By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
Whenever a book becomes wildly successful (or even moderately successful), a funny thing seems to happen. Among all the people who love it, another segment of the population rises up who hate the book.
Now, some of this could be sour grapes, spouted by people who’ve wanted to write a bestseller and have failed. Some of it could be folks who like to disagree because they don’t want to be a part of any crowd or a part of any popular movement. They value being contrary.
But I have to believe that, equally as often, some of the people who claim to hate a popular book really do hate it. They really believe the writing is terrible. They really believe the story is boring or “nothing new and special.” They really couldn’t stand spending that many pages with the main character.
What started me thinking about this was watching the final Hunger Games movie with my husband. We’ve both read the books. I’d been anticipating this movie since last year. But when I asked my husband if he was excited about seeing the movie, he said, “Meh, it’s really more your thing.”
I valued the series enough to buy it in paperback. He thought the books were merely okay. He won’t ever read them again.
I couldn’t stand the Twilight series, but I have friends who loved the books.
So I have to ask, what makes something a good book or a bad book? What qualifies as good writing and what qualifies as bad writing?
These six qualities of bad writing can ruin a book. (My theory on why they don’t always do so is coming up afterward.)
Bad Writing Quality #1 – Flawed Writing on a Sentence Level
I’m not talking about the occasional typo here. I don’t even mean the occasional poorly written or wordy sentence.
By flawed writing, I mean regular use of awkward, overly wordy, or confusing sentences or sentence constructions. I also mean grammar or punctuation that’s bad enough to cause the reader comprehension trouble. Flagrant overuse of figures of speech fall into this category as well.
Flawed writing on a sentence level ruins a book because it makes the book difficult for most people to read. You’re not able to lose sight of the words on the page.
Bad Writing Quality #2 – A Slow Plot
A slow plot can be caused by a lack of stakes (which I’ll talk about in a second), but it can also be caused by subplots that never connect to the main plot, a character who thinks more than acts, or too much chronicling of daily life.
Any type of rabbit trail can slow the plot. So if we have an “exciting” chase scene in our book that doesn’t connect to the main plot, it will still make the book feel slow.
A slow plot leads to readers feeling like the book was boring—in other words, a bad book.
Bad Writing Quality #3 – Low Stakes
Another element that can lead to a boring book is low stakes.
Many writers misunderstand low vs. high stakes. Every book needs high stakes, regardless of genre. High stakes aren’t simply a threat on the character’s life.
Let me explain.
James Scott Bell has famously written that the stakes should always be death. That can easily be misunderstood. Death can be emotional or professional as well as physical. It can be the death of a dream. The risk of losing anything your main character cares deeply and passionately about qualifies as death stakes. A part of them will die if they lose this thing.
When we’re considering stakes, giving our character higher stakes is only part of it. We also need to explain why our character wants it so much. When the reader understands the why, they’ll be more invested in the story.
Bad Writing Quality #4 – A Predictable Plot
You might have noticed a pattern already—many people will define boring writing as bad writing. A predictable plot, without interesting twists or an escalation of events, will quickly lose the reader’s interest.
Another way of looking at this is the lack of a fascinating premise. If we’re telling the reader a story they’ve heard a hundred times, they’re not going to want to hear it again. The way around this is to take a tried-and-true premise and put a spin on it or to write the story that you could never find and desperately wanted to read.
Bad Writing Quality #5 – Flat Characters
Our characters don’t necessary have to be likeable in order for people to love our books, but they do need to be compelling in some way. Maybe that is a character who’s likeable. Maybe it’s a character who is interesting because they’re in a strange profession (that you leverage in your book) or who has fascinating quirks or an unusual skill. Maybe it’s a character your readers can relate to on an emotional level or who faces struggles similar to the ones your readers face.
Here’s the thing—a story about Bob the Plumber, going about a day that’s like anyone else’s day, isn’t interesting, especially if Bob is your average person with no unique qualities.
If Bob the Plumber wanted to be a detective, though, and has exceptional deductive skills that allow him to spot and solve crimes, you have a story.
Or if Bob the Plumber is a devoted single dad trying to help his daughter prepare for the Olympic trials while also running his business (which was always his dream), then you have a story.
Make your character special in some way. Make your readers want to spend 10 or more hours with them.
Bad Writing Quality #6 – No Emotional Resonance
This is a tricky one, but try a little exercise. Think about two books. One book you read once but won’t ever read again, even though you didn’t hate it the first time. The other book you read over and over again.
Oftentimes, the difference between the two is emotional resonance. Emotional resonance can hide under the alternate name of “well-executed theme.”
How did Harry Potter reach so many people? One of the reasons was that Harry’s deep need was one almost everyone could relate to. The stories and characters transcended the details of the magical world to tell a story of a boy who longed for a family that loved him, who just wanted to feel at home somewhere, who struggled to figure out the line between right and wrong, and who learned that some things are worth fighting and dying for.
In other words, the struggles of Harry, despite their magical trappings, spoke directly to many people’s hearts.
Then Why Do Some Books With One (or More!) Of These Flaws Still Succeed?
I have a theory about why some books with one or two of these bad qualities still become bestsellers.
Reading is subjective. Look at that list and rank those qualities from least important to most important for your reading enjoyment. If you compared your list to a friend’s list, they would probably rank those items differently.
So when we read a book, if that book fails miserably at one of our most important criteria for reading enjoyment, we’ll hate it. But that same book might beautifully execute the element that tops our friend’s list, and so they love it.
This doesn’t mean I’m saying that as writers we shouldn’t try to do all these things well. We should. We should try to write the best book we can possibly write.
But we also need to understand where our strengths and weaknesses lie and be prepared for bad reviews. No book is ever perfect. No book will appeal to absolutely everyone. And books we think are crap will often become someone else’s favorite read.
What’s most important to you, as a reader, from the list? Do you think my theory is right or a load of hog-wash? 🙂
Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)
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