What makes or breaks a book for you?


The more I read and review, the more I analyze what makes a book enjoyable.  For me, I prefer to see a strong female lead, but do occasionally pick up a book that has a main male character (usually outside my normal preferred genres).  Novels have to keep up a good pace and not get too bogged down by detail or back-story. There should be a good amount of character development and world building and the author should avoid repetitive word usage as well as too many clichés . I need some romance (or hope of it to follow in future books) for fiction stories.  There are exceptions to the rule, such as if the main character is a kid, but with adult books I prefer to have it.  I’m a romance nut and tend to look for it in every fiction book I pick up.

There are many other factors that contribute to my enjoyment of a story, but I’m curious to hear what others prefer.  If you could list two things that make you love a book and two things that make you dislike it, I would love to see what you have to say.  It will most likely prove we are all different and have our own unique taste in what is good or bad.  Yet it might also give an idea of what things are good to avoid when writing our own stories (for those of us that do).

Please feel free to explain your answers or include more than two of each.  I just set a minimum so people would have some kind of guideline to go off of for their comments.

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~ by Suzie on November 9, 2011.

40 Responses to “What makes or breaks a book for you?”

  1. Likes: strong female protagonist, fast pace, suspense, sexual tension, multidimensional character development, intense emotions, suspense, grit, alpha males

    Dislikes: sappy romance, heavy descriptions, no sex

  2. Likes: Originality (imagination), elegant prose (good use of language), engaging characters (not necessarily likeable, nor gender constrained, and they can do what they like as long as it supports the storyline).

    Dislikes: Formulaic (clones), poor editing.

    This could prove to be a really interesting discussion. Every reader has their own unique personal preferences, perspectives, beliefs and even prejudices and, as a result, will like some books and dislike others. I think, for authors, this is one of the great challenges of trying to communicate with just a few written words.

    • Good use of language is another one I agree with (along with the others you mentioned). Some books the narrative seems forced and unnatural due to poor language usage.

  3. Nothing breaks a book quicker for me than poor editing – a sadly prevalent factor especially in e-book editions of things (and I’m not just talking self-pubs here). Yet next to that, I would have to say the quickest way to grate this particular reader is through stale or undeveloped characters. People that exist for no more than to form a gimmick, a singular personality designed toward comic relief or some other such end…these get under my skin like there’s no tomorrow. I want people. Not machines.

    So naturally, then, I love the well-developed character. Those characters with intricate personalities, thoughts and actions that change with their environment, their situation…characters that change. Let them have their strengths, but I like them flawed – I want to see the personality radiate from them. Gender matters little – whatever the gender, just let the character itself be well-developed. As for the story itself, well…I want to be engaged. I don’t mind the description, but I also want action. I want a story that moves, yet manages its intricacies – and can still surprise me at the end of the day.

    • It is interesting, Chris, but I have noticed that even with the trad published I’m finding mistakes in them. eBooks seem to be more prone to that. Thanks for contributing your thoughts!

  4. I would also say that above all, poor editing grates on me, especially with ebooks. Luckily with Kindle books one can try a decent sample first and usually this quickly throws this up. Pace, and strong, recognisable, well developed main characters are vital to keep me reading any fiction book. I also quite enjoy it if the main character has flaws… no-one’s perfect, and this bring the person to life for me.
    Too much back story written in great waffling chunks bores me… again, a sign of bad editing imo. Any back story needs to be very carefully and masterfully filtered into the storyline, but it must be relevant to the plot anyway. Some hint of romance and sexual tention is also quite important to me, to keep my interest in any novel. Most importantly I have to be engaged in the story by the end of the first chapter. Therefore I avoid books with lengthy prologues. I like to be thrust into the story on the first few pages. Too much waffling and I lose interest very quickly.

    • Jan, samples certainly make it easier to know if you’ll like a book, I agree. It is also good to engage me from the beginning. Some books don’t do that and I eventually get into them, but it is much better if my interest is peaked early on.

  5. Great question & discussion. I suppose my “likes” would be along the lines of what have already been shared. In many ways, it depends on the genre, doesn’t it? I mean, a James Patterson novel will be fast, quick, with a lot of turns while a Jacquelyn Mitchard novel will take more time to develop. Which do I prefer? For me, what I “like” really depends on the mood I’m in (as a reader.)

    And like Anthony, as an author, I’m always critiquing my own work wondering: Was this too detailed or was it too vague? Do I add back story to flesh out this character’s plight or merely imply it?

    Conclusion? Here’s what another author told me once and I’ve since followed:
    “There are three rules to writing a successful novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are!”

    • JL… that just made me laugh out loud 🙂

    • JL, you are right that some factors are genre specific. I’m also affected by my mood as to what books I’ll even try at any given time.

      Like Anthony, you gave me a good laugh with that last line! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. If a book is beautifully written, the genre doesn’t matter to me. The story doesn’t have to be completely original if the prose is intelligent and elegant. I like books with characters that have flaws and shortcomings just like real people do. What turns me off is dialog that sounds forced and not natural. If it’s a contemporary story, that tells me the author isn’t listening to how people actually speak to one another. And cliches. And misunderstandings between the characters that go on and on when they could be cleared up with a simple conversation. And lengthy description of places and rooms. I tend to skip over those passages. As for sex, as a writer, the love scenes are my least favorite to write, so as a reader I much prefer great sexual tension rather than the actual act. The anticipation is everything.

    • Nancy, you and me both on the “misunderstandings” point. That drives me nuts too! I don’t mind an occassional, well placed cliche, but they have to be done well and used sparingly.

  7. The more I read, the more picky I seem to become. I like strong leads, imagination, strong prose, and action.

    I dislike pompous male love interests, especially ones with nothing redeeming about them. Any female lead who falls for that type of guy is not strong, but the perfect addition to an abusive relationship. I also dislike predictability. “Oh, that person’s going to betray them.” I realize it’s sometimes unavoidable, but I want to be surprised!

    In addition to some stuff that’s already been said, that’s all I can think of right now. There’s probably more but it might also depend on the book and how many “offenses” are in a book to make me stick it out or quit.

  8. I like (in fiction) escapist fare, especially a good fantasy or mystery with strong leads (male or female) that make me care about them. I like a solid story, well told – and, preferably, a satisfactory ending in which the leading character is still around (the escapist thing).

    Dislikes – a disjointed storyline and faulty editing are major turnoffs. No book is perfect, there are always flaws, but if there are mispellings, poor punctuation, poor grammar on every page, it becomes a distraction. Also … I like a story that “shows” me the actions of the characters rather than “tells” me. Long expository paragraphs about what a caring, sensitive woman the heroine is – especially if I don’t “see” her being caring or sensitive – are also big turnoffs.

  9. There is a book I’m currently reading that brought out some more points of things that ruin a book for me. In this one, the heroine says at least once on every other page- how badass she is, how badass her car is, how badass her clothes are, or how badass her weapons are. It is driving me nuts. At one point, she doesn’t walk into a house because there is a kid in there and she doesn’t want to scare him with her badass gear. I’m about ready to throw the book across the room, but its on my kindle so that will hurt me more than the book. It isn’t just this, though, every time the character gets near a guy she gets all hot and bothered and all she can think of is sex. How badass are you if you can’t control your hormones in the slightest?

    The thing that is really throwing me, is there are fourteen reviews on this book. None are below four stars and they don’t mention these problems. How could people miss the hundreds of times she talked about how badass she is and not be bothered by it? I can’t possibly be the only one to notice this. The thing that gets me is I love the plot and world building, I’m just having a hard time with the main character. No idea how I’m going to review this book since Amazon will most likely not let me say “badass” in the review, but that has to be mentioned.

  10. It’s simple for me, does the story suck me in and make me forget where I am / what I was doing while
    I’m reading it? If the answer is yes then I’m happy.

    • That is a good point, Rick. Sometimes a book will break some of the rules and I’ll like it anyway. Drawing the reader in is one of the most important factors.

  11. I forgot to mention before… one other thing that can ruin a book for me is when an author uses the same initial for two or more character’s christian names… even similar surnames can be confusing. It’s really not that difficult to make them totally different… after all, we do have the whole English alphabet to choose from!

    One more grouch. Clunky, unrealistic dialogue grates on me too, and will put me completely off any book.

    • Oddly enough the opposite bothers me, how often times more than one person with the same name doesn’t seem to exist in books. I mean jeez I work with 3 guys named Rob. However, if my life was a book you can bet there would be no other Robs in the world. 🙂

      • I think, Rick, the problem for me with repetitive names is that – in real life, I can tell the different Robs apart … eventually.
        But in a book, two or more names that even sound alike confuse me. Much as I love “Lord of the Rings,” one of the things that drove me nuts was the number of characters with similar-sounding names.
        I’ve read the books several times, and occasionally I still have to stop and think, “Which character is this?” because the name is so similar to that of someone else.
        Susan, I would get so annoyed at this character talking about how “badass” she is – especially if it’s all tell and no show …

        • Well, PL, she does fight in the book and does fairly well, but it doesn’t excuse the constant use of the term. If I had a dollar for every time the character calls herself a “badass” in this book, I swear to you I could pay my electric bill with what I gathered. It’s driving me nuts, but I’m almost done with the book so it’s nearly over. Since this is a series, I had hoped it would be good enough to read the next novel, but not sure if I will now. The reviews say the second one is better, but the author has nearly lost me with her character’s constant references to how badass she is. Not only this, but I saw a pic of the author on her Amazon page. She made the character look exactly like herself. Same haircut and color and body shape. Makes me wonder if she wasn’t just trying to make her character into what she wanted to be. I could be wrong, of course, but that could be part of the problem.

    • Jan, I have to agree with you on this for the most part. The only exception being two can start with the same letter if their names are very different. For instance “Steve” and “Shannon” sound so different that I wouldn’t get confused at all. Another tricky thing is making sure the names don’t all rhyme too much. Many female names end with an “a” so in my own writing I try not to have too many of them that have that ending. Keeping a running list of character names helps so that I can compare them.

      • Yes, Susan that’s a very valid point… if the names are very different, then it isn’t quite so confusing, also if they’re clearly of the opposite sex it helps. I still say though, why not choose names beginning with a different letter, particularly if they closely connected in any way, simply to make it flow easier for the reader?
        I edited a novel (which happened to be a murder mystery) for someone a while back, who had used the letter M for five character’s names. When I mentioned it to him, he really hadn’t realised he’d done it or considered how confusing it might make it for the reader. Afterwards, when he remamed them, he agreed it made perfect sense. My point is, as authors, we owe it to our readers to make the narrative flow as well as we can.
        Another observation recently, and one that irritates me hugely when reading a book, is why use a qualifying tag to short pieces of dialogue between just two people, when it’s often, or rather should be quite clear by what’s said and the order it’s said, who has spoken?
        Finally, and I’m perhaps being a tad picky here, but why do authors use the term, ‘he or she hissed’. Recently Stephen Leather used this no less than 10 times in one of his books!!! People do NOT hiss… snakes do! I know two very strict editors who always point this out, and insist on it being removed or changed.
        This is turning out to be a very enjoyable and enlightening discussion thread, and I think we’re all learning a great deal from it. Thank you, Susan.

        • Well … actually, Jan … I have to confess I have (though I use it sparingly) referred to one of my characters “hissing a breath between his teeth.”
          Because it is, in fact, something that I do. It’s kind of a “ssssss” sound made when I expell a breath (usually in exasperation) between teeth pressed tightly together. (It often happens when one of my dogs surprises me by getting into something I don’t want her – or him – to get into, lol)

        • Hey, Jan. I agree that it’s good to use different letters. Minor characters wouldn’t matter as much as the major ones, though.

          Never thought about the hiss thing. I don’t use it, but have seen it in books. Interesting that it is considered a no-no, lol. You learn something new every day. I also read somewhere that editors hate seeing writers us the mirror trick to reveal what a character looks like. Apparently they consider it overused and don’t like to see it. Until reading it was a problem, I never thought about that one either! I do know about the dialog tags. It is better to use them only when clarification is needed.

          Thanks for all the feedback. This has turned into an enlightening discussion for me as well.

        • Hi Jan, personally I regard “hissed” as a valid descriptive metaphor for speech… ‘hissed’ as in using a tone implies threat and the potential to strike at any second. Though I agree that overuse of any phrase (or duplications of words particularly within paragraphs) is grinding and unimaginative. Cheers…

  12. I’m reading a book that reminded me of something else I don’t like–when I don’t have a clear understanding of the type of world the book is set in. This one takes place on an island where there are water horses, vicious beasts that emerge from the sea that people capture in order to race. These horses eat people, which makes it all the more dangerous. Most people are poor and life sounds very simple, though there is mention of cars. Fifty pages in a visitor comes to the island who’s from America. 0_0 I don’t mind changing the real world into something else; I just want to know that’s where I’m at to begin with.

    There was another book with a world that didn’t make sense to me. The royal family lived in the palace, yet they were the poorest family in the whole town, even though the King actually ruled. Life sounded simple, no technology mentioned, yet the town has a newspaper with a gossip column.

    It sounds creative, and reminds me of a Miyazaki anime film with a blend of fantasy and technology, but it just doesn’t come off right in a book–in my opinion. Probably because I can’t see it. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too picky, but I like to feel grounded in the setting in order to fully immerse myself in the story.

    • I agree, Angela. I don’t enjoy books that immerse me in a setting – then suddenly change it with no forewarning. I think that, as writers, we have to be always mindful of our readers – and their expectations.

    • I hate when that happens, Angela. World building needs to be clear. I’m following one series where I’ve already read the first two books and still don’t know if humans are aware of the supernaturals around them. Since the main character only interacts with sups and never mentions what humans think of the occassional fights that break out in public, I honestly have no idea. A good critique partner could catch these things and point them out. It can be frustrating when it is ambiguous.

      • Also, Susan, just a little thinking on the part of the writer could avoid that kind of situation.
        Maybe because of my years of writing for newspapers – when part of my job involved asking all the questions I thought my readers would want answered – I try to remember that there is a broader world beyond my main characters in my books …
        That’s why I included in Shadow Path such tossaways as demonstrators on Corpus Christi beach protesting the “invasion” of beings from the Realms of Magic …
        Not that I’m perfect. I have no doubt that I missed more than a few opportunities. But I do try to look at the broader world, and I think any writer should.

        • PL, that was a great way to give depth to your setting. I know it helped clarify for me what humans thought of all the magical beings around them. Certainly a good way to show rather than tell!

  13. Makes: 1. Originality 2. A good, fast-paced plot, which makes you not want to put the book down
    Breaks: 1. Poor editing, especially in books that have been professionally published 2. A “who-done-it”, where the perpetrator is a character not mentioned until the end of the story

    • Debbie, that was a great point about the who-done-it thing. Definitely takes the fun out of guessing if the author makes it completely impossible for the reader to determine.

  14. Thanks for your nice comment, Susan.
    FYI … I have finished the editing of Stormcaller for ebook, and it’s now in the hands of my publisher. Crossed fingers for a release before the end of the year!

  15. With certain exceptions, what makes or breaks a book for me is the ending. The close of any story leaves a lasting impression on the work as a whole. In cases where the ride from opening to climax is exceptionally well-done, although disheartened, I can tolerate a below-satisfactory ending. On the other hand, a great ending can compensate for pre-climax shortfalls. With this being said, in my opinion, the success of a work is, in many cases, dependent upon how the author closes the story with his/her audience. If the ending leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction, they’ll hold the work in higher regard than they would otherwise. For this reason, when reading a new book, I tend to hold the destination to a higher standard than I do the journey. When both are done well, it truly makes for a great book.

    • Thanks for stopping by SPG! I agree with your stance on endings. A lot of the books I read are series. One of the things that annoys me is huge cliffhangers. It’s fine to leave a few loose threads dangling for future books, but finish the main plot and don’t leave me going crazy for six months to a year while waiting for the next book! There is one series I read where the author killed off the hero/love interest at the end of book four and nearly lost half her readership. There were some rather angry reviews because she did that. Solid endings are definitely important.

  16. I’m not crazy about cliffhangers either, Susan. I don’t mind some minor element of a story carrying over from one book to the next – something that raises a question that will be answered in a later book – but I don’t want the book to end with key characters in some kind of open-ended situation that may or may not get settled in a later book.
    For me as a reader and a writer, a book has to be complete in itself.
    An even worse deal-killer for me is a book that ends with one (or more) of the main characters dead. I know there are authors who kill off key characters for reasons of plot … But if I have invested time and – more critical for me – emotions into a character, I darned well want that character around and kicking at book’s end. Probably because, for me, books are escapist, and I find neither escape nor pleasure in losing someone I’ve come to care about.
    That happens too often in real life.

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