Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What's the Kiss of Death in a Novel for You?

I know that appreciation for a novel and whether someone thinks it's good or bad is a subjective thing. I know that depending on your mood, a reader could pick up a novel one day and think it dreck and on another day might be so engrossed in it that they miss picking up their kids from school. But in the last week, two writer friends have both said the same thing about two different novels (neither one of which I have read) that made me think this one descriptor is probably the worst thing someone could say about a novel - for me, anyway. The thing they mentioned? The books were BORING.

For me, that one word is the kiss of death for a novel. I hadn't planned on reading one of the books (it was the last in a series I'd never gotten into) and now I likely never will. But the other one had been on my list to pick up. I'd actually been looking forward to when it came out in paperback so I could have a good summer cottage read. But now? With the BORING label stuck on it? Nuh-uh. I can forgive a lot of things: characters that are TSTL (Too Stupid To Live), overly-complicated plots, writing that is too bare-bones, or too overblown, but a boring story? That's it.

Now boring could, of course, mean different things to different people. But the way these two writers described the books to me, it sounded very similar. Basically, a whole lot of nothing happening for a whole lot of pages. No conflict, no action, page after page of descriptive prose about setting, just … nothing. The writing was good. In both cases written by very accomplished authors. But a reason to keep turning the pages? Um, not there.

I've seen evidence of this meandering, boring, why-is-this scene-even-in-the-book? type of writing in many a novel. When it happens in the case of the last of a series (hello? The first half of the last couple of books in the HP series? Boring.) you still keep reading because you know there is a payoff at the end. Some big event that will be coming that will make the slog worthwhile. And maybe, when it gets to the end of a long series like HP, readers will want to stretch out that time until the end, not wanting to say good-bye to Harry and all that. But in a stand-alone novel? In a first time authors work? Why?

Yes, boring is subjective but character and good writing can only take you so far. Plot and conflict and making things worse for your characters is what keeps people turning a page (not talking about literary fiction here folks, just your average commercial book). Personally, I'd rather be accused of a whole slew of other issues in my writing but if someone tells me they were bored? Agh. As the inimitable Jack Nicholson once said "I'd rather stick needles in my eyes".

How about you? What's the the Kiss of Death for you in a novel?


  1. Such an interesing question Nelsa. For me I think the kiss of death is feeling that I'm not in 'safe hands' with the author. For example being led into a puzzling scene which I'm working hard to make sense of, only to discover it's a dream sequence. Or perhaps being introduced to lots of new characters one after the other and making the effort to remember them, only to find that they're largely irrelevant to the story.

  2. A predictable plot. If characters do exactly what I expect them to do I tend to lose interest very quickly.

  3. Hi Anna! I hear you. The tangential go nowhere characters that clutter a story is so annoying!

    Hi Niki! I agree. I hate figuring out a mystery half-way through the book. I keep reading hoping to find an amazing twist at the end to prove me wrong only to be disappointed.

  4. Interesting post -- thanks for sharing your ideas! I agree about 'boring' as the ultimate kiss of death.

    I would also add novels that jump between too many 1st person POV characters. Three or under is generally fine, but too many viewpoint characters risks leaving me confused (and not emotionally attached to any of them.)

  5. Such great answers! I'm reading a book right now where the antagonist is so bad to the core that he ends up being one dimensional. Okay, sometimes you can get away with this. I didn't really want to see another side of Voldemort and find out he like puppies. But Voldemort is off-stage for most of the HP books. I think if you're going to have an antagonist that's not hidden most of the time, you've got to give him some depth.

  6. Hi Skye! I agree. Multiple POVs have to be handled so very, very carefully. Think of how little time you can devote to getting into each of these characters heads.

    Hi Lena! Oh, definitely. Give me a complex, not-quite-all-black antagonist and you've got me. The right kind of villain can elevate even the most ho-hum of novels.

  7. What a great idea for a post! I was going to say the deal breaker for me is books that are pushing something I completely disagree with; have racist or misogynistic undertones, for example.

    But you've definitely made a good case for boring! =) And a good warning for us writers to keep the plot moving forward at all times.

  8. I know exactly the type of boring book you mean! In the HP books, I loved exploring the world in the later books, but in a standalone novel, there isn't really the room to do that.

    Besides being boring, another kiss of death for me is when I just don't care about the characters: the premise might be exciting, but if the characters are flat or completely unlikable, I usually put the book down.