I’ve recently been struggling to get through a novel. Not because it’s long, or deep, or complicated but because this one novel contains all of my literary pet hates! I won’t name and shame the book (but if you’re interested…) it’s not even a terrible story and I can appreciate the effort that’s been put into writing the story but my goodness is it tough going reading something that sounds like a GCSE English student wrote it! So I’m going to share my 5 biggest hates when it comes to reading fiction in the hope that I’m not the only one out there with these issues.
1. Too Much Description
As I arduously trawled my way through the musty, grainy, thumb-stained pages of the spine-cracked book in its inky black jacket embossed with gold-leaf lettering that shone like twinkling stars against the midnight blue backdrop of the never-ending and thought provoking sky I realised that there was way too much description in this stupid book! Now, don’t get me wrong, I love it when an author can set the scene vividly and create an accurate and detailed picture for the reader and there’s not much worse than a novel lacking in imagery and description but when when an author spends sentence after sentence describing something as trivial and insignificant as a book I slowly lose the will to live. Some of my favourite authors are guilty of this literary sin (George RR Martin and Jean M Auel I’m looking at you!) but -and it’s a big but- I can forgive excessive description when the plot and characters are strong because as someone who writes myself I can appreciate the appeal of descriptive writing. Not only does it pad out a story a little but it’s also an opportunity for the author in question to show off a bit, throw in some fancy words here and there, pat yourself on the back at being able to describe a table in over 100 words and all in all self-indulge a little. But pages upon page of description is yawn-inducing to say the least and if the plot is going nowhere then the only place my copy is going is back on the shelf. Historical fiction and fantasy/sci-fi can get away with it a little more but if this is a bog-standard girl meets guy romance or Inspector Whatsisname mystery then there is literally no excuse.
2. Practically (im)perfect leads
First things first. I hate a Mary Sue. For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu if male) is the idea of a character that is seemingly perfect in every way (not Mary Poppins though, she’s only practically perfect) They are more often or not the lead character or the lead character’s romantic interest and they are nauseating and quite frankly lazily written. Imperfect characters are much better because they’re more relatable and ultimately more interesting, I mean, how dull* would the Harry Potter books have been had Harry not gone looking for trouble all the time? *Probably not that dull. Or what if Robb Stark had kept his word to the Freys in A Song of Ice and Fire? Having said that, if there’s one type of character worse than an overly perfect one it’s the overly imperfect one. Take this book I’m reading for example, the lead character has zero practical skills (the girl can’t use a gas oven for Pete’s sake) she has zero social skills (she won’t ask for help regarding the gas oven) is described as ‘unremarkable’ and yet somehow she has allure about her that people find captivating and she finds everything and anything she’s not used to as totally weird. These characters are becoming more and more popular (no thanks to Bella Swan) and they’re a chore to read about. Sure it’s endearing when your lead character is clumsy or awkward around women but when they’re clumsy and awkward and self-deprecating and they have no sense of humour, or friends or ambition or dreams or anything that makes them human and not robot, they’re not the type of character I’ll want to spend 300 pages with.
3. Pointless Cliffhangers
I love a good cliffhanger, who doesn’t? They can be infuriating yes but all in all a cliffhanger at the end of a story or at the end of a chapter is what keeps me up at 1am desperate to read more whilst my eyes melt. Ending a story with a cliffhanger is the easy option, especially if there’s going to be a sequel. It’s a clever way of ensuring your audience returns and that the hype lives on. Another way of using a cliffhanger is to place one at the end of a chapter and return to it later. And that’s they key point – you return to it later. How epic/frustrating/mind-blowing is it when your hero is in a life or death situation and before the tension is resolved your focus is cut away to completely different scene in the next chapter? A great cliffhanger takes you away from the action, and returns to it just when you’d started not to care. What, I ask, is the point of ending a chapter with a classic … only for the following chapter to pick up immediately where you left off? Or worse still, moments later, with the character safe and well having escaped the clutches of the evil villains with no more than throwaway comment explaining how? When a cliffhanger is resolved immediately without changing POV or location or even teasing us with a flashback or flash-forward it can only be described as a great big, damp squib.
4. Everyone Sounds the Same
Whether written in first person or third, one thing that is guaranteed to make for a bad reading experience is having every character sound the same. Some books employ more than one character POV and can devote several chapters to each different voice, it’s vitally important for these characters to be easily differentiated otherwise you’ll be spending the whole time wondering just who’s who and flipping back pages to try and work it out. A badly written novel will have the big, gruff, prisoner speaking in the same voice as the 10 year old, ballerina. If you’re going to focus on several characters at least make sure they come across as different, otherwise confusion and boredom are on the reading list.
5. Random Ramblings
I ramble. My sister likes to point out when I ramble, which only results in more rambling as I feebly attempt to explain why I was rambling in the first place. I’m rambling now I guess, and it’s annoying isn’t it? Go on, admit it, I won’t be offended. Well, if you thought that was bad try reading a 300 page book which is padded out with constant ramblings on totally random and irrelevant topics. Now, of course there needs to be a little bit of padding in a novel, it helps to pace the book and sometimes it makes for an interesting piece of trivia but when a book devotes paragraphs or even chapters(!) to useless padding it becomes a chore to get to the end. Take my current book for example, nearly three pages have been devoted to explaining how the heroine needs a work visa to open her shop in America. This wouldn’t be an issue if the lack of work visa became the main obstacle faced in the story but it’s not, it’s resolved by the end of the chapter and so I’ve just read three dry pages on visa rules and I’m not going to the states.
So, are we in agreement? Are these some of the biggest sins committed by novels? Are there any examples that spring to mind? Leave a comment and let me know!