Maybe, Don’t Annoy the Reader

The story problem isn’t a real problem

This can happen in different ways:

  • The stakes are not high enough.
  • The story tricks the reader into believing that the stakes are high when they are not.
  • Elements of the story never actually happened.

The protagonist has to face a frightening problem. The story either celebrates their success, or their failure provides a warning. The problem can be large or small, but in the mind of the protagonist and the reader it has to feel vital, a monumental challenge. Winning that first kiss (avoiding being viewed as a loser, because all the other kids have had theirs). Winning a race (or facing humiliation from an enemy and financial ruin).

Stories can be disappointing because they trick the reader into believing that the stakes are higher than they really are:

  • The protagonist wakes up and the whole story was a dream.
  • The main character’s problems aren’t real (they’re an unreliable narrator).
  • Part of the character’s perception of reality is false (they connected in some way to a simulation of reality, they are having a hallucination, or they are a ghost).
  • The plot is a MacGuffin (delivering a package that turns out to be empty, a treasure trail without treasure at the end).

Occasionally, stories come along that creatively reinvent these scenarios because they introduce an interesting payoff.

The story fails to deliver on its promise

This is when the setup of a story indicates what kind of story it is but the narrative breaks with that expectation. This can disappoint the reader.

  • An action thriller with no action
  • A literary fiction novel doesn’t offer any intriguing characters and it doesn’t say anything new about the world
  • The horror story which is not creepy or frightening

It is possible to break with expectation and make something wonderful and surprising, but it’s a lot more likely to disappoint the reader. Failing to deliver on the promise produces an unsatisfying story.

The characters are a turn-off

It’s easy to create realistic and sophisticated characters who are:

  • Difficult to empathise with
  • Fail to be interesting
  • Fail to gain the reader’s respect

Readers and audiences want to root for a character, especially a fascinating one who they respect. A character earns the reader’s respect by their ability to creatively solve problems, and by being resilient and proactive.

It’s possible to create exciting drama with selfish and malicious characters. The characters may be hard to empathise with individually but the dramatic experience remains addictive. That’s tricky to pull off. It’s more likely that the reader will be taken out of there story because they don’t have anyone to root for.

Readers identify with characters whose predicament or values they identify with. When a reader is emotionally invested with a character they are emotionally invested in the story. The easiest way to make a character likeable is to given them genuine humanity, make them less selfish, and to inflict injustice on them. Likeable characters tend to learn and adapt. They solve the real problem posed by the story.