we get it. You spent months learning all the cross streets in Chicago. Good for you. Here’s a secret, no one gives two shits.
12:04 You care because you want your book to be accurate in your data. But when your character is running for their lives down Lincoln avenue and turns right on Dickens, we as readers don’t care. It isn’t crucial to your story that we are running down Dickens, away from Clark Street. What is important is why we are running. Who are we running from?
12:28 Of course you want your information to be accurate. Use your research to make your words true, not the other way around. Too much data dumped on the reader so you sound more official only works to piss them off. “Yay, you Googled a street map of Chicago, good for you, author.” Closed book, tossed on the floor and forgotten…. Don’t be that writer.
Dues Ex No
12:59 Finally, I want to once again mention the Dues Ex Machina. In case you don’t know, the Latin phrase translates to God of the machine. It is a trump card and it is bull shit. In writing, Dues Ex means you have some impossible situation the character is in, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere comes the only possible solution to fix the problem. The one thing that will solve everything and was either unknown, impossible or never mentioned is all of a sudden there to save the day.
13:38 No. No, no, no, no, no. Stop it. Solve your characters’ problems the right way. Use cunning and guile and unexpected resolve. Don’t use some bull shit answer that could never happen. I think last time I talked about Dues Ex, I mentioned Mars Attacks!, where old granny’s headphone jack came unplugged just as she was about to be vaporized, and the song playing caused the alien’s heads to explode. Ah! Great, some shit song saves the day and completely by accident. No. It is a huge letdown and your readers will hate every minute they actually stick around from that point on.
14:27 Playing to your readers is the name of the game. It is easy to forget that. We have a story to tell and we want to tell it our way, by God! However, if you cause the reader frustrations, no one will be there to hear you tell your story.
Give Some, Take Some
14:47 Writing is a give and take. You have to weave your tale in a believable way, give the reader something to ponder and think about. Surprise them in a good way, but never frustrate them. We’ve covered the most important examples. There are a lot more. Are you interested in knowing what they are?
15:10 Head to the website at extradraft.com and find the transcript post for this episode. There is a link in the show notes. Comment there that you want to know more and I will see about doing a part two for this episode.
15:27 Until next week, have fun; write words.