When you write a murder mystery, you must keep your readers guessing. Any “whodunnit” story needs red herrings to place doubt in the reader’s mind regarding who the culprit might be. No matter how many novels your readers have experienced, they shouldn’t be able to easily predict how it will end. Readers thrive on suspense and wondering what will happen next.
These red herrings may necessitate a few characters who are technically extraneous. These, of course, are the exception to the rule to not include people with no function in your story. The fact of the matter is that they DO serve a function, and that is to keep the reader guessing.
I’m always disappointed when what could be a juicy, complex plot is never fully developed. The author sets up intriguing possibilities that are never explored and quietly disappear. I’ve seen great premises with best seller potential fall flat for lack of detail.
I suppose some people enjoy a quick read and don’t mind a straight-line plot with a predictable ending. I prefer a story that not only draws me in to the plot and characters, but one that shows the author put some thought into the story, beyond that first flash of creativity.
In some cases, if there will be a sequel to explore neglected plot elements, this can work. However, don’t tease the reader with plot twists that never materialize, then drop them, as if it was too much trouble to work them in. A book that doesn’t wrap up all the loose ends is similar, unless it’s deliberate and used as a cliff hanger.
Next on the list for scratching 5-stars is no challenge. If the protagonist breezes through the entire story without any obstacles or personal growth, it’s pointless. Whatever it is s/he wants, the harder it is to get it the better.
Most of us are somewhat annoyed by those who have everything they want handed to them, perhaps on the proverbial silver platter. Starting out a story that way is fine, but then having your protagonist lose everything and get a hefty dose of the real world will get your reader involved. An example of where this is well-done is the relatively new sit-com “Schitt’s Creek”, where a family formerly in the millionaire range loses everything and is living in a cheap motel.
The harder your protagonist has to work for what he wants, the better. This also builds suspense, a critical ingredient in any story.
The last complaint was directly related to style and the skill of the author, i.e. too many adverbs. While useful, they shouldn’t be overdone. Before using one, see if you can find a better verb. More often than not, this can be done and eliminate the need.
For example, instead of saying “she walked slowly” how about “she trudged”, “she strolled”, or “she moped, dragging her feet”? See how the verb also implies imagery and mood? Economy of words increases their impact. Verbs are powerful. Make sure you use them to make your story more vivid. Scrutinize every one to see if you can replace it or really need it.
Here’s a reader gripe that definitely drives me crazy, this one #7: Similar names! Avoid having them start with the same letter or rhyme. One example that comes to mind is from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory”, where we have Howard and Leonard. These two are very different characters who look and act entirely different, but the names are too much alike. If your reader is the slightest big dyslexic, it will drive him or her crazy.
Your story should never have a Shelley, Sherry, Susan and Stacy. Be more original! Give some thought to naming your characters. Bear in mind that those who read quickly are most likely to stumble over this form of thoughtless writing.
Here’s another gripe on the “doesn’t get 5-stars” list, though I haven’t seen this one quite as often. This one is when the main character is forgotten. I’ve seen stories that started out with one person and then s/he disappeared at some point and someone else took over.
Huh? Whose story is it? Even the first chapter should start out with the main character, which is sometimes violated, and may cause the confusion in the first place. If someone off-stage is key, use a prologue.
I saw this happen in one book recently where this transition would have been the perfect place to end it and segue into the sequel. However, doing it halfway through the book definitely didn’t work for me. You just get connected with a character and then he disappears? WTF!
Another complaint that keeps a story from getting 5-stars is too many characters. I would amend that by saying too many extraneous characters. Every person should be tied into the plot in some way and stand out as an individual. If they don’t, ditch him or her. If you really like the person, you can always use him or her for another story.
This is not to say that a meaty plot shouldn’t have a vast array of characters. However, the number should be proportionate to the complexity of the plot and length of the novel. Populating the story with a bunch of people with no story function only keeps the reader wondering what they’re doing there in the first place. For example, if your protagonist’s job is one of the settings, you don’t have to give everyone a name unless the person relates to the story. In fact, if their place of work doesn’t relate directly to the story, why is it included, anyway? The movie “Nine to Five” certainly was an exception, as well as the TV show, “The Office.” But if it’s not directly related to the plot, minimize it or leave it out completely.
If you do have a long cast of characters and you can justify their existence, then include a dramatis personae in the beginning to help your readers keep them straight as far as where they fit into the story and relationship to one another. A confused reader is inclined to become a lost fan.
Next up on the list of reader gripes is when the characters are all the same. This occurs primarily with inexperienced writers who don’t know how to develop a character properly and just plug a name into the action without bringing him, her, or even it, to life.
Characters should be as distinctive as possible. They shouldn’t look alive, talk alive, or behave alike. The more contrast, the better. Best case, the reader should be able to tell them apart from their dialog alone. Give them speech patterns and mannerisms that make them into a unique person. Interesting characters are what draw readers into the story as much as the plot line. If you don’t care about the people in the story, it has little impact. Building memorable characters is a skill every author should develop.
Continuing with our list of reasons why a novel didn’t receive a 5-star review, here is #3 on the list of reader pet peeves. This one involves overuse of a character’s name. I remember one book in particular where this was so glaring I was yelling at my Kindle, saying “I know who you’re talking about, dumbass! He’s totally alone in the wilderness talking to himself!”
Within a single paragraph, the author must have used the protagonist’s name a dozen time. This, my friends, is what pronouns are for. Clearly, this person did not engage the services of an editor, at least a competent one. This was really quite sad because the author’s premise was quite clever, yet it was so poorly written I barely got through it. To his credit, he did build enough suspense for me to want to know how it ended. But I’ll certainly never pick up another book by that person again and you can bet my review was not even close to 5-stars.
Next on the list after typos for reasons why a story didn’t receive a 5-star review was too many “he said/she saids”. It’s obviously not necessarily to include who said what with every piece of dialog. Again, balance is the key. When it’s a clear “dialog” with one person speaking, then the other, you can go on for a while, as long as it’s reasonably apparent who’s speaking. Nonetheless, an occasional reminder is good, too. If a conversation goes on for a couple of pages, it never hurts to insert either a “s/he said” or perhaps some action, such as a facial expression or gesture, to indicate who’s speaking.
When readers have to go back and figure out who’s speaking, it interrupts the story flow and throws them out of the story, which is something a diligent author should avoid at all costs.