I gave up on Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan this morning. This isn’t the first good book I just haven’t felt compelled to finish, and it got me thinking about WHY that is. What’s turning me off?
It’s certainly not bad prose, poor grammar, unappealing voice (a lot of the things that turn me off of books). It’s not 2 dimensional characters or Mary Suing or some other form of simplistic, lazy storytelling.
So what is it? What’s turning me off of otherwise good books?
A part of me would like to chalk it up to mood. Reading, for me, is very mood specific, and sometimes I’ll pick up something that’s just NOT what I’m in the mood to read. But in this particular case, that wasn’t it.
I’ve been listening to Leviathan in audio and the narrator is Alan Cumming, who’s wonderful. The worldbuilding in this book was marvelous, and I found myself very intrigued by the pitting of Darwinist fabrications against the Clanker technology. The set up of the two main characters held room for plenty of conflict. Prince on the run. Girl pretending to be a boy in the British military. And then the war started, the Germans attacked the Leviathan, a bunch of poor animals were killed because they were used as weapons, and I…did not feel compelled to find out if the dude that got shot was going to make it. Maybe a third of the way into the book (if that…maybe only a quarter), and I just didn’t feel the need to keep going.
So what went wrong? Well quite apart from the fact that this isn’t a romance (it’s not intended to be, so I’m not demonizing it for not being something it wasn’t supposed to be), I just…didn’t connect. I’m not invested in the characters. I like Deryn. I find Alek to be spoiled (to be expected of a previously pampered prince) and annoying. But while the worldbuilding was amazing, it felt…kind of thin on plot. I couldn’t readily identify what the FPP was, couldn’t really tell what was being worked toward, didn’t know how long I was going to have to wait for the two mains to be brought into the same storyline (probably this is my desire for romance, but I can only tolerate two independent storylines for so long before I expect them to merge). Probably this was about to happen sometime after I quit as the Leviathan was attacked over Switzerland and Alek and company were crossing INTO Switzerland last I checked, but…meh. I didn’t care. It got to the point where I felt like the book was all worldbuilding and little else. Doesn’t mean this is a bad book. Just wasn’t right for me.
Another book I started and haven’t finished is Days of Blood and Starlight, the much anticipated sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I adored. The prose is exquisite. The worldbuilding, again, rich and glorious. The characters 3 dimensional and interesting. I think what went wrong for me here is that it’s suffering from Second Book Syndrome. It’s the second book in a trilogy, which means the author has to MESS EVERYTHING UP ROYALLY (because this is what you do in a second book in a trilogy) and the fact that I know this is happening and I have to wait another YEAR for resolution just…made me not want to finish it. I’ll probably go back after book 3 is out and I can push through the whole thing.
There are others…trilogies I started and got through the first or second book and never got around to the third. Looking back at most of them, the culprit in almost every case is a focus on worldbuilding to the…not really the exclusion of plot and character but without strong enough plot and character to balance it. The worldbuilding is expected to carry everything and, for me, that just doesn’t fly. For a lot of people it does. A lot of these books are hella popular. But it’s something I think is worth thinking about as a writer.
Worldbuilding is important. No question about that. But it isn’t a substitute for plot. It isn’t a substitute for thin character development. They’re all sides of a necessary story triangle and they need to be equally developed to successfully carry the load of the narrative. Not saying I’m awesome at these things, just that they’re something I look for in what I read, what I finish. I think everyone has preferences. Some people really READ for worldbuilding and these sorts of books would work for them. For me, I read for character, so I’m more apt to let thin worldbuilding or a thinner plot slide if I really dig the characters. To each their own.
What makes YOU stop reading an otherwise good book?
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’m a very picky reader and I can’t always pinpoint WHY I don’t like something. Much of the time, I can tell in the first paragraph if I’m going to love the book or not. World-building, for me, is important, as well as complexity of the characters. I can and often do enjoy books where a fast-paced plot is not the focus (probably why I enjoy literary novels so much).
I think the key for me is the prose itself. If the prose is unremarkable, if the rhythm of the words is off, if the sentences aren’t constructed in such a way that the narrator’s voice reaches down and tugs on my soulstrings, then I have a hard time connecting — even if everything else about the book is well done.
I rarely stop reading a book midstream. You know I’m a very forgiving reader. If the book keeps me wanting to find out what happens next, I’m happy. But there have been a few I’ve stopped reading. It usually happens when I find my mind wandering, or if I keep looking at my “percentage read”, hoping I’m almost done. There have been a few that got stupider and stupider as they went along. There was a time when I would finish a book no matter what. After all, I got through Les Miserables, which was one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. But now I feel like life is too short to read something that doesn’t keep me interested.
I’m like you, I want to love the characters more than anything. That’s why I like Stephen King so much…making you feel for characters is what he does best.
On Leviathan- I read a some reviews by people who otherwise love the author “but couldn’t get into this book.” I had trouble getting into it. The story bounced back and forth between two separate lives for too long and the ends of those little episodes didn’t hook well, didn’t imply the forward motion or what might be expected when next we encountered them. But I pushed on and did get more into it once the two mains connected, did end up finishing, and am interesting in reading the next, although I don’t think I’m compelled. As the story progresses, a friendship seems to develop between the two characters, each of whom harbors a secret. That helped me keep going, as well as the fact that it was in audio so I was doing housework or driving or grocery shopping so I had the split focus to not care that I wasn’t totally into it.
I’m picky about books, and especially about the first act. Info-dumping equals instant wall-banger. Yeah, there are plenty of books I just don’t think are good and don’t get far with, but what about the ones that seem competent? Why don’t I continue those?
What I have found is that I have to care about at least one character, and I have to have a sense, not just that something is going to happen, but of what is going to happen. Not that I want you to tell me the rest of the book up front, but I need to feel drawn to the next point–something is going to happen to mess this up, this shadowy figure is about to change everything, oh dear I have a very bad feeling about this… And that needs to keep happening, throughout the story, or I will wander away and do something else. “Avid reader” writers don’t want to hear that, but I’m a modern reader with a lot of shiny things that demand attention. I want to feel like a competent hand is leading me through this story. I don’t have time or interest when self-indulgent authors make me watch as they roll around in the grassy meadows of their worlds. I’m a picky bitch and I vote–I mean, I buy books.
I loved the first act of Shadow and Bone, which had a lot of worldbuilding that was very well done. Great prologue that made me attach to the characters, and invest in their relationship with each other, from the beginning. The first act has its own mini plot sequence: we’re going to cross the Fold. There was a definite goal we were headed for, and that goal was fraught with danger. So any worldbuilding that needed to be done was artfully decorated that framework and was not dumped in piles of information I had to wade through to get to the story. The anticipated trip into Fold contained the inciting incident which led to the shero being pulled away into her new life at the First Plot Point, thereby separating her from the relationship in which I was already invested from the prologue through her unrequited interest in him during the trip to the Fold, so I was totally primed to continue into the story.
Loving the Flash Gold Chronicles. Great characters. Lindsay Buroker has a gift for–like, doing everything, and not harping on it. Just enough, everything always moving. Her understanding of using character vulnerability to make me care and create romantic tension makes me want to cheer and kiss her on the mouth.
I’m with you – very picky when it comes to books. I couldn’t get into Westerfeld’s Uglies series for the same reason. I read the first book, but just never felt invested enough in the characters to continue.
It’s hard to define – a combination of prose, of whether deep POV is there or lacking (very much lacking for instance in Ron Rash’s The Cove – why should I care about these characters if I’m not allowed in their heads?), and then of more mundane aspects, such as whether I’m interested in the setting or adventures (most dystopia just doesn’t cut it for me, for instance, because I’m used to and admire Tolkien-level worldbuilding and cannot accept anything less).
I think the problem with Leviathan was the plot. It’s all a vehicle to show you what Clanker machinery looks like, what Darwinist fabrications look like, and to show that the setting is WW1. You don’t have a strong desire to continue because the main characters achieve their goals relatively early on. The boy finds safety midway through, and the girl (very quickly) starts living out her dream. Why continue?
When I do this, hands-down the reason is that I don’t connect to the characters. If I look up halfway through and realize I don’t care what happens to these people, I don’t finish. I used to finish no matter what, but not anymore. I just decide the book wasn’t for me–nothing personal to the author–and move on.
I agree with you about not connecting with the characters. That is the first and most important reason for me to continue reading. I can even put up with boring prose if I love the characters. I didn’t connect with the characters in Leviathan either, and I fully expected to love the book. I couldn’t put down the Uglies series by Westerfeld. So there you go. Great post!
I stop reading from boredom with tedious details (honestly, I don’t care how many kinds of grass are growing on the lawn of the Evil House.) slow moving story, plot holes that make my brain explode in disbelief, language shifts in description or dialog that make me blink because the shift doesn’t fit with anything else. (I was reading a piece set in 1790 something and the MC said: groovy. Um. No.