When a reader picks up a novel and starts reading, there’s an implicit bond of trust formed between them and the author. They are trusting that authors will know what they are doing, and that trust comes with certain expectations. The following is a list of some of the easiest and worst ways to violate a reader’s trust.
- Craft an inconsistent world. As a reader, I like to get lost in the lore of a world, especially for speculative fiction novels. The flipside of this is that the world must be, or at least seem, internally consistent. That means a specific set of rules, that don’t change as I read. But speculative fiction isn’t alone in needing to be internally consistent: if I’m reading a YA novel and the author’s clearly stated that the setting is a rich, gated community, but everyone talks like they received a third-grade education, I take it as a breach of trust.
- Refuse to give an ending. When I get involved in a novel, nothing makes me more frustrated than a novel where the ending amounts to nothing more than a “tune in next novel for the thrilling conclusion!”
- Throw in loads of melodrama. If there’s a really good twist in your novel, this is probably the best way to spoil it. Five chapters of characters crying over what happened to them doesn’t interest me. If you have to, skip that part and go straight to the next important scene. Speaking of which…
- Pack in the filler. Readers trust authors to tell them stories, not outline in very precise detail how one character shaves every morning (unless it’s relevant somehow, in which case… shave away). Tell the story, and don’t worry about how long or short it is.
- End a chapter on a cliffhanger, and then move away from the character for several chapters. I don’t mind twists at the end of chapters as a reader, but when they happen I expect to be filled in on the details pretty darn quickly. In real life I would know what happens after the twist or cliffhanger almost immediately, so any delay tends to feel contrived. It doesn’t build suspense in my opinion, it kills it.
- Deus ex machina. When an author uses good fortune to solve a problem for their characters, I feel cheated. Stories should be about characters solving their own problems. Don’t believe me? Try writing a story, building up to a huge finale, and then striking your antagonist with lightning.
- Make the characters unbelievable. One of the most important, implicit trusts a reader places in an author is that they’re going to get taken away by a story. Unbelievable characters remind that the story only exists in imagination, whereas believable characters give the impression that it could happen.
- I mentioned in my 10 tips post that unbelievable is perfectly fine, and I think the conflict warrants some explanation. Unbelievable events are perfectly fine, but the characters should be believable. So if everyone a character meets dies a week later, no problem. That’s the premise of the novel. But if the character isn’t at all distraught by that, the story is no longer fine, unless there’s a really good reason why they aren’t.
Yup, you could go down that list and bring up a popular book that made that mistake, or several of them… What can I say? Us authors are an untrustworthy lot. The important thing is to keep these violations to a minimum, or present them in such a way that they don’t seem like violations.
Since it’s becoming my recurring question when I post a list, do you have anything you’d add? Maybe you don’t mind one of these violations so much, or one of them really bothers you? Leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to reply.