What makes me stop reading

Some books I never pick up: I’m turned off by the cover art, the title, or the gold-embossed words that are supposed to draw me in. Other books I take off the shelf but put back after a few seconds; I read the back cover or the dust-jacket, maybe a paragraph or two, and I decide the book isn’t for me. I try not to think badly of such books—I’m just not the audience for what they’re selling. No harm, no foul.

Then there are the books I take home but never finish because they don’t hold my interest. Usually it’s because they do nothing new or engaging; they’re safe rehashes of stuff I’ve already read. I’m actually quite fond of old-fashioned SF, and wish that more were being written today—lighthearted rip-roaring adventures with audacity and style rather than the convoluted slogs of seriousness that constitute so much of contemporary SF—but there’s a difference between old-fashioned and just plain old. I get bored when a writer seems to have no exposure to anything beyond the most vanilla examples of our genre.

Still, a boring book doesn’t make me mad; my interest just dwindles until I never pick up the book again. On the other hand, there are some books I’ve been reading along with pleasure, when suddenly, sometimes at an exact word, I stop and say, “No farther.” I’m not the sort of person who hurls books across the room, but I’m definitely the sort to remember and hold a grudge. How can a story that’s going along well plunge so abruptly down the tubes?

The Idiot Move

One thing that’s sure to tick me off is what I call the Idiot Move. This is a cousin of the Idiot Plot: a plot that can only happen if everyone acts like an idiot. (Slasher movies are notorious for Idiot Plots. Why do the potential victims always split up? Why do they investigate strange noises in the basement?)

An Idiot Move is when a character we’re supposed to respect—the clever hero(ine), the worldly wise sidekick, the brilliant mentor—does something totally boneheaded for no reason except that the author needed a plot complication. The worst example that comes to mind is from a book I won’t name, where a topnotch bomb disposal expert who has already disarmed several bombs of exactly the same design accidentally turns a knob clockwise instead of counterclockwise. Why? Because the author needed an earth-shattering kaboom in order to keep the plot going. There could be no other justification.

Look, if I were trying to defuse a bomb, I’d probably be too freaked to tell up from down let alone clockwise from counterclockwise. But that’s why I’m not on the Bomb Squad. It’s not my job to keep a cool head in explosive situations. My job as a writer is to avoid insulting the reader’s intelligence. I shouldn’t make characters act like idiots when they ought to know better.

Even worse is when a writer tries to tap-dance around an Idiot Move with some double-talk explanation. “Under normal circumstances, this would be stupid, but I believe the bomber might be trying to trick me.” That’s not just insulting the reader’s intelligence, that’s being weaselly about it. One of the most important lessons a writer can learn is that readers are just as smart as you are. You can’t con them with slapdash fast-talk.

If it’s absolutely crucial for a character to do something, the action must make undeniable sense in that character’s context. Sometimes this means making a character who isn’t worthy of respect. There are idiots in the world…and in SF, they sometimes open the forbidden tomb, drop the test-tube, or play ill-advised pranks on that weird old lady down the street. I can accept that a certain type of character might do ridiculous things, but don’t ask me to believe that such a character is still somehow admirable. An idiot is an idiot. I’ve read far too many books where the lead character is supposed to be marvelously competent—”the best captain in the fleet”—yet he or she screws up in ways that would get a cadet court-martialed.

By the way, I have no problem with characters who recognize when they’re acting irrationally. Heaven knows, we all sometimes succumb to unwise temptations, no matter how much we realize we’ll regret it later. Such choices fall into the category of Character Flaws, not Idiot Moves. An Idiot Move is when the author says, “No really, this makes perfect sense.” When the author admits up front, “Of course this is crazy but this particular character can’t resist,” it could be a sign of good characterization. Personality is built by a particular character doing things that other characters wouldn’t.

Diabolus Ex Machina

There’s something that alienates me more than Idiot Moves. I call it the diabolus ex machina.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of deus ex machina (Latin for “god from the machine”). This refers to an unbelievably lucky break or some other contrivance that solves a character’s problems with unearned ease. The term comes from Roman theater, where some plays had a god appear on a mechanical crane above the stage; the god would then set everything right through divine intervention. (Makes you wonder how Roman audiences reacted to such hokey endings.)

A diabolus ex machina is the same as a deus ex machina but with a devil instead of a god. I use it for those times that an author artificially pours crap on some character’s head, just to make a situation more dire.

I accept that characters always have to face obstacles; characters usually have to suffer; characters sometimes go through gut-wrenching ordeals. But I hate it when the pain happens arbitrarily. Nothing turns me off faster than the author trying to squeeze out more pathos by piling up flukes of bad luck.

Ideally, “luck” should never happen in a novel…not once the story gets going. Luck can be tolerated in a story’s set-up: by far-fetched coincidence, a peasant may be mistaken for the king’s assassin or an alien super-weapon may end up in the hands of an Ordinary Joe. After that, however, events should follow a logic that’s consistent with the book’s general tone. Different books allow different types of logic—things that “make sense” in a comic fantasy may not fit in straitlaced science fiction, and vice versa—but within a book’s context, the story-line should unfold naturally, without the author jerking anyone’s chain.

Almost every writer will agree with what I just said—yes, a plot should develop organically—yet for some reason, many authors habitually torment characters with unjustified trauma. They’d never give nice things to the characters—that’s the dreaded deus ex machina—but they’ll intrusively visit plagues on their heroes, because hey, shit happens. Somehow, suffering is considered privileged: happy accidents are forbidden but ghastly ones are respected and literary.

I don’t buy it. A story can kick characters when they’re down if it’s a natural result of what came before…but it drives me nuts when writers do it at random, just to have another fix of angst. I don’t like feeling manipulated either with bright shinies or dark gloomies. Besides, gloom is often so unimaginative. Having loved ones die, being wrongly accused of crimes, losing a few fingers or an eye: oh boohoo. Stuff like that is often just going through the motions, stealing riffs from other books in the genre rather than real life or personal phobias. I can tell when a writer is “quoting” rather than actually feeling the material. But that’s a topic for another day.

Overt vs. Covert

So are authorial intrusions always bad? No. Some of my favorite books are rife with them. Breakfast of Champions is nothing but authorial intrusions, as is Tristram Shandy and anything by Italo Calvino. But such books don’t pretend to be anything else. They aren’t sloppy or weaselly or cheap; they’re direct conversations, author to reader, and I’m happy to go along for the ride.

But Idiot Moves and diabolus ex machina are signs of a writer who isn’t thinking things through or who’s trying to pull a fast one at the reader’s expense. When I encounter them, I shut the book and walk away forever.

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There are 20 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Alma Alexander

    This is just wonderful. I may steal the Diabolus Ex Machina idea for future writing workshops – it’s just perfect and neatly encapsulates something that has always existed but which had no name….

  2. 2. Timmy Mac

    I agree with all of these. The one thing I’d add, just as your average schmuck who reads books, is when an author tries to cram in too much information about his character in the first few sentences of the book.

    When I read something like, “Lance Corporal Brendan Charles Clark twisted his six-foot-four-inch frame into the General Dynamics 6000B aircar and brushed his long, blonde hair away from his face because it tickled the spot where his eye used to be before he lost it in the Alien Wars…”

    I immediately close the book and walk away. I don’t know if it counts as bad writing technique, but for me, it’s a pretty good signpost that the book is going to blow. I’m not saying it makes a book bad; but many bad books start this way.

  3. 3. Timmy Mac

    Also, pretend I didn’t use that semicolon wrong.

  4. 4. James Alan Gardner

    I agree with you, Timmy Mac, but when the writing’s that bad, I set the book down quickly. It’s worse when you’re 100 pages in and the book suddenly breaks your heart.

  5. 5. Rose Fox

    I would disagree that luck–good or bad–has no place in a story. Sometimes a sudden and entirely unexpected turn of events can be a wonderful way of exposing a new side of a character. George R.R. Martin’s treatment of Jaime Lannister in the Song of Ice and Fire books is one example of that with bad luck (I won’t go into details because it’s a massive spoiler). Richard Matheson’s story “Button, Button” is an example of it with a sort of good luck, and all the different endings that have been put on that story serve to illustrate that the randomness of the stroke of luck matters much less than how it’s dealt with.

    This technique has to be handled with delicacy, obviously, or it fails. Even an author who does it well sometimes does it poorly other times; in the most recent SoIaF book, Cersei Lannister’s afflictions give her very little room to actually react or develop in response, in stark contrast to what happens with her brother. All the same, I think it does have its place.

  6. 6. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Oh, but Timmy Mac! That’s a sentence worthy of Atlanta Nights! Perfectly Brilliant!

    I also hate the Idiot Villain. Actually, that’s the incredibly smart and savvy villain who takes his idiot pill around two thirds of the book through and then just starts making random and stupid mistakes. Gah!


  7. 7. Simon Haynes

    Good post! ‘What not to do’ is just as important to a writer as ‘what to do’, and your examples are great.

    Actually, your examples reminded me of Stargate (the original movie). My wife and I saw it at the theatre many years ago, and we were both enthralled with the mystery until it turned into squads of marines with shooty-bangs. We nearly walked out at that point, because the IQ of the movie dropped to half in the space of a few scenes.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    My own term for the Idiot Move is “Lost” Syndrome. You know, the show where the characters manage to do what’s in the writers’ best interest and not their own every time.

  9. 9. doc

    hey this is doc from the itunes podcast: Heroes of Science Fiction and Fantasy, just saying i enjoyed your article. I have put many books back up in the shelves with a book mark in them(waiting for maybe when i retire to continue them). I also like your diabolus ex machina idea that was well written. website http://www.heroesofsciencefictionandfantasy.com

  10. 10. Timmy Mac

    John Rogers (kfmonkey.blogspot.com) writes for TV and calls this the Idiot Ball, as in “Which character is going to carry the idiot ball this week?”

  11. 11. Paul J

    An author writing in a character’s accent, and overdoing it to the point of making the dialog difficult to understand.

  12. 12. nicole



  13. 13. Dennis

    Some books just talk to you when you pick up, a mystical experience something I have yet to figure out why. Here is what turns me off; an author that thinks we want to be an elite technocrat. The details are mind numbing. Sex at every turn, and in full detail. Some small detail that forces you read all the sexual details. Child rape, enough said. Book covers that look dated. No book details, but endless glory pages from other authors. A book that should have been good, but just does not have the right stuff. Lastly the endless series.

  14. 14. Anonymous

    I totally agree. Another thing that kills me though, is when authors subtly try to insert their political views for no reason. It just irks me.

    by the way, Nicole, caps lock is not cruise control for cool

  15. 15. Josephine Damian

    James, I hope you’re not buying these books. I stopped that a long time ago – wasted too much money on clunkers.

    Boring-ass flashbacks (which are really thinly disguised autobiography) are big stoppers for me as well as information dump.

    Being able to figure out “whodunit” half-way through a mystery is a big turn-off.

    Just plain bad writing – too much “to be” form and adverbs.

  16. 16. Layong

    Hi.. i just blog walking and arrived at yours.

    nice blog.sometimes some bad books make us stop reading, but out there still a lot of good and worthy books to read. :D



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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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