Thursday, October 23, 2008

What Do Readers Want?

by Joyce

There's been an interesting discussion on the mystery list Dorothy L this week on what readers want to see less of and more of in mysteries. Although it was just a small sampling of mystery readers (some of them were also writers), it was very enlightening.

As writers, we're constantly bombarded with advice. The problem is much of it is conflicting. One expert will tell us that readers want books about serial killers. Another will tell us we have to have a dead body on the first page. Yet another will tell us our protagonists must not only have problems, they must be flawed--no one wants to read about an ordinary person.

Here are the things that some readers would be happy to never see again in a book:

Alcoholic protagonists, especially cops.
Flawed characters.
Serial killers.
A body on the first page.
Prologues in the serial killer's point of view.
Thoughtful and insightful FBI agents.
Idiot FBI agents/cops.
Making the killer too bizarre.
Cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

Hmm. A lot to think about.

I have to agree with a couple of these items. I don't like the current trend of the extremely flawed protagonist. Some are so screwed up, even their mothers wouldn't like them. If I don't have sympathy for a character, I don't want to read about them.

The other one I agree with is the tiresome, bizarre killer. When a writer tries to make his character the most evil person who ever walked the face of the earth, he loses me. Killers should be complicated. A killer who is an ordinary person until something or someone pushed them over the edge is much scarier to me than the boogeyman. This "ordinary" killer could be anyone.

The item on the list that surprised me is that some readers don't want cliffhangers at the end of chapters. I don't think I've ever read a book that didn't have some kind of hook at the end of most chapters. We don't want the reader to put the book down, so we try to make sure they don't. Makes sense to me. But one person on the list hinted that using cliffhangers was taking the easy way out. Just write a good book and she'll keep reading. Ouch.

But come to think of it--isn't that our job? To write a good book? We'll never make everyone happy, so the best advice is just to write the best book we can.

So what do you think? Do you agree with what these readers said? What would you be happy to never see in a book again? And, while we're at it, what would you like to see more of in books?


Anonymous said...

Joyce, I think there's a difference between a "cliffhanger" at the end of a chapter and a "hook." A cliffhanger is a Pauline-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks kinda thing. But a hook is more of a link to the next chapter. I had an editor once describe it to me as showing that the protagonist has a plan, which will be revealed in the coming pages. (She also objected to a "ta-dah!" revelation of information at the chapter's end---info without explanation of what it meant because the author intended the reader to figure it out. Which she felt was a mistake because readers are often not reading to figure out an intricate plot, but to let the story wash over them instead. Hmmm...) A cliffhanger, though, reads old-fashioned, clunky and a little dopey now.

I think what bugs me most is phony psychology. A lot of writers make up a crazy killer, and it just doesn't read true to me.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I've been following that list, Joyce. There is some interesting stuff. Flawed characters. I assume they mean flawed in a way that the author uses it in the plot. I mean we're all flawed and the "PERFECT" character would be... well, unbelievable.

I'm turning away from some of the TV shows I watch because of this very thing. Grey's Anatomy. I found out EVERY character is so flawed, I dislike most of them. House is getting that way. Without Hugh Laurie, I wouldn't watch it, because the medical portion of the show is becoming too outlandish.

I just read an interesting book for the Magna Cum Murder conference that I will be going to in Muncie Indiana tomorrow. Brat Farrar. It's an old novel written by Josephine Tey. The dead body doesn't show up until the last chapter. The first four chapters are backstory. No cliffhangers at the end of chapters. No major flaws in the main characters, or really even the antagonist. Yet, the plot was ingenious enough and the characters engaging enough that it was a really good book. I just wonder if it would ever get published in this day and age.

I think cliffhangers are good IF they aren't forced. Sometimes authors resort to ending a chapter a page before they resolve an issue just to make a cliffhanger. In fact, I was in a writer's class last year put on by a person who has written a book about writing. I won't mention their name. He professed that by ending a chapter early you automatically have a cliffhanger.

ME? I'm a fan of 24 and love cliffhangers. I can have a short attention span, so I need something to keep me interested. But it becomes obvious if it's forced.

What I don't like is padding in a novel. There are books I've picked up that have a page long description of the setting or characters. I've read books that I could cut 5,000 words from and not lose a thing. One author, I think Harlan Coben said that he takes out all the parts that his readers skim over. More writers need to do that.

Jake Nantz said...

I look at that list, and then look at the most recent NYT bestsellers in mystery/thriller/suspense fiction, and scratch my head.

Serial Killers? check.
Body on Page One? check.
Alcoholic Protag? check.
Prologue in Killer's POV? check.
Thoughtful AND/OR Idiot Feds? check.
Cliffhanger Chapter Endings?


Who knows....?

Mack said...

Interesting post, Thanks.
I recently stopped reading a series which consistently hit 5 of the 9 items on the list. I find that I can stand a few if other factors compensate.

What do the Dorothy-L folks want to see more of?

Anonymous said...

I've been following the discussion on DorothyL, too. I find the list sort of funny, because it describes many mid-list mystery/thriller/suspense books on the shelf today. It also describes what an editor just told me that she looks for in a book. Go figure.

Dana King said...

I think Lee and Jake pretty much nailed it. There's so much conflicting advice, everyone can cherry pick for what suits their purpose. I happen to agree completely with the list, so I think it's a great idea, and can carry on with my writing knowing there's an audience hungry for books that don't have all the things I think books shouldn't have. Until the next survey.

I also agree with Nancy about cliffhangers. Mickey Spillane once said the first chapter sells this book, and the last chapter sells your next book. I try to take the same approach with chapters. The first couple of paragraphs should hook the reader into this chapter. Ross Macdonlad was the master at setting up a chapter, as is Elmore Leonard, though in completely different ways.

I try to end with a paragraph that will logically induce the reader to turn one more page. The hero leaving for what looks to be a pivotal scene. An event close to the end of this chapter that demands the reader look for what happens next, though without the Peril's of Pauline elements. WEB Griffin does this as well as anyone.

Annette said...

I think it's simply a case of you can't please everyone all of the time.

Personally, the flawed protagonist thing gets to me. If they have a quirky personality, okay, But if they are so messed up that I don't want to spend time with them, I'll toss the book.

Anonymous said...

Wilfred, I loved Brat Farrar! It's here on my "keeper" shelf! But I don't think it's a murder mystery, nor was it ever marketed as a mystery, although Tey was always advertised as a "mystery writer." With the impersonation plot and the use of multiple POVs, I think it's a suspense novel.

Does anybody do the impersonation plot anymore? (I"m thinking of Mary Stewart's Ivy Tree.) Maybe The Thirteenth Tale, I guess.

Is Annette around today? I bet she's a Brat Farrar fan, too. Just a hunch.

Anonymous said...

I'm really sick of the simply psychological background of deranged serial killers, but the things that annoy me most are when the author doesn't even try to make it realistic - the heroine flies across the country on commercial airlines without carrying identification, etc.

Joyce Tremel said...

Wow, I go away for a few hours and look what happens! I'm glad you kids played nice while I was gone.

I think the problem with their list is these are the people who don't like blood and guts. They want to read "nice" mysteries.

Dana King said...

I don't know; I hate "nice" mysteries, but I'm pretty much in agreement with the list. Serial killers, for example. Aside from having been done to death, they're essentially motiveless crimes. These guys kill people because they like to, or, to give them the most sympathetic spin, they are driven to. I have no issue with a story with a body count just as high, if the killings have a true reason: money, sex, power, to cover up another crime, or as part of a stream of consequences set in motion by some act. At least then there's some resolution aside from "he's dead now, get some sleep."

I guess I'm saying I like more character and plot interaction in my stories. Gruesome is fine, as long as that's not the sole purpose of the story.

Anonymous said...

Well I agree with Wilfred on the "padding". Some information you need. I do not need to know the hue of the green on the wallpaper that is fading ...

"Write a good book, ouch !" Agreed. Which makes me agree with what Jake and Lee said.

It reminded me, and I had to search for it, of a blog on Lees site by Benjamin LeRoy (Bleakhouse)

I did not like it at first. I had to read it twice. But it is important to keep in mind. Make even the first paragraph count, to make one want to read the next and so forth. Especially the first page from a first time writer.

Joyce Tremel said...

So, I guess it all boils down to writing the best book you can, with a sympathetic, yet exciting protagonist, a killer who is not cliched, and get your research right.

Okay, everybody back to work!

Anonymous said...

What I'm sick of:

Characters with attitude. I think there's far too much license given in movies, books, and TV shows for a dismissive attitude toward other human beings and saying the things we want to say but don't actually work very well in real life. Then people start thinking it's OK!

A close second are throwing around the words "borderline" and "bipolar" (sometimes both!) so that the audience thinks you have some knowledge of psychology. ARRGGGH! I personally doubt it convinces anyone.

NL Gassert said...

That’s why I don’t read mysteries. Don’t get me wrong, I love the genre. But at some point I got fed up with the characters becoming more and more flawed and clich├ęd and downright uninspired.

As a writer, I like Joe Shmoe villains. Not experienced career criminals, but regular people with ambition and the opportunity to do something really, really bad. Now that’s scary.