Do you want to write the kind of story that readers can't put down?
In this post, I'm sharing five reasons why readers might stop reading a novel, and then how to avoid making some of these mistakes in your own draft. Let's dig in!
A lot of writers use the beginning of a story to warm the reader up for what’s coming next. So, they’ll put in a lot of backstory or exposition in the opening pages so that the reader knows everything there is to know about the characters or the world before anything happens.
And this is just not ideal. Imagine your favorite story, and think about if the author did this to you. Not too exciting, right? You might think all the backstory and exposition is fun, but you don’t need to know everything there is to know before the story starts.
For example, I love the worldbuilding in Harry Potter, but I don’t need to know how many floors are in the Ministry of Magic or what flavors there are in Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans before I meet Harry on page one. That would be boring.
So, what should you do instead?
First, you need to make sure something compelling is happening in your story from the very first page. And you might have heard the advice to start with action or to start in media res, but really, it's all saying the same thing–start with something compelling that will pull readers into the story.
But one caveat here... This doesn’t mean to start with car chases or explosions or something super extreme like that.
Rather, think in terms of an event that's meaningful and impactful to your protagonist.
You can also ask, why does the story need to start today, not yesterday or tomorrow? And what you're looking for is the moment things start to change for your protagonist even if they don’t know it just yet. That’s usually a good indicator of when your story should start.
And then, don’t feel like you need to tell readers everything.
Instead, give them enough context to understand what’s happening in the scene, but not much more–you can save that for a later scene or chapter.
If you need some help with your opening pages, I have a great workshop called How to Hook Readers in Your First Five Pages that can guide you.
But that’s reason number one, readers will stop reading if there’s nothing meaningful happening in your story’s opening pages.
And what I mean by this is that, in most cases, the point of view character is either unrelatable or they aren’t behaving as a real person would. So, what does this look like?
Well, this could manifest in a few different ways. For example, a story might contain a protagonist who does not react to the events of the story at all, or barely ever. And since real people, in real life, react to things around them, this would make a character who doesn’t react seem unlifelike and unrelatable.
So, to avoid this, you really just want to make sure your point of view characters are reacting or responding to what’s happening around them–and you can do this by:
Another way this shows up is when a character has no goal or no motivation driving them forward. In most cases, in real life, we all have goals and we all have things motivating us to take action every single day, no matter how big or small those goals or actions are. So, when a character doesn’t have a goal or something motivating them to do stuff, they end up feeling unrelatable and false.
For every point of view character, you should know a) what they want, b) why they want it, and c) what’s at stake if they don’t get it.
And you want each one of these things to be specific–so, if you answer something like “my character wants to be happy,” you’ll want to dig a little deeper. What does happiness look like? How will readers know if they’ve achieved happiness or not? Same thing for their motivation and what’s at stake. The more specific you can get, the better.
So, that’s the second reason why a reader might stop reading–they might stop reading if it’s hard to connect to the point of view characters.
And this is the reason I stopped reading a book recently. I read the first book of a series that had a little bit of action, a little bit of romance, and a lot of fantasy–and I loved it! But then I picked up book two of the same series, it read more like historical fiction without the action/romance/fantasy that I loved from the first book.
So, as a reader, that was very jarring for me. And pretty soon, I realized that I wasn't looking forward to my reading time each night. But still, I gave it a chance and made it about halfway through before I finally put it down for good.
Now, I know the example I just gave you was from book one of a series to book two–but this does happen within one standalone book, too.
So, imagine picking up something like a mystery novel and it's everything you expected it to be, but then about a quarter of the way through, it veers off and becomes a romance. It would be a bit jarring, right?
And for the record, I’m not saying that you can’t have elements of more than one genre in your book–you certainly can. But in that case, you'll want to pick one to be your main genre and assign the rest to a supporting role. So, in this example, mystery might be the main genre and romance could be the secondary genre or subplot.
What you're trying to avoid is writing the beginning of the book as one thing, and then the end of your book as something else.
Something I always like to keep in mind is that a confused reader is a lost reader. So, don't confuse your readers, because if you do, you'll lose your readers.
It’s also important to make make it clear what kind of story readers are in for from the very first page. Mystery readers want to know they’re reading a mystery right away. Romance readers want to know they’re reading a romance. And really, the same goes for readers in any genre.
I often see science fiction and fantasy writers have a hard time with this. So, for example, let’s say you’re writing a paranormal romance, but there’s nothing paranormal happening until page 75–that’s a little strange for readers, right?
The same thing goes for magic. If you're going to have magic in your story, you should show it–or at the very least hint at it–from the very beginning.
So, that's the third reason a reader might put down a novel. It might start to feel unclear what kind of story they're actually reading,
And this is where readers might be a little more forgiving. But what I mean by this is… if the opening scene of a story is something we’ve seen a million times before, for example–the heroine going for a run, the hero waking up in bed from a bad dream, the bad guy on a plane plotting something suspicious, things like that–then it’s probably not that compelling.
And this matters because we want to pull readers into our stories as quickly as possible, right? So, we don’t want to give them any reason for putting the book down.
And if you’ve done this in your manuscript, you have two options–1) you can either change your opening to be something more meaningful and compelling, or 2) you can find a way to make the scene of say your heroine going for a run, more compelling and meaningful so that it feels different and therefore more interesting.
This is where the whole writing something that’s “the same, but different” comes into play.
You do need to deliver on what readers expect from your genre, but you also need to innovate the conventions of your genre rather than simply regurgitating them.
And to me, this is where mastery comes in. When we’re first starting out, we might end up writing scenes similar to what’s already out there. That’s okay! But as you get better and better, and as you write further into your draft, you’re going to think of ways to innovate on what’s been done before–and this is a skill that just takes time and practice to develop, so don’t worry if you're not there just yet.
But that's reason number four, a reader might stop reading a novel because they've seen the same things delivered in the same way too many times before.
And the easiest way I like to think about this is that the point of view character in a story is the reader’s avatars for experiencing the story. So, whatever the point of view character or protagonist feels, the reader would ideally feel, too.
And if there’s nothing to make the protagonist curious and/or constantly moving forward, then there will be nothing to make readers feel this way either.
This does relate back to reason number two where we talked about how readers might stop reading if they don’t connect with the point of view characters in a story, but I have another angle on this one in terms of what you can do to avoid this in your draft.
So, if you think you have this problem, or if beta readers have brought this to your attention, chances are good that your protagonist isn’t trying to find out, discover, learn, or do something in your actual pages. In other words, they probably lack agency.
To address this, you’ll definitely want to go back and flesh out your protagonist or your point of view characters more if this is the case.
But you’ll also want to think in terms of evoking questions and providing answers for both your protagonist and by extension, your readers. So, once the central conflict has sucked your protagonist in, what might they want to find out, learn, discover, or do?
As a random example, let’s say your protagonist is a detective and they’ve just been assigned a murder investigation. They are not going to be sitting around waiting for clues to come to them, right? Instead, they have to start somewhere–they have to start looking into one thing that will lead to another and then another and another until they finally figure out whodunnit. Now, I know we’re not all writing murder mysteries, but you can apply this to any genre.
So, in an action-adventure story, let’s say the bad guys have come and set fire to your protagonist’s town. Now he or she is on the run, and they finally arrive in a neighboring town. They also won’t sit there and do nothing, right? So, what might be the first question they ask themselves or others? Maybe they want to know if their sibling is still alive? Or they might want to know how to get to a different location from here. Or they might need to find a way of traveling. Or who knows…
But let’s say they want to find out what happened to their sibling. By asking this question and pursuing this answer, readers will be curious, too–they’ll want to know the answer. So, let’s say this character finds their sibling, but then learns something else that prompts a new question–now we can just start the cycle over and keep going until the very end of the book.
So, just keep in mind is this thought of questions and answers to help pull your protagonist and your readers through the story and keep them curious.
Those are five reasons why readers might stop reading a novel. And I know there are probably more reasons, but these are what I see as the five most likely reasons that I see.
But let me know in the comments... if you've ever put down a book, do you remember why you stopped reading it? Was it one of these reasons or something else?
If you liked the tips in this article, you can get plenty more of them by signing up for my mailing list. Once you sign up, you'll get a new writing or editing tip delivered straight to your inbox each week. You'll also be the first to know about new blog posts, courses, free resources, and more. Unsubscribe at any time!
Enter your name and email address below to sign up! I hate spam and promise to keep your information safe. If you don't like the content headed your way, you can unsubscribe any time!