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Annoying Your Readers

Authors only get one first impression. Don't use it to annoy your reader. 

Below we cover some top tricks to avoid annoying people with your story arcs, plot devices, and characters. 

For more tips and tricks subscribe, and check out our villains section!

Don’t Annoy Your Readers. Pt. 1. 

I don’t know how many times a reader will give an author a chance, in general. I can’t find reliable statistics on it. I will tell you about my circle of friends and family. The answer is once. You get one time to impress the reader base, gain a fan, and keep them. If you fail… they are gone, probably for good. I once asked my sister, "Did you ever read author XYZ?" To which she replied “Oh yeah, I tried XYZ a few years ago. Hated it.” That was the end of that.

Let me throw a caveat up here. Every book and short story you write will not be a 10/10 for your skill level. That’s not the focus. I am also not talking about an existing fan who reads your work already and thinks you have a slump in your writing for a book, or even a series compared to another series. That’s different too.

I am talking about the 2/10, bad time, nobody liked it, and readers get alienated.

The next series of postings we will embark on will talk through things we can do to get our readers on board, and keep them there. But first let’s get a fact out of the way early.

You can not please all of the people all of the time.

Old fashion phrase, right? I’m going to give you a specific example.

Don't be a people pleaser

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                Force unimaginable for such a small frame accompanied the sound and jolted Alex from his sleep. Lani’s knees impacted his spine by way of his stomach, and the vaguely awake consciousness came to sharp stabbing attention with the need to pee.

                “Good morning daddy. Morning. Morning. Morning. Mooooorning.”

                He cracked open both eyes and looked at her as she contemplated the covers over his prone body on the couch after he didn’t answer her. Slow at first and then with acceleration he reached out and grabbed her sides and began to tickle her ferociously, raising the decibels with the sound of laughter.

                “Stop! Stop!”

                He continued to tickle her knowing that like many mornings stop meant “Don’t.” A half empty toothed grin and tears of laughter told the same story. Another thirty seconds of morning rough housing finished before he freed her.

                “Go find mommy, you need to get breakfast in you.”

---

When my beta readers encountered this short piece of a morning interaction inside a bigger piece, I received two stand out comments and a smattering of neutral commentary. One person said “This is not germane to the story but this creeps me out. When a girl or a woman says "stop", men and boys should stop. Period.” One person said. “I love this interaction. I brought me back to my childhood.”

What do you do as a writer? I am telling you not to alienate your audience, but one person is creeped out by the same scene which another person finds endearing.

First you have to make a decision. Will you bend to every person who is offended by anything? I feel bad for the first reader who went somewhere with the story that was not in any way intended or implied. They understood as much by saying it wasn’t germane. But the other side of this is what we have been subtly saying all along. Don’t alienate your audience. Not the wider audience. You will not appeal to everyone all the time. You don’t have to.

Know Your Audience

In my case readers who are easily offended aren’t going to last long anyway as I write dark fantasy and dystopian science fiction. I know who my targets are.

Once you know who you want your audience to be, the key is don’t annoy them at first read. Here are some of the topics we will talk about that readers absolutely notice and will find annoying.

 

Don’t slip out of the intended genre. Don’t use plot armor in obvious and annoying ways. Don’t leave unresolved threads (accidently). Don’t nerf (depower) a character or make them suddenly look foolish or incapable to protect villains or plot. Don’t allow instant deep relationships, we all know it isn’t how real life works. Gross repetition, for example if one character explains a portion of the book to another character. Lastly, especially for science fiction and fantasy, never break your own rules, readers will know it.

We will be talking about all these and more in the series to come. As a first step, ask yourself the questions, “Who is my audience?” “Who do I want reading what I write?” “What genre am I?”

If this and other postings have been helpful, don't forget to subscribe here. Join us for more of this series to come. 

Genre Bending
(Don't Annoy Your Readers, Pt. 2)

In this piece about how not to annoy your audience, I want to touch on a failure I have seen in only a few books, but when it happens, it is a complete shut down for me. Not only did I never finish the series, I never returned to the author.

It seems simple. Don’t confuse your readers about the genre.

We should be very clear about what this means. Any genres can be mixed and in reality, they have been mixed since we have been writing. Is a story a romance or is it a general fiction piece? If there is an element of romance in it, then it is both to some degree. Is the story a mystery or is it a thriller? Why can’t it be both? Is the tale science fiction, or fantasy? Not only can it be both, there is a growing science-fantasy subgenre with elements of both.

The problem is not “don’t mix genres,” the problem is making sure your audience knows what genre they are diving into when they pick up your piece.

Why?

Picture your favorite science fiction book. Think about the tropes that went into that piece, the assumptions you carry into the story with you and what you expect from the story just because it is science fiction. Do the same for romance, drama, thriller, fantasy, mystery, noir, etc. Every genre has assumptions, and expectations. Not only this, they have structures. Let’s contrast fantasy with a pulp thriller.

These don’t make one genre better or worse than another, they make them different. If you do not prepare your audience for the genre they are in, they may be rudely surprised later. If we sign up for a fantasy and suddenly aliens and flying saucers appear we may be confused. If we sign up for a romance and suddenly bullets start to fly, we may be jarred out of the mood to read. If we sign up for a thriller, and the pace drags we may get bored.

So where are these expectations set up? The shelf the book is retrieved from in the bookstore, library or the digital category tags certainly help clear up much of the problem. The next step is the back flap or inside of the dust jacket where the book blurb describes the book. The last and in my opinion the most important piece is the first chapter. The setting, the character and the tone of a book must be reasonably established within the first chapter of the piece. I am not the only person to say so. Writing advice from Steven King, Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal all agree. These things need to be established within the first two thousand words of your story at most. In a short story, Mary Robinette Kowal argues it must be established within the first paragraph.

It’s part of the subset of writing rules that say “Don’t break your promise to the audience.” Writers open story threads, mysteries, questions and plot arcs with the promise of closing them and explaining things to some degree. You promise a genre. Don’t break that promise.

Coldfire Trilogy

As a brief example of a multiple genre example of how you should blend genres, I would like to reference C.S Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. In the leading novel Black Sun Rising, we learn within the first few thousand words that the book is science-fantasy. A concept that was done excellently well ahead of its time. The world is not earth, but was settled by our colony ships, there is a kind of magic but there is a scientific explanation given. The story’s major beats hinge on it being science fiction, but the day-to-day movement of the tale is fantasy in its elements. Both are familiar, and no promises are broken because we get to know both right up front.

Before you throw a flying saucer at your armored knight, make sure the reader is prepared.

If you have never read the Coldfire Trilogy and you are a fan of science fiction or fantasy, you need to go grab it right now. I reread them every few years and never come away disappointed. If you enjoyed this and want more of this or other content, subscribe here.

Remember, writers write. So get writing.

Nerfed. Don’t Annoy Your Readers Pt. 3:

I’m going to borrow a term that, to my understanding, derives its origins in video games. Nerf, or nerfing, is to reduce the power of a thing because the original design was too much to handle in the game. The same term can be used in literature to say, do not nerf your characters. Don’t depower a character or make them suddenly look foolish or incapable to protect villains or plots.

In science fiction a famous overall nerfing, is the reduction in the power of starships between the original Star Trek series and the Next Generation series. The ship’s speed was reduced by a factor of a hundred, the power they generated in terms of firepower was reduced by incalculable orders of magnitude.

The writers realized that in the then more modern context of the 80’s to adhere to self-consistency they had to reduce the overall power. (Don’t worry they were still grossly inconsistent.)

Instead of power, consider competence. Imagine if you will Sherlock Holmes, pairing off against an intelligent but still common street ruffian with a plan. Sherlock ponders and gives it his all, but suddenly can’t figure out the way to unravel the plot. We would all feel disappointment. Why? A character who was competent, skillful, loved for that skill, would have been laid low because a writer couldn’t figure out an answer where the character could. The reason we all love when Moriarty shows up, in whatever form the character takes, is because we know the character will be a foil to Sherlock. We trust the writers will create plots and plans so complex Sherlock can bring his all, without having to make him look incompetent. Moriarty is just equal to the task.  

Fantasy suffers from nerfing at times, particularly in soft magic systems where the source of power or the structure of how magic works is ill understood by the readers. On page fifty a wizard can throw a lightning bolt across a battlefield. A feat that would carry such tremendous power, it is really hard to imagine. Then on page one hundred they are not able to overcome a local bandit who holds them at knife point.

Maybe this makes sense. Maybe they need time, space or some ingredient and preparation to do this feat of magic, but without proper explanation the person will feel nerfed for story purposes.

This is a common problem in superhero TV shows. In one episode a hero like Superman or Flash can run fast enough to leave the city, save the day and run back between literal blinks of an eye. Later they will struggle to avoid being hit by an oncoming car, bus or punch from a non-superhuman. This is inconsistent display of power.

Don’t let your detective suddenly be stumped by the obvious. Don’t make your superhero suddenly weak for no reason. Don’t make your speedster suddenly move through molasses without an appropriate story arc. Don’t change a person’s personality without reason because who they are would make the story too short or too easy to solve.

Also beware the twin brother of depowered characters and sudden incompetence, which is the power the protagonist can’t control. Too often this serves the same purpose to make a protagonist powerful when they need to be and helpless the rest of the time. It feels like they are nerfed for most of the book, because the author couldn’t figure out how to run with the level of power they wanted to only have available sometimes.

This is not to say characters always have to be at their peak of cognitive and physical skill. Everyone has weaknesses and bad days. How else would Batman believably take on Superman right?

The point is to make sure it is part of the worldbuilding, and not arbitrary. Even if it is part of worldbuilding, be aware that your readers are smart enough to know it when they see it.

Ask yourself these questions:

Could my character have handled it earlier in the story? If they can’t anymore, have I made a compelling argument for why?

Have I shown the reader the change, or will the change feel sudden and unexplained?

Is the nerfing the only way to solve the problem?

Should I reduce their overall power level most of the time?

Ask beta readers if they notice this kind of swing in power levels, and make sure you address it as soon as possible.

Now go get writing, because writers write. Next up… plot armor. Subscribe here for weekly tips and guides.

Don't annoy your readers. Pt. 4. Plot Armor. 

There are some pretty fine lines at times between plot armor, world building and genre, so before we dive into them, let's define plot armor.

Plot Armor: A phenomenon in fiction whereby a main character is allowed to survive dangerous situations because they are needed for the plot to continue.

This can be done to the primary protagonist, the antagonist, secondary characters, love interests, anyone.

Why do I say that this is a surprisingly fine line? Shouldn’t it stand out as obvious when an author or creator of a story bends the rules to make someone live? Yes and no. The author is the god of their world, they bend the rules, make the rules and determine what is going to happen all the time. Readers don’t need much to suspend disbelief, so long as it is in line with the genre’s expectations and the book’s expectations set up to that point.

Some particularly bad plot armor happens in comic books:

There are scenes from a justice league comic in which Cat Woman, a non-superpowered individual takes out three versions of the Flash, simultaneously. To accept this, we must believe she can punch and kick faster than Mach 1, and has no harm from impacting a moving mass at the other end of such an acceleration. It breaks the rules of the comic book world that was established.

Here is another from the same. Harlequin escaped from Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman all at once. Wonder woman, who can be hit by superman and keep on fighting, gets knocked off balance and taken back by an average size woman. This is passed off by saying she is as good as Bruce. Which brings up a secondary point we are trying to make.

Why is Bruce Wayne, as Batman, going toe to toe with these super gods not plot armor? 


Well, it is plot armor, but its plot armor woven into the story structure such that it has literally become world building and lore. Entire story lines have been written about how Batman would try to fight the entire justice league. Insane of course, but that’s the world building and people accept it. So, there are lines that are not 100 % clear. 


The plot armor holes above are pointed out by other readers too. They annoy people, but perhaps not everyone. It is what keeps some readers out of certain comic book franchises and focused on more other comics. 
Examples abound: Sterling Archer is a character built out of the tropes of plot armor. Walking Dead is replete with statistical plot armor. They should all have died. 


Even the seminal work of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, is replete with just enough “almost,” to make a person have a moment’s thought. While no one of Frodo Baggin’s close calls are enough to make you call plot armor, it is possible to ask the question in aggregate: 


He is almost killed on the way to Bree by Nazgul, almost stabbed in his sleep in Bree, almost killed by Nazgul at weather top, almost killed by Nazgul on way to Rivendell, almost killed by Morgul Blade's poison, almost eaten by Guardian of the Waters… He decides to keep on traveling and then… is almost skewered by a cave troll, almost killed by insurmountable numbers of orcs in Dwarrowdelf, almost falls off the stairs in Khazad-dum, almost is killed by a Balrog, almost gets killed by Uruk-Hai, almost gets captured by Uruk-Hai, almost drowned in the Dead Marshes, almost discovered by Nazgul fly-by in Dead Marshes, almost got discovered by Easterlings outside Black Gate, is almost devoured by Shelob… and I’m only half way through… 


So why do we accept this as NOT plot armor? Part of it is the genre. Fantasy as an offshoot of mythology is there to show people being heroes and heroines, and overcoming odds and doing what we can’t, to grow and save the world or create it as we know it. It gave opportunity for character growth and frankly, was just better written than some plot armor, so… we go along with it. To a degree all literature is this. It is a small false reality we use to escape or learn or discover, filled with the fantastical in every genre. 
But these examples have focused on the good guys. What about villains? Entire horror movie franchises have been built on the plot armor of the villains. Freddy Krueger, and Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees are guaranteed to come back until we stop giving them our money. We expect this as part of the genre to a degree. 

The same is true of action pieces. Indiana Jones has survived based entirely on plot armor. Sure, he is fast thinking and experienced, but we are even offered a scene of someone who is better trained failing at the very task Indiana Jones just succeeded at. The soldier dies when he tries to climb under a moving truck, as well he should. Why do we accept this? Because action protagonists and pulp action ones specifically are expected to have plot armor in their genre.

After these examples, what is my point?

Know your genre.

Pay attention in your genre to what constitutes plot armor and avoid it when you can. Understanding that you have to cleave to the rules as closely as your genre expects and the rules you have set in your world. Anything else, lacks verisimilitude.

Always remember, writers write. Go. Get writing.

Dont Annoy Your Readers Part 5. Tropes. 

This one is more complex than the others because the line for when readers get annoyed, or at least when I get annoyed is fuzzy. Very fuzzy.

First what is a trope? A genre trope specifically is a recurring idea and theme which frequently shows up in books and films of the same type. They're the aspects of a genre which define it, its glue. They are not inherently bad. If you write fantasy and not a single sword, spell, sorcerer, undead, dragon … etc.… ever shows up… you have violated every trope, and probably let the readers down. On the other hand, when writers are good at their craft, your readers might not even realize the tropes as they read them.

Here are some examples:

Science fiction and fantasy: Evil empires, ruled by evil villains, with rebels and protagonists who are here to overthrow them.

Action / thrillers: They love their chapter, or even book level, cliff hangers.

Horror: It loves to show us detectives who become bumbling fools when faced with a hint of the supernatural, or randomly impossibly isolated settings where literally nobody can hear you scream.

Are these bad? No. What is bad? What made me say all this?

I attempted to read a fantasy novel the other day by a new author I had never read before. I made it to my requisite fifty-page mark before I put the book down, and considered that it was only my deep abiding love of books that prevented me from shredding it to save others from mental harm. In fifty pages the author managed to wedge in all of the following tropes.

  • An orphan hero

  • A lost and rediscovered sword

  • A villain monologue

  • An empire than became ruled by said villain

  • A villain killing a father to torture a daughter

  • A literally completely impossible fantastic escape from the villain while the villain was suddenly incompetent for no particular reason other than the plot called for it. (See plot armor.)

  • A reawakening of gods.

Add to that more telling instead of showing than I have seen in a good long while, terrible pacing and it was just a travesty. I largely blame it on the overuse of the genre tentpoles. The tropes were flying hard and fast, and it broke believability. I knew I was reading a fantasy book, not drawn into a fantasy story. I knew the author had selected them on purpose for effect but the effect was lost in the density and lack of buildup.

Different readers want different things. Some readers want all trope, and a familiar place to hang their reading hat. They enjoy small changes on familiar themes. That is just fine. Some readers want the genre to be twisted, turned and the tropes to be deliberately broken and played with, that is fine too. Very few want every single one of the highlights that make us recognize the genre put in the same book all at the same time.

Beware the overuse, or obtuse use of these storytelling structures. It might just annoy your readers.

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