Monday, November 26, 2012

Plot Pet Peeves

I've recently read several books with glaring plot issues. As an author and editor, it drives me nuts. But even as a reader, I hate it when writers get lazy and create flawed stories. These are very basic issues and should never happen. Unfortunately they do, and far too often, particularly today when so many writers self-publish their own books without the services of a good content editor.

So, if you care about good quality writing, please bear with me while I rant.

This is especially abhorrent in mysteries, but can occur in other genres as well.

The book ends without resolution to issues raised during the story leaving the reader to ask, "But, what happened after (insert subplot)?" "Whatever happened to (fill in the blank)?" Often a character simply disappears halfway through the story, never to reappear. I don't expect all relationships to be completely tied up in neat bows. As in real life, some will continue to be difficult in the future. Some will irrevocably be rent asunder. And sometimes it's okay not to know what the people will do going forward. But to drop them in the middle of the story is annoying, especially if the reader has developed an interested in them. This applies even to minor plot points.

Which brings me to the next one…

These are like the cast of thousands in the old historical dramas whose only purpose is to hold the spears and establish the size of the crowd. They don't contribute anything to the plot.

A rule of thumb is: If you name a character, be sure they serve a purpose and move the story along. If they don't, leave them out!

If the author shows the reader a gun, it had better be used before the end of the book! If the author hints at the presence of a stalker, that person had better appear somewhere in the story or be explained in another way.

Mysteries depend on multiple suspects with motive and opportunity. Sometimes they're 'red herrings,' but even those must be explained by the end of the book. Just finding the perpetrator is not enough. There must be some explanation for the other characters' actions.

This is when the sleuth (professional or amateur) explains how they discovered the villain with clues that were never included earlier in the story. This is a blatant cheat and a particular personal gripe.

Part of the fun of reading mysteries is trying to figure out who-done-it along with the protagonist. You can only do this if you have all the evidence.

This is when a character suddenly has information, the source of which is never explained. As a reader, you agree to take a journey with the author. It is jarring when a character suddenly knows something without any explanation of how they learned it.

For our first mystery, we created a huge spreadsheet on which we charted the timeline of the story (some of which was in five-minute increments). Then we listed the characters and color-coded where each was at the time. In that way, we knew who had specific knowledge of events and who was not in the area.

People read historical novels because they enjoy the time period. Many are steeped in the era. One mistake, and the author may lose that reader. I read one book where the characters used current terms in dialogue supposedly from the 1800s. Not good!

In another, items and concepts that did not appear until the twentieth century were used in a novel set in the nineteenth. Also, unacceptable.

We are currently writing an historical novel set in a nearby town in between 1820 and 1890. Because San Juan Capistrano is a mission city, much has been written about it. However, many of the available books, articles, etc. differ in the specifics of dates and events. We are fortunate that the official historian for San Juan has agreed to read the draft and check for inaccuracies. She has also recommended what she considers the best resources.

The one thing the author gets wrong may be the only thing the reader will remember.

Authors should write one book at a time!  Period. Each should be complete in itself. Even if the intention is to create a series, each book MUST stand alone. If the author wants to let the reader know there will be additional books, a sample chapter can be added at the end of the current book to entice the reader. But to leave the reader wanting resolution to the story because the author wants them to read the next book is cheating. It's a technique I refuse to buy into. When I run across one of these, I refuse to read the author again.

There are probably other issues that turn off and alienate readers. What are your pet peeves?


  1. Would have loved to know exactly what books you found these problems in--especially if they were best sellers!

    (Patterson, anyone?)

  2. i don't want to embarrass anyone, just to make the point that these things happen. Agatha Christie was notorious for revealing the evil twin brother or other such information in the final scene. that's one example, but there are many others. We've become more and more aware of these kinds of issues since we began writing mysteries. Oh, and they can happen in other genres, too.

  3. A few comments of my own?

    Stay in a fricken head. If an entire book is written in deep third, don't suddenly have an intrusion of omniscient narrator. I so hate reading something like "Johnny didn't see the footprints leading into the woods." If he didn't see them, they should not be added to ramp up tension for the reader. Not that way. Have him get a glimpse of them and the wind whips them away before he's sure he saw them. That's fine. It's the right way to do it.

    Please give us enough suspects to make a book interesting. I've read mysteries where there were only two suspects, and the minute you rule out one...well, that's it, though you're not even halfway through the book.

    Oh, and don't beat the reader over the head with the clues. I once figured out the culprit in chapter two, because there weren't enough suspects, and the author beat me over the head with the clue that cinched it. In fact, I not only knew the villain of that book. By the end of the first book in a trilogy of related mysteries with the single central villain, I'd also figured out the big over-arcing villain. Head desk.

    Another? Science errors. Lorna, historical errors get you, and they should, but science errors turn me off. I have had authors make every mistake from saying that silver rusts to mixing up the universal donor to making gross errors in simple science theory. We're talking errors that your average fifth grader knows better than to make.

    And...let's not forget motion errors and sensory errors.

    But my #1 complaint? Having the mystery solved when the main character is off screen. Really. I once read a book where you follow the main character for 50,000 words, and when the mystery is solved? The MC is somewhere totally different and finds out over the radio, for pities sake. That's a good way to make me toss your book and never read you again.

    1. Bren, yes, Yes, TES! Agree with all of these!
      Head-hopping makes me nuts.

      I read one mystery with only one suspect, so figuring out who-done-it was much easy and not very interesting. Another had the primary and only suspect identified at the beginning, then sprung another character as the actual killer at the end without preamble or explanation of all the clues pointing to the first.
      As a reader, I don't need to be told everything in detail - repeatedly. Part of the fun is figuring it our for yourself.

      Agree with scientific errors as well. Larry usually catches these.

      And I agree. If you have a protagonist who is the sleuth, that person needs to figure the mystery out. Period. (In our second book, he gives the credit to the local cop, but the reader knows who really solved the case.)

  4. My favorite issues? The cast of thousands and all of them are named, but irrelevant to the plot lines. It makes me so weary.

    1. Lesley, couldn't agree with you more. In our last mystery, Larry wrote the nosy neighbor next door. I figured she would just be another witness to the events. Imagine my surprise when he later revealed that she was related to the victim! he said he'd planned it all the time, but it sure caught me (and hopefully our readers) off-guard! She wasn't an unnecessary character to begin with, but he added another whole layer I adored. (He writes all the little old ladies, so he had fun with this one.)

  5. My pet peeve? Grammar errors that should have been caught by an editor and fixed before it went to publication. I realize that since I'm an English teacher and writer, that I find them more than most people. But I hate not even looking for errors then finding them in newspapers, magazines (lots of them!) and novels. What are the editors getting paid for? And how come mine are always so fussy about picayune details when best-sellers so often are riddled with errors? If I let a few errors slide will that guarantee me best-seller status?

  6. Lorna, you won't like my series because I have some ongoing threads (subplots) and put a "tease" at the end of each book to jumpstart the next. But the main story/mystery is always resolved.
    My peeves: Someone else is always rescuing the heroine. Make her strong enough to get her own hide out of trouble.
    Characters who spend all their time in coffeehouses and restaurants. Get out there and do something!
    The amateur sleuth who muddles around until the villian holds her hostage at gunpoint and then spends hours telling her about the plot. If the hero isn't smart enough to figure out the caper, get a different hero. And if real life the villian would simply shoot the sleuth without a long discussion.
    Not enough clues or detecting work.
    The same stereotypical characters we've seen in every other cozy/thriller/mystery.

    1. Sally, I know that the lead in to the next book is now being done more often, but I really don't like it. i do like a series where minor characters in one book get their own stories, but I want every book to be complete without dangling plot lines.

      I agree with you about strong women. I am one of those. (To my friends: Surprise, surprise.) i refuse to use the word 'heroine' since it conjures up images of damsel in distress.

      And I SO agree about the bad guy not just shooting the sleuth on sight. Totally unrealistic.

  7. I agree, Fiona. Several months after the publication of our first book, "31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park," a friend discovered an error. Since this had gone through three edits, including mine, I couldn't believe it had happened. And it had been there from the first draft. None of us had caught it. Then I picked up TWO bestsellers and found much more blatant errors on the first page of each! Editors used to be well-paid. I know that the independent publishers often don't pay at all but give the editor a small percentage of revenue. However, I continue to do a quality content edit as well as line edit even though I know my time will never be rewarded. (Heck, if I wanted to go back to contract work, I could make a LOT of money and work fewer hours.) I edit for a couple of small presses, but I don't know how to do anything except a thorough one. My own perfectionism requires it.

  8. Yes, the ends should be tied, or at least semi-tied, so the reader feels the issues have basically been resolved and the book is complete.

    I confess to leaving a few loose ends to be answered in a sequel, but not enough where the reader feels cheated.

    Morgan Mandel

    1. I don't mind characters whose fates are not defined at the end of the book as long as the main plot lines are completed. What I hate is a blatant start top the next book which leaves readers wondering why they wated their time.