Friday, June 18, 2010

The Unpardonable Sin - Boring Your Readers

There are many writing sins a fiction author can commit, but one of the most heinous is boring the reader.

We must assume no author does that intentionally, because the result is losing the reader’s attention. And with so many other activities vying for the reader’s time, no author wants to build into his story a good excuse for the reader to stop reading and never return to finish it.


Consider any author trying to get published. Who’s the first reader of his story (besides a couple friends or family members who will say, “Oh yeah, loved reading your story,” even though they may never have bothered to start it)? Who? An agent. An acquisitions editor. A first-reader going through a slush pile. Anybody who can say either, “This book is great, I think we need to publish it,” or “Ho-hum, another wannabe writer bites the dust.”

Now, let’s say an author does manage to get published (or self-published), even though his story lacks sparkle. What’s going to happen? Readers who read a dull story will kill the book’s sales potential – and possibly the future of other books written by the author.


Because everyone – critic, reviewer, and book consumer – is a reader. And one thing readers do is remember authors. They actively seek out additional books from those authors who thrill and delight them. And if they really like what they’ve read, they’ll recommend the author and his books to anyone who will listen. But those same readers will actively avoid books by authors who fail to deliver a good story, and will tell everyone who will listen to do likewise. That kind of bad recommendation can convince other readers who haven’t bought the book yet not to, thus killing the chance for additional sales, and sales of future books the author may write. What author in his right mind wants that?

Let’s assume the typical author is in his right mind and doesn’t want his book to end up being labeled as boring. What constitutes boring, and how can it be remedied? Here are a few of the main indicators:

POOR PACING. A story that drags along at a snails pace, with little happening to break the doldrums, becomes a chore to read – a chore that many readers will happily forego. Even if the story starts out well, if it has a ‘sagging middle’ or a ‘flat ending,’ it’s got a problem. There are many ways to fix problematic pacing. The best overall idea is to follow the ARC of the story with minor ups and downs – action followed by a short relief passage to lull the reader into a false sense of security, followed by a scene with even more danger or suspense. The overall arc of the story should build from the beginning, with the major premise or conflict presented at the ‘last possible moment’ in the story where it makes sense. Too much back-story up front will spoil the lead-in. The drama should heighten as the story progresses, with a major ‘black moment’ toward the end, where things look most dire. The final conflict should be appropriately difficult, so that the outcome is not clear. Then the resolution and conclusion should wrap up all loose ends quickly, with a nice summary or moral that satisfies the story’s needs as well as the reader’s.

POORLY APPLIED VOICE/STYLE. The author’s writing style may be tongue-in-cheek and take a long, meandering while to get to any point. This is not the best style for a suspense or action thriller – or for many books at all. In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, most readers don’t have the time or patience to indulge a self-centered writer who’s in love with his own words and refuses to edit out convoluted sentence structure or every unnecessarily detailed nuance of arriving at a conclusion. As a courtesy to the reader, the author should get to the point in a reasonable amount of time, and make the journey toward that point amusing, suspenseful, or otherwise enjoyable for the reader.

INFO-DUMPING. Info-dumping can disguise itself in many forms. The most common and popular are:

1) Pages and pages of narrative exposition detailing the background information of the story or characters that the author simply must tell the reader. This is the unskilled or lazy writer’s way of getting all that background stuff out of the way, so that he can then get on with the story.

2) “As you know, Bob,” or detailing story specifics in dialog between two characters, so that the reader can ‘overhear’ the information and become privy to it. Of particular concern is when one character summarizes information for another character – especially information the other character already knows.

3) Story intrusions where the author stops the story to narrate to the reader an important bit of background information about the story line, history, or some character trait or past exploit. Much better is to weave this information seamlessly into the story at appropriate intervals when the information would logically come up in the story. There are many others, some seemingly well-disguised and hard to pinpoint, but these are some of the most common.

HO-HUM CHAPTER OR SCENE ENDINGS. Having your character fall asleep, happy and content, may seem like a good way to end a chapter, but what it actually does is give the reader a stopping point to put the story aside. A much better approach is to end the scene or chapter with a ‘cliffhanger’ that will make the reader want to keep on reading to find out what happens next. A ‘cliffhanger’ puts characters in an untenable position, like facing the villain holding a gun on them, or a speeding car out of control, approaching – a cliff! Will the characters in the car find some way to stop it, or manage to jump out just in time, before the car goes over the edge and crashes in a fiery ball at the bottom of the ravine below? The reader will have to go on to the next chapter to find out! Even if a story does not have scene after scene of breathtaking action, ‘cliffhangers’ can be built in using emotional drama. Like when Suzy’s mother tells her during morning coffee all the minor details of her day yesterday, then – oh, by the way, she happened to see Suzy’s husband with another woman at a restaurant. The unexpected revelation will certainly surprise Suzy and, if the author has laid the groundwork properly in the scene, will surprise the reader too. Ending the chapter there will nearly guarantee the reader will continue reading the next chapter. Result? Not boring.

If you’re having trouble deciding whether your story is boring, the best thing to do is have an impartial reader (not a friend or family member) read it. Here’s where a writing friend or critique group comes in handy. Honest feedback is essential, especially when you aren’t sure how your story stands. It’s better to get more than one person to read your story or a passage you think may be problematic. If the consensus is that it lacks something, your next task is to figure out what and how to fix it. Armed with some basics about what to look for, you’ll be better prepared to fix it properly.

This may sound like a lot of work, but if writing were easy, everyone would be doing it. Wait ... practically everyone is doing it – so it’s even more important for you to write well, to write exceptionally, to stand out from the pack so your story sparkles and tantalizes ... screams to potential readers, “Read me! You won’t be sorry, you’ll be thrilled and entertained, and you’ll love every minute you spend between my covers!”

And that, writing friends, is not boring! It’s getting you closer to your goal of being a successful author.


  1. That is a lot to digest.

    I have a nice trick for writing and editing I learned from Penumbra. If you have two scenes of equal length, but one scene is average and the other scene is well written, unique, or you are passionate or knowledgeable about it, strengthen the good scene as a way of minimumalizing the obligatory or average scene.

    This should be easy and enjoyable to do, being that you will be adding to a part of your book you are passionate about anyway.

    Keep writing.

  2. As a side note ... Walter Knight has written 13 books now in publication - the AMERICA'S GALACTIC FOREIGN LEGION sci-fi military humor series, so he's got a little bit of experience. For new writers who are just starting out, it can all seem overwhelming, and just getting to THE END of a first novel seems like a major accomplishment. It is, but that is no place to stop. Once the novel is finished, it's time to review, reevaluate, and polish.


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