To do my job well, I do a tremendous amount of reading. Additionally, I make it a point to make sure I read different genres so I get a sense of what writers do well (or not so well) regardless of the type of story.
I’ve been inhaling Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series as of late and I got ahead of my credits so I decided instead to take advantage of Audible’s Daily Deal. It was a suspense from a legacy published author. The book had almost a thousand reviews and almost all of them four and five stars. So I figured, why not?
Take a chance.
Shoot. Me. Now.
The book was absolutely awful. I won’t say which book because I won’t do that to another author. I have a personal rule. If I can’t give a book 4 stars or more I just shut up. Three would be the minimum. Since this one was a solid TWO? Yeah, just shutting up.
And FYI, I was beginning to think I was being too hard on the book but then went and looked at the handful of bad reviews and they complained about the same things…so I had NOT lost my mind.
I kept listening, thinking, “Seriously, this has GOT to get better.” It didn’t. So instead of just complaining about the hours I wasted getting dragged through this awful book, I figured I could harvest it for some lessons about what mistakes we can avoid.
Mistake #1—Protagonist Too Dumb To Live
Our protagonist doesn’t need to be likable. There are all kinds of examples of this in literature and movies. Often anti-heroes are pretty despicable folks. We simply need a way to emotionally connect with this character, to empathize. Often this is done by making a character’s goal empathetic (I.e. Breaking Bad) even if the means are ugly, or by juxtaposing this character against a greater evil (I.e. Pulp Fiction).
This said, our protagonist doesn’t need to be likable, but we as readers have to respect them. When characters are too dumb to live, it doesn’t matter how good or noble the cause we don’t care.
In the book I was reading the protagonist was in a bad crash and is suffering from amnesia. She awakens to realize someone close to her has been brutally murdered and she is the #1 suspect.
Over the course of this plot that moved with the momentum of frozen maple syrup, this character “remembers” that her sister who has been taking care of her on their isolated farm since the accident…is actually a violent sociopath.
She is assaulted with visions of this sibling very literally torturing her growing up (including one scene where the sister kills a cat slowly and makes her watch). Though she hasn’t remembered everything, any person with one eye and half sense, might at least come to the reasonable conclusion that perhaps the sister murdered this loved one and is now framing her.
Everyone but the protagonist apparently.
What does she do? She decides to return back to the isolated farm unarmed without telling anyone (even the cops) to confront her sister about her memories.
I get that characters should not be predictable. But they should NOT do stupid stuff simply because we need to move them to a certain “place.” Because devoid of any threat (I’m holding your best friend hostage and you better come alone. No guns and no cops) it just made this character a Class A Moron.
If her sister didn’t kill her, I wanted to.
Mistake #2—Protagonist is Passive
The protagonists needs to be proactive, meaning actively going after a goal. This is one of the reasons passive goals really don’t work in fiction. It also needs to be something the character earns. Frankly, I knew better than to pick up an amnesia book, but in light of the rave reviews I second-guessed myself.
The protagonist needed to solve the mystery using outside clues that had nothing to do with the missing memories. But the entire book was really just her getting snippets or memory back then reacting…until she got enough memories back and then it all was clear.
That’s cheating. She didn’t earn any kind of a victory. It was all a matter of “remembering” of regaining something she already possessed.
Passive goals will make fiction fizzle. It’s like “containing communism.” Didn’t work in Vietnam or Korea and won’t work in our story.
Any plot that involves “protecting,” “evading,” “avoiding” or “remembering” is usually at the very least half-baked. These are all passive goals. “Maintaining” is not a story-worthy verb.
Mistake #3—Cheating at the End (Twisting is NOT Cheating)
We all love a good twist. Part of why I LOVE the Bosch books is they are tough to figure out and always serve up excellent surprises. Same with Dean Koontz. Twists are wonderful and we need to work to get good at writing them. No reader likes a book she can accurately (and easily) predict.
This does NOT mean we get weird.
There was another book I read recently form a MAJOR author who is a household name. This author did a fantastic job of creating a serial killer that I found truly terrifying, which is a tough thing to do since I’ve been rather desensitized over the years. I recall even telling my mother how AMAZING this villain was.
So I’m cooking along and this killer is always, I MEAN ALWAYS ahead of the FBI. Then we get to the ending and the author serves up the
twist total BS bait and switch…
“ARE YOU FRIGGING KIDDING ME?”
See, thing was, this author gave no clues to the “twist” (meaning it doesn’t count as a twist). We need clues and hints along the way. We as readers need some slim chance we might figure it out.
The author just suddenly banking hard left? I call foul.
We can’t have a novel end with a twist that absolves us of writing a great ending. “And just as the dragon closed in, she woke up. It was all a DREAM!” It’s a variation of deus ex machina and it pisses us off.
Real twists, great twists evolve organically from the plot and the facts given along the way. There is no strange deviation no one could have seen.
Real twists? The good ones? The reason they kind of sucker punch us is we go, “Ah, hell! I thought that was weird then blew it off,” “Oh, why didn’t I see that?,” “It was right there all along.”
Endings are tough to write well, but so are beginnings and middles 😛 . We should strive for a twist, but if we can’t make it work with what we’ve already supplied to the reader? HUGE RISK.
Twists are like plants. They only grow from seeds we already planted.
Anyway, there are other bugaboos that might make a reader want to punch a story in the face, but if we can avoid these big no-nos then were are going to be doing pretty well.
What are your thoughts? What are some things that make you stop reading? What characters make you just want to scream? Do you feel the same about twist cheating?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).