What Makes A Plot Boring? How Can An Author Avoid Boring Her Readers?

1170824_archivum__old_library_

Today I wanted to talk about plot, and specifically, what makes a plot boring. What makes a plot fail to engage. What things an author should keep in mind when developing plot: whether through an outline or by figuring out the story as she writes it.

Plot is a funny thing…. in some ways it is the most important aspect of a story. It is the story. In certain cases, though, plot takes a backseat to other issues: political points, philosophical points, character, or something else depending on the author and the story.

HEMINGWAY AND “THE SUN ALSO RISES”

Have you ever read a book that you just hated, because it bored you, because you felt that “nothing happened?”

For me, that book was “The Sun Also Rises,” which I read senior year of high school for English class. Also, “The Old Man and the Sea.”

No doubt about it, Hemingway was a literary genius. I know tons of people who love “The Sun Also Rises,” and actually, I adore Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (mainly because of my passion for Spanish literature and Spanish history, and the Spanish Civil War in particular.)

My intent here is not to slam Hemingway. I don’t think his acclaim is undeserved, and I’m glad I read every thing he wrote that I’ve happened to read. I’m just saying, two particular books of his did not appeal to me.

They bored me silly. I felt as though I could boil down the plot of “The Old Man and the Sea,” a novella of some 80 or 100 pages, to a single sentence. The story is more of a character study, and a philosophy, than a story.

And as far as “The Sun Also Rises”….

“The Sun Also Rises” is about the roaring twenties. It’s about a group of people visiting Spain and shows how they are wasting their lives. As they are busy wasting their lives, nothing of substance occurs in the novel (at least, in my opinion). The characters go fly fishing and attend bull fights. And that’s pretty much it, as far as I remember.

For me, fly fishing and attending bull fights is not a plot. Those activities led to no character development of the type I wanted, and that frustrated me to no end.

The thing is, I could tell I was supposed to feel frustrated. I was supposed to want to knock the characters upside the head and tell them to stop being so smug, complacent, selfish, and basically leech-like.

“The Sun Also Rises” is brilliant because its whole point is that NOTHING HAPPENS. That was an intentional authorial choice, and I respect that. I just didn’t enjoy reading the book on the level of plot.

This leads to my first point about plot:

WHAT CONSTITUTES PLOT IS LARGELY DEPENDENT ON GENRE.

In the past, I’ve written a post about how genre determines what constitutes action and adventure in plot, so I don’t want to say too crazy much here. I do want to recap one or two major points.

Keep in mind, what works as a functional and interesting plot in one genre won’t in another. A high-school drama full of teenage angst will work for a young adult novel or maybe a rom-com. But if that angst doesn’t lead to murders, chases, and maybe someone trying to prove his innocence or save his and his girlfriend’s life, don’t market that book as a thriller.

If you’re marketing your fantasy as epic fantasy, the fate of an entire world, or at least a large kingdom or huge city, better be at stake from a magical threat. That’s the kind of action that genre requires.

Basically, whether your plot bores your readers–or better, whether it meets reader expectation for an exciting and engaging story–depends on whether your plot falls within the bounds of genre expectations.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS FOR WRITING A GOOD PLOT

Genre aside, there are other things the majority of “good” plots have in common.

  • They are character-driven. This is something I’m always saying. Character drives plot, not the other way around. Plot develops from the decisions your characters make when faced with a difficult and/or dangerous situation. That’s how plot begins: with a situation. (Thanks for that revelation, Stephen King and “On Writing”!)
  • The situation is “big” enough (genre-wise) so that the story doesn’t feel cheap. Something has to be at stake, something that has real value. In romance novels, that might be a romantic relationship. In Christian fiction, it might be salvation at risk. In classic whodunits, a killer might go free and might theoretically kill again. In epic fantasy, it might be the annihilation of a race or a kingdom. But something real and important has to be in peril if you want to interest readers. Readers have to understand what is at risk, and why that is a big deal.
  • The situation is legitimately “big,” not an overreaction or the result of a character being melodramatic. Now, some characters, even some great characters, are melodramatic. Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” is a great example. Her story works because the narrator understands that she is petulant and melodramatic. The narration doesn’t condone her attitudes or act as though they’re appropriate. When every aspect of a story builds up melodrama and passes it off as an appropriate reaction, an appropriate building up of a silly situation, that’s bad.
  • Plot twists shouldn’t come out of absolutely nowhere. What does this mean? It means that even when a plot twist is a huge and wonderful surprise, it needs to make logical sense. It has to fit the characters, and readers need to be able to look back and identify one or two ways you set them up for the development. That’s GOOD storytelling.
  • Subplots should intertwine to some degree, or at least touch each other thematically. Unless you particularly want to write a mosaic of a novel, one that doesn’t really connect and is more like a series of short stories than a “novel,” each subplot should relate in some way to your main plot and even to other subplots. That connection between subplots can be thematic, of course: it can be more philosophical than on the level of basic story.

So, what are your thoughts about “boring” plots? What books have you found boring, and why was that the case? What makes a book exciting and fun for you?

This post was requested of me on Facebook, which gives me an opportunity to say that if you ever have a topic you’d like me to weigh in on, you can request it on my Facebook page, through a comment on the blog, or even through an email from the contact page above. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to dedicate a post to the topic, but I’ll respond to you either way.

If you enjoyed this post, or found it helpful, you might want to check out my other posts on plot.

And make sure you stop by for my next post: I want to expand upon ways subplots can connect with each other.

Advertisements

44 responses to “What Makes A Plot Boring? How Can An Author Avoid Boring Her Readers?

  1. I stumbled upon your blog through a friend.,.and I’m so glad I did. I’ve managed to learn quite a bit through reading your posts. Thanks so much for all the helpful tips and insights.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head. Though, I also think you’ll inevitably bore some readers. Some people want more romance while others want more action, so they’ll view the book differently.
    I’m slowly reading through the 8th book of a series and it’s rather boring. I feel bad that I’m not into it as much as the first 7. It’s a lot of sneaking and set up with less character interactions. I wonder if this is inevitable with a series. There always seems to be that one book where several non-action plots come to a head or a bigger plot has to be started up to round out the series. So, it doesn’t have the same kick of the earlier books. Maybe because it feels like it’s a ‘meet these characters’ type of adventure, but you already know the characters.

    • I totally agree!!! I’ve found that with series as well…. For me book 5 of the Harry Potter series was that book. I still loved it, but way different, much more set-up. It’s also the longest of the group. Just to give another example of what you were talking about.

      I think that’s difficult to avoid in a lengthy series. Or even a shorter series. With my trilogy book II is definitely the most different. The odd one out, you could say.

      • Twos are hard because they don’t have the big opening or the big ending. It’s rare that you see a middle done perfectly. Middle Book Syndrome.

        For me, it’s the 4th book of my series. So much is going on and gearing up for the 5th that it’s a big cast with so many subplots.

        • I hear ya!!! You definitely have a huge cast. I personally enjoy that because it feels real and prevents boredom (for me at least). But I can see how that is difficult to balance!

        • The trick is to make sure every main character has a few subplots, time to shine, and growth. For supporting characters, each one needs some kind of purpose. It makes them stand out. It also adds pages, but the alternative is to toss out important information.

        • I like your emphasis on how every character needs a point and a purpose. Beyond taking up space/page-length. 🙂 Very true!

        • People can tell cannon fodder rather easily, so have to keep them on their toes.

        • hahaha! cannon fodder 😦 poor doomed characters! I’ve heard Star Trek is famous for cannon fodder characters sent out on expeditions

        • Yup. They have the ‘Red Shirts’ from the original series. The landing party always included an unknown, not always named character in a red shirt. They would die and a new red shirt would appear the next episode to meet the same fate. I don’t think it was done in the other series, but it was a staple of the original.

  3. Having subplots thematically touch each other is huge for me as a reader. If they don’t, something seems severely disconnected. Like it doesn’t belong in the story.

  4. English is not my native language, so excuse my ignorance:
    I wonder about “boring reader” in the second question of the title.
    Has this “boring” the same grammatical meaning as “bored”?
    To me it seems misleading, because it’s obviously not the readers who are boring.
    In German there are distinct words for the active and passive form of the verb “bore”.
    That is “langweilig” (active, boring) and “gelangweilt” (passive, bored).
    Just curious 🙂

  5. Solid insight — general writing quality helps, but there’s also the reader’s expectations of scale, and a lot of that comes out of genre. We pick up some kinds of literary fiction because a Hemmingway “you could change your life” is the right size of message for us that day, or another time we want a killer ending several of those lives or a Dark Lord conquering kingdoms. The book promises something, and delivers.

    • I really like your breakdown of this! Even the same reader, at different times, will be looking for something specific, perhaps out of the ordinary for his or her reading tastes. I like how you talk about scale too…. That’s a great way to think about genre differences, and especially sub-genres. Differences of scale.

  6. interesting take, and seems to fit, regarding fulfilling the expectations of a genre –

    “Basically, whether your plot bores your readers–or better, whether it meets reader expectation for an exciting and engaging story–depends on whether your plot falls within the bounds of genre expectations.”

    yet, somehow, at one time, that genre probably didn’t exist in the rigid confines it does now, it had to start somewhere; and though i do think natural reader expectations probably arose from those initial innovative genre starters, that maybe constant force feeding by the publishing industry made have created the impression that the genres were pre-ordained and set in stone

    it’ll be interesting, as self-publishing allows more and more creative engineering, how and if any of those expectations will change

    and it may turn out, that genre building is itself a process of innovation, acceptance, wide-spreadness, and finally rigidity, leading to the need or desire for another innovation

    thank you for the article, got me thinking there 😉

    • i totally agree with what you say here! There is definitely a place to break the “rules” which are really more like guidelines, anyway 🙂

      Self-publishing allows that, and I think that’s wonderful! There are readers who are set in their ways and want the normal, expected fare, and then there are writers and readers who want to experiment and not follow the establishment. They should be allowed to do that! Everyone has different tastes and a non-standard text can find its audience, no doubt about it.

  7. I agree 100% that the characters should drive the plot. The most boring books/stories are those in which the author doesn’t take care of her characters – or expects the readers to care more about them than she does, herself.

    I recently read “The Club Dumas” by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I don’t know if it was a language/cultural barrier (the text was translated from Spanish to English), but I only finished the book because I was determined that I would not let it beat me. It took months. …long, agonizing months. I would read it for a couple of days, then put it down in favor of something else to cleanse the literary palate before picking up where I left off. It was dreadfully dull, due mostly to the fact that I didn’t get the sense that the author gave a whit about the characters he was writing. He was more interested in showcasing his love and knowledge of Alexander Dumas – which is commendable, but not interesting enough to drive a novel.

    Disappointing, also, was the fact that the synopsis of the story genuinely grabbed my interest: promising a thriller, chock-full of intrigue and backroom cult dealings. Alas, such was not the case. I can attest that not living up to the expectation of the reader is off-putting, especially to critical readers.

    Great article! I’m glad I happened upon your blog.

    • I’m glad you liked the post! I agree with you that that novel sounds really tedious. If you want to write about your love of Dumas, you should probably go nonfiction 🙂 Wow…. Kudos for making it through! I probably wouldn’t have.

  8. I agree that twists shouldn’t come out of nowhere, because I get really annoyed when that happens. You’ve given me a lot to think about on genre drive structure, etc. Thanks Victoria!

  9. There is a school of thought that asserts: A writer starts the story; but it is the reader who finishes it. To that, I would add: “one way or another”. Whether the reader takes the story on a wild personal journey beyond anything the writer could have imagined – or simply stops reading part way through from a profound lack of interest – depends very much on the extent to which the story engages the reader. And when I say story, I mean everything about the story, from the subject matter, to the structure, to the pace and point of view and the very words used to write it and how those words are arranged on the page. I was never a big fan of Hemingway’s writing style but one of my favourite books is The sun Also Rises, simply because the first part of it is set in Paris in the Twenties – and I’ll read anything set in Paris in the Twenties.

    • I like what you say here! 🙂 The role of the reader really can’t be overestimated. A large part of what we read we are creating as we read, I think. It’s kind of crazy when you stop to really think about it! Reading reviews of my fiction is always really crazy because of different aspects of the work that readers emphasize or pass over, what sticks with them and what they don’t remember or what they shape in a way that isn’t the way I shape it but still is completely valid.

  10. I too am not a fan of The Sun Also Rises. But I would disagree about The Old Man and the Sea. It presents a character, Santiago, who goes on what may very well be his last fishing trip. The plot is his struggle against the sea and the sharks to get the fish back home.

    I must admit I am a writer who begins with a character with a problem, then I see how that character resolves the problem. To me, that is the very essence of plot. I often sum it up this way. Very bad things happen to good characters. To me, there are no boring characters. You go deep enough and you find a character that is interesting. Often that is the thing readers find boring.

    • I totally agree that Old Man and the Sea is all about Santiago and his struggle, which is as much internal as it is external. It’s very philosophical. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, not by any means. It just didn’t speak to me when I read it…. granted, I was a thirteen year girl at the time so I probably wasn’t Hemingway’s intended audience for that one! I think the complexity and depth of it would mean more to me now if I read it again 🙂

  11. now i know where most indie movies get their ideas
    the last few i watched seemed to drag on and on with nothing happening

  12. I’ve never been a big fan of Hemmingway. I acknowledge that he was an extremely talented writer, but I was definitely not one of his targeted audience members. A question came to me when you were commenting about series. I understand that trilogies can be like one epic story broken into three parts. However, when writing an ongoing series, how do you repeat just enough information for each book to be a stand alone effort, but not too much repetition as to bore your devoted readers? A case in point was the Clan of the Cave Bear series. The first few were beautifully done, but from book 5 on, the books got so repetitive, that her 800+ page tomes could have easily been trimmed down to half of that. I tried to read the last book of the series because I had invested all the time in the previous 5 books. I couldn’t do it. I was so bored that I couldn’t even force myself to finish it. I renewed it 9 times from the library.. yes, 9!! I still couldn’t get more than a third of the way through it. If it wasn’t the repeating it was the copious description of the caves and fauna. It was really too much. Any suggestions in the happy medium for ongoing series?

    • Wow that’s a great point! Backstory is a HUGE issue in series. In my personal opinion, there comes a point where an author just has to assume his or her readers are familiar with the books that came before and stop fully, fully re-explaining everything. A quick reminder is different than a full rehashing, you know what I mean?

      Harry Potter is a great example of that. Around book 5 you stop getting things retold over and over. The author had to assume that the reader had already read the previous stories, or at least one of them that rehashed what happened before it (which the first few do quite well).

  13. Man, what a great topic!!! You brought up so many great points. I’m usually bored when a character isn’t fleshed out enough or the situation isn’t big enough as you mentioned here. This has led to my not finishing many trilogies. Several middle books of trilogies have bogged down due to the addition of a love triangle as a plot fix or a misunderstanding between the heroine and the hero which could have been solved through a five-minute conversation. The stakes need to be higher than the main character’s emotional journey. But they need to fit that journey somehow.

    I also grow bored when an author changes a character’s personality out of the blue just to inject some tension. For example, a loyal boyfriend or girlfriend who suddenly cheats on the main character just so the MC can “earn” a new love.

    • Oh my gosh, I love what you say here about a situation dragging on that could be fixed by a conversation of 5 minutes (often just three or four sentences). It’s ok, sometimes, for something minor, but when chapters and chapters of a story depend on that lack of communication, of characters just missing the chance to converse or refusing to do so, I get SOOOO annoyed to!!!

      Also, for sure, when authors aren’t faithful to the character they have created and his or her personality for the sake of creating tension (like you say) or suspense. No good!!!

  14. Reblogueó esto en J. E. Negretey comentado:
    Like it!

  15. “making sense” has been the biggest thing for me. If I feel a novel is relying on Contrived Coincidences or Idiot Balls I lost interest. A lot of my readers have said the first chapter or so is boring because it is confusing. Also slow. Exposition can drag a story to a crawl.

    • One of the toughest things, I think, is learning how to mete out exposition in viable doses in such a way that the story doesn’t feel bogged down and events are still understandable as they occur. It can feel impossible sometimes.

  16. I recently reread “The Stranger” by Camus. (Sometimes I like delving back into the classics I read in school *ahem* years ago. This time I didn’t.) Your post explained why I found it a tedious experience. Yes, there was a murder, and yes, the protagonist’s life was on the line–but he didn’t care. With the narrator’s voice so indifferent to his circumstances, I couldn’t bring myself to care either.

  17. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I in finding this matter to be really something that I think I might never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and extremely extensive for me. I’m looking forward on your next post, I will try to get the dangle of it!
    amazon beats by dre solo http://www.religionandnature.com/beats/amazon-beats-by-dre-solo.html

  18. All of these are very good points. I’d have to say that the biggest pet peeve I have with new works these days is the lack of attention to characters and the consistency of the characters. Readers are smarter nowadays so their expectations are higher too. A good writer knows that and will deliver when the stakes are high, but building an intriguing twist is a must. When a story is smart enough to link itself and show there’s a genuine “butterfly effect” happening, that’s also satisfying to a reader. Thanks for the post!

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s