Three Things a Novel Should Never Do

Nothing throws me off reading a work of fiction than poor writing. Of all the crap you throw at a reader, the following three are probably among the worst literary sins I can imagine.

Even statues facepalm at bad writing. From Tuileries Gardens, picture from Wikipedia.

Point Number 1: Be Totally Predictable

A novel should never be predictable. Of course, there are genre conventions to be taken into consideration, expectations to certain themes or types of narratives, series of actions and developments that are inevitable or cannot reasonably be changed without serious changes to established reality or continuity.

But if I can reasonably guess that; the butler did it, the climatic last stand will be on the Eiffel tower, reality is just dream in the mind of a sleeping disillusioned duck, or the betrayal is inevitably going to involve the born again Christian sister, then I will probably dislike your book. Get me excessively bored, make me feel unchallenged, or worst of all, annoy me, then I will hate your books.

To me, its an indirect insult. It will feel like the writer didn’t care enough, was too lazy to do the ground work or in too much of a hurry, or that an editor with no sense of art got involved and sucked the innovation out of it. Either do the work or don’t publish it. For a list (not THE list) on the most boring books ever, I like this one.

Point Number 2: Make the Reader Feel Stupid or Ignorant

There is a difference between writing a challenging book and writing a book specifically intended to make the reader feel stupid. This is not the same as assuming that the reader has certain knowledge or experience as prerequisites, but writing that smugly rubs it in your face that it’s the writer prerogative to reveal something.

In Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, the argument is that the best games are the ones that play at the limit of a players skill set, close to, but not impossible to win. In the case of writing, I think an author should challenge the readers engagement with the content (plot/language/genre definitions/etc), but not push unnecessarily into obscure language or elaborate convolutions to make their point.

I do applaud having to work hard to truly understand something, but if the text feels like the writer wants you to struggle, just because he/she had to struggle writing the bloody thing, then why bother. Reading should be enjoyable, and not feel forced.

Point Number 3: Waste the Readers Time

Be my guest and add a back story for the sixth cousin of King Balmer’s wife’s uncle, where he gets seduced by his hot sexy maid, gets robbed by said maid, whom then escapes the castle in a daring midnight dash through a wellplaced window leaving him tied to a bed to be discovered and humiliated. I’m sure its fascinating, but if it doesn’t add value to, or enhances the plot of, the central narrative I rarely give a shit. Its becomes superfluous bunk. And yes, I really did enjoy reading about the Kings lineage in LOTR (once), but it didn’t enhance the plot significantly. It made me think “Impressive! Tolkien had a lot of time on his hands”.

Make the reader feel that his or her was invested well.

(Bonus Point) Have Horrible Grammar

You are not a serious writer. Done. Nothing else to say.

This one is by far the easiest to remedy. Pay for a proper proofreading of your book. There is nothing worse than having to guess where the comma is supposed to go for the writers intention to be clear, or read there instead of their or which/witch for two hundred pages.

But what do you think? Every point here has its own issues, and its debatable just how much you can do, but what do you think? For instance, I enjoy entertaining rabbit trails in some literature, can accept poor grammar if a character is supposed to speak in a certain way, plus don’t mind researching topics or looking up words when reading, but I am not all people. Not yet. 🙂 (And yes, I would definitely get the irony, if I sinned in this post).

One thought on “Three Things a Novel Should Never Do

  1. One of the worst scenarios is whe point one is solved by a plot point heitherto kept secret from the reader which is a direct violation with point two, the so-called Deus ex Machina solution.

    Point three I guess is the most abused when the author is thinking ‘epic’ and tries to achieve that through excessive detail. This is prevalent in writing beyond books too. A good editor needs to be able to talk to their author and the author and they must be willing to listen. This happens in film writing a lot too. The most recent three Star Wars films for example needed and editor who could stand up to George Lucus and stop him being so rambling, for just the reasons you stated.


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