Photo of a boat without the sail up, which makes it look unfinished. Like the book I put down forever. Photo by Kate Ota 2019
Rather than write a negative review of a very popular book that I couldn’t finish, I decided to write about what I learned instead. Why couldn’t I finish it? Can I avoid my book having the same fate? Can I help your book avoid the same fate? Let’s hope so.
An intriguing opening scene doesn’t mean the next few chapters can be an info dump.
Yes, start with something exciting and interesting. This book had a very strong first chapter with a scene that was completely unique and will probably stay with me for years. Unfortunately, the next fifty pages were backstory. All I wanted was to get back to that opening (which had a dead body) and work on solving the mystery. I didn’t care about the main character’s sad childhood, especially not on pages 10-60. If it was pages 210-260, after I knew and liked the main character, then I could empathize.
The main character needs agency.
This main character of this book did a lot of looking. Watching. Observing. Seeing. Not a lot of action. While the dead body was initially exciting at the opening, when the main character did nothing but stare and watch others, I got annoyed. In fact, I questioned if this should be the main character at all, since she was the least interesting person in several scenes.
Flashbacks kill pace.
It was like being in stop-and-go traffic. The plot would creep ahead, then freeze for backstory. Don’t get me wrong, flashbacks have a place in storytelling, but they need to be strategically placed. This story had multiple flashbacks per scene, often without warning, and the timeline became murky. The flashbacks also didn’t help move the story forward, and often repeated information. The other problem was that theses flashbacks were told, not shown. Meaning the character was thinking about what happened, not showing the reader in a scene. Great for unreliable narrators, but this was overkill.
Wondering how long I stuck it out? I got to about page 100 of a 400-page fantasy. By that point in a story, I need to be hooked and invested. This story had barely gone beyond the inciting incident. At least I learned why, and won’t repeat these issues.
Did you ever set a book aside without finishing? I recommend going back and learning why, you never know what you may learn!
3/1/2020 09:57:47 am
I have been trying to get through a certain novel— a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist— for 15 years. It’s dense and complex and frankly a challenge to my patience but I want to finish it. The main storyline and main character are compelling. I keep at it because I really want to know how it turns out by experiencing it “turning out.” That is, I don’t want just the information. That’s why I’m not buying the Cliff Notes or reading the last chapter.
3/1/2020 07:32:59 pm
That one sounds worth finishing based on your description of it being compelling. I hope you're able to power through it!
3/4/2020 06:41:38 am
Very interesting article. Since we learn so much from our mistakes why not learn through the mistakes of others as well? Makes you wonder how weak books make it through the publishing process.
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