Different things can irk different readers with the novels they’re reading. Chances are, you’re never sure which of the things you’re planning to do will result in a similar reaction. For those situations, you do what you feel contributes best to your story and just hope your readers feel the same way.
However, there are things that almost always universally irritates readers, especially with new novels coming in the market. While some of these can be forgiven on old work (maybe people were receptive to it then), they’ve been too much of a vocal annoyance among fans and critics not to be weeded out from new writing.
Here are a few of those things:
- Too many characters. Imagine a novel with a group of five protagonists. And another group of five acting as their antagonists. Plus three groups of five in the middle helping to give volume to the story. Plus random people coming in and going out. That’s too much to handle, especially when a bulk of them are introduced in the book’s first few pages. The golden rule of characters: keep them to a number where readers can actually remember the names and roles for each one.
- Lack of consistency. Everything has to be consistent throughout the entirety of a book — the plot, the writing style, the settings, the actions of your characters, the motivations of your main players and so on. If anything is changed, make sure there’s good reason for it. More importantly, make sure that reason is transparent to the reader, whether by a clear implication or straightforward stating it.
- Characters that are too ordinary. Sure, striving for realism is a good thing, but characters that are too flat and banal just aren’t interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention. If there’s nothing to set them and their conflicts apart from most people you encounter in real life, people won’t be too keen in following their story.
- Characters whose actions don’t match their motivations. Ever read a story and went, “Why the hell is he doing that now? That doesn’t make sense.” Usually, that happens when the author makes a character perform actions that can’t be justified by the things that supposedly motivates them.
- Poor character description. When describing characters, don’t just rely on stringing multiple adjectives to get the point across. Remember the old adage of “showing, not telling,” leading readers into understanding your character without actually ramming the image down their throats. If a character is a beautiful woman, for instance, forget about telling the reader “she’s gorgeous.” Instead, talk about her many suitors, the many compliments she receives about her looks and her work modeling in print for a make-up line, all of which hint at the same conclusion without outright telling it.
- Too long. Consider your genre and the length of novels that get published in it. Try to keep yours to within the same range, as the length of existing work tend to point towards what readers in that genre find acceptable. If your story is much longer, prune it — delete scenes, build-ups and twists that aren’t all that essential.
- Too strange. Experimenting with style (such as half of the story consisting of interspersed flashbacks) isn’t bad. The problem with it is it often ends as a hit-or-miss. Unless you’re sure the reader can still follow your train of thought, it’s usually better to just stick to a standard narrative.
- Too shallow. If people are going to be emotionally invested in your story, you need to make sure it’s compelling enough to warrant their attention. That is, if your protagonist is going to go walk through fire and defeat an army of ninjas, it better be for something worth the trouble. Readers can suspend disbelief for almost anything, provided you give them a plausible premise. Even for humorous stories that live and breathe exaggeration, you need to reel back a little to keep things in perspective.
- Too predictable. Plots that have been played out many times over are like clichés. Sure, you can use them, but don’t expect your audience to be entertained. If you’re going to use an all too familiar storyline, try giving it a fresh angle or an interesting twist. People don’t mind plots that are similar to something they’ve seen, provided there’s something about it that can generate interest and intrigue. Otherwise, you’ll lose the reader the moment they wise up to where you’re going.
- Offensive material. Gratuitous sex scenes, unnecessary obscenities and excessive violence fit right in with certain genres of writing (example: romance novels need sex scenes, often with very graphical description). If it’s not the norm in the category of the book you’re doing, be very careful using them. You can insert foul language and a risqué scene every once in a while, but make sure it’s actually necessary, rather than a mere indulgence.
- Introducing a solution out of nowhere. Readers expect conflict to be resolved using reasonable means. Introducing a solution out of nowhere — such as a new character showing up in the middle of the story — will leave readers feeling cheated.
- Unrealistic dialogue. Make sure your dialogue sound organic. While fictional dialogue is usually more coherent and less sloppy than real-world interactions, it can’t sound too contrived and too polished either. Making your characters spew words that sound too sophisticated (like it came rom someone who had hours to think up a line, rather than someone thinking on their feet) often leaves readers dissatisfied.
- Speech tags. There was probably a time when getting creative with speech tags (“she howled, almost wolf-like”; “Nate whispered”; “he answered angrily”) was considered good writing. These days, most people are simply over it, especially writing that veer towards overuse of the technique. Just be straightforward, tagging dialogue with “he said” and “she said,” and omitting them entirely when you can get away with it.
- Information dumps. Throwing a lot of backstory in one fell swoop might sound like a neat way to get context out of the way. In practice, though, all it does is leave a large chunk of your story totally unreadable. Chances are, the reader won’t even finish reading all the information before closing the book.