Six Ways to Lose Readers Fast

Photo by cristiano_betta on Flickr.

Authors! Tired of positive reviews? Want to lose your audience fast? Here’s a handy guide to ensuring readers will put down your work and never pick it up again!

1. What’s the rush?

There’s no need to introduce the central conflict of the story for at least seventy pages. Readers appreciate “immersion” in your world, so include several chapters of the characters walking around, greeting people, showing up places, and describing their own environment to themselves — maybe even out loud. Set your opening in a tension-free environment, like a nice country fair or a drama-free family dinner. Also, make sure the main character gets in touch with his or her feelings about the things that aren’t happening.

2. Lose the plot.

If the central conflict of your story suddenly becomes muddled and unclear, just have characters talk about it. A lot. Speculate about possible futures at length. Don’t introduce any new stimuli, just let the characters hash it out over coffee. Make sure your readers don’t miss an instant of their painstaking discussion. Make sure you create a situation where there’s no ticking clock or external pressure — that’ll just get in the way of your character’s conversations. Don’t stop until you’ve covered every possible permutation of the emerging circumstances. Readers love that.

3. Exposition. Exposition EVERYWHERE.

There is nothing a reader enjoys more than a juicy twelve-ton slab of description. Go on, give that sunrise a page and a half all its own. You’ve earned it. Catalog the entire contents of your protagonist’s room. It reveals character! Relate the entire history of the characters’ home town. Stephen King would go on about Maine for a thousand pages at a time, and he’s a zillionaire. And if you need to set up a relationship, make sure the reader knows the entire history of each character, preferably starting with their childhood or even their birth. It’s all about context. Don’t get all breakneck like Dostoevsky or Dickens. Those guys were crazy.

4. Don’t answer premise.

First, establish the theme of your story and the narrative question you intend to answer. Then, halfway through, quietly forget about it. Readers will praise you for your cleverness. You’re defying expectations! So your protagonist just sort of forgets about his goal. So a looming threat kind of fizzles out because it was too complex to try to resolve. So a burgeoning romance vanishes without a trace because you lost interest. Whatever! It’s all about the journey, so who cares what the destination might have been?

5. Preach it!

Your book is important. It has a serious message, so make sure people don’t miss it. Get out that bullhorn and blast your pedagogy from every chapter heading and conflict resolution. Turn those who disagree with the political or cultural views of the protagonist into one-dimensional idiot monsters. Gloss over any inconvenient flaws in your protagonist’s ideology. Your goal is not entertainment, but conversion. You’re enlightening the ignorant masses!

6. Grammar? This isn’t school!

Editing is for squares and people who don’t have a style. You’ve got a style, man. James Joyce made up words willy-nilly! e.e. cummings didn’t capitalize the letters of his name, so why should you capitalize anything? Spelling is just The Man telling you how to arrange letters — plus, there’s that one study showing how you can scramble up letters in words and people will still understand them! Surely no one will think you’re an obnoxious dolt if you do that. You’re a rebel iconoclast and you’ve got no time for apostrophes.

Yes, I am in a sarcastic mood today. So, readers. Anything I missed?

23 Replies to “Six Ways to Lose Readers Fast”

  1. I’d like to say that I’ve never seen in this in books (published or self-published) but I have. It’s so true that it takes away from the story, and so important we keep everything on track. great post!

  2. Don’t forget the fifty-page prologue that adds absolutely nothing to the story, the evil antagonist whose main purpose is to laugh maniacally in every chapter and complete disregard for editing and rewriting. I mean really, who edits anymore?

    1. Ha, yes. I read a fantasy trilogy a while back that had a whole sprawling prologue that took place a thousand years before the story — I NEVER figured out how it tied in.

      1. Prologues tend to be more popular in that genre…unfortunate that you couldn’t figure out the tie-in, though. Makes you wonder how it (the prologue) survived edits.

    2. I read an intro like that once in a fantasy novel and was completely confused. Then I realized it was book 2 of a trilogy. Then I started reading book 1 and realized that that didn’t help at all. Then I gave the trilogy to Goodwill.

  3. Great list, Daniel! This is very handy for writers to print and post somewhere in their writing cave. We could always use a reminder to think about our readers and how to keep them interested while writing/revising.

  4. I 99.9% agree, but whenever I think (3), I always think Tolkien: “The 7th blade of grass on the 1st hill of Minas Tirith was as lush and verdant as blades 1-6, but in it’s own unique and completely unremarkable way. It was named Turfinor, son of Sodohir.”

      1. I agree. Tolkien was writing before the Internet, when people needed long descriptions to help them visualize unusual places.

        1. That’s very interesting. I never thought about it that way. Though I read the books before I got the internet, and, well, I skimmed a lot of that stuff.

  5. Fantasy novels seem particularly prone to these problems. Fantasy constitutes about 40% of my reading diet, but I hate getting half way through a novel and realizing that the writing is only going to get worse.

  6. We should always do what our literary heroes do, right? Like when Victor Hugo devoted an entire chapter in Les Miserables to the complex workings of the Parisian sewer system. Or when Dickens spent a few chapters in Great Expectations letting Pip wander around London, all depressed about life and stuff.

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