What makes you put a book down without finishing it?

The other day one of the writing discords I’m part of asked us what makes us stay up too late reading, and I had trouble actually answering that one. What is it, exactly, that makes me keep turning pages? Compelling characters and situations, yes, but I’ve finished plenty of books where I didn’t actually like the main character, especially not at the beginning. (Wally Lamb writes some very angry men, for example.) I’ve also finished things where the ending or ending explanation is disappointing. (Sorry, Stephen King, but we know you know.)

A screenshot of Stephen King’s cameo in It: Chapter Two where he insults the author character’s endings.

But those are all books I’ve finished in spite of not loving them completely, not books I DNF’d (did not finish). Looking back, though, it takes a lot for me to DNF.

Take We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example. It’s epistolary, for starters, which isn’t usually my thing, and the POV character’s voice really grated on me. She seemed snooty and just … who writes letters to her husband like that? I slogged my way through quite a bit of it before I made a strange (for me at that point, at least) decision: I went to Wikipedia for the plot summary. (Gasp! Who does that? Don’t all good readers finish everything they start, one page at a time?) And, in this case, knowing the ending meant it was worth finishing.

I can’t remember the title of another book I truly DNF’d after going through the same process: slogging through because everyone says it’s good, going to Wikipedia, and then …

Here’s my cardinal sin: when it’s the author screwing with you instead of the characters.

What I found in that Wikipedia search (and really it’s probably good I can’t name the title or the author) was that the jarring POV change I’d just hit was the author purposefully obscuring the truth. Making it seem like the POV in the first section was a specific character when in fact … it wasn’t that character at all. The author jerking you around and yanking your chain and (I imagine) feeling pretty darn clever about it. (Can you tell this is seriously my pet peeve?)

I love reading thrillers. Can’t get enough. And I love unreliable narrators. Gone Girl is awesome. It’s not Gillian Flynn playing the deception, though – it’s her characters, all working to deceive each other in-book, and therefore deceiving the reader. Gillian’s not the one feeling pretty darn clever about it – [character’s name redacted in case you haven’t read the book yet] is the one feeling pretty darn clever about it. Because [character] wants to fool everyone, and the reader just happens to be part of everyone.

I love thrillers with unexpected twists. I also read a lot of thrillers, so more often than not, I can guess the twists. The cool ones leave two or three options open so I’m still not sure. The awesome ones still manage to surprise me. But even when I can guess an ending, I can enjoy how the author takes us there and how they present the story … as long as they don’t get in their own way while doing it.

Clearly the answer to this one is incredibly personal and subjective. What about you? What’s the point where you mark a book as DNF and pick something else up? (Also: what are your favorite thrillers? I could stand to add a few to my TBR pile.)

4 thoughts on “What makes you put a book down without finishing it?”

  1. My favorite thriller is Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. It’s the only thriller I feel like I’ve cared about in ages. As for what makes me DNF, it’s typically a combo of three things: 1) I have have no clue where or when I am (setting). 2) Using phrasing that sounds clever but makes no sense. Just yesterday I read that the blood tendriled and then cobwebbed in someone’s throat. That’s not how blood works. That’s not how metaphors work. 3) The relationship between characters is so confusing that I can’t even follow along. I see this more in books that have some supernatural element (maybe) and you can’t tell if someone is a ghost or vampire or whiny human. For short story collections, I’ll DNF if I can’t even remember what happened in previous stories (likely due to reasons 1-3 above).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “That’s not how blood works. That’s not how metaphors work.” 🤣 YES. My mom will go on and on about any descriptions that defy medical logic or actual fact. (The train station Jodi Picoult described in her Amish book isn’t for passenger trains, for example.)

      I’ll have to check out Behind Her Eyes. I totally forget that you’re not really a thriller/crime person because that’s totally how we found each other so I just assume everyone’s as interested (obsessed?) as I am.


      1. Ha! It was like one book my mom and I read once just for the heck of it that led us to you! I’ve read Kathy Reich’s novellas, but as for crime fiction, that’s really it. I think your posts about writing are absolutely wonderful and important for any genre of writer. I want to buy your book when it comes out and support the good you do, but as for being a conscientious reviewer that you deserve, that’s not me with crime fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

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