Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pet Peeves in Fiction

As readers, we realize that what individuals love or hate in fiction is subjective. I may roll my eyes at a particular plot device, while the reader next to me may love it. I'm not talking about the "rules" of writing, but rather those elements in a story that bug us for various reasons.

Here are some of my main grievances:

The Princess Bride movie references. Once upon a time I loved that movie. It was quirky and fun with understated intelligence. But then it seemed every other book I read quoted, "Inconceivable!" or "As you wish." or some other TPB reference. Isn't it time to move on to something new? Please?

Bullet Point Prose. Here's a quick example: "She typed words on the keyboard. Read them. Erased them. Typed them again." Isn't that the same as this?
  • She typed words on the keyboard.
  • Read them.
  • Erased them.
  • Typed them again.
Yawn. When I read a book, I don't want to read an outline. I'm looking for prose with a flowing cadence, not a jolting stop. Yet I'm seeing this more and more in fiction, especially since writers are consistently being required to trim words. Sure, I can see this technique used in fast-paced thriller scenes, but I'm seeing it everywhere. As a reader it nearly always stops me, and I have to re-read the sentences. I'm just guessing that's not the author's intention ...

Modelesque/Hollywood-type Protagonists. I know, we all like to watch "beautiful" people. Our movies and books are filled with them. But, a book that can use the ordinary and make them a thing of beauty is far more interesting. It's my opinion that if your characters are modelesque, there should be a purpose behind their extraordinary beauty. Just as setting plays an important role in literature, shouldn't character appearance also play a role? Would Jane Eyre have been the same if she had exquisite beauty? Two of my favorite series' have "plain" leads: Trixie Belden, and Hadassah in Francine Rivers' Mark of the Lion series. I've read two authors of late who have used the unconventional lead: Kaye Dacus and Sarah Sundin. Their books prove that the definition of beauty is far broader than a Hollywood description.

Romances where the male and female leads spend precious little page time together. If the book is a romance shouldn't the leads actually spend time with each other? Shouldn't we see them getting to know each other? Show them fight? Tease? Sure, conflict can and should keep them apart emotionally, but shouldn't the book show them interacting in the midst of the conflict? Isn't that how true love grows?

The No-Good, Cheating, Dead-Beat Ex-Husband. Pick out a handful of books classified as Women's Fiction and I'll bet half of them have a female lead who's overcoming her victim hood from her lousy ex-husband. (Or at least it seems half of them use this plot device.) The ex-husband is typically a very shallow, one-dimensional character, and the wife is merely a casualty of his selfishness. I honestly can't read any more fiction with this device. It's old and way overused. I know writers are more creative than that.

Whew. I feel better getting all that off my chest.

Now, here's your opportunity to vent your irritations. What are your pet peeves in literature? What elements of story do you see overused? Do you think I'm nuts? Do you love the very things I hate? I'd love to know. Remember, this isn't about what's technically correct; it's simply about your opinion.


  1. Good topic, Brenda. Let's see:

    1.The bitter backslidden Christian because God didn't prevent the death of a loved one or someone important to them as the plot for the great Jesus-makeover. Grow up.

    2.The game-playing between two people who are supposedly attracted to one another. Okay in a middle school novel but adults? Again, grow up.

    3.And in continuing point number two: two opposites sparring throughout the book when their attraction to each other is the whole reason for the story.

    4.Dead-beat ex-husbands, I agree.

    5.This might be off-topic but in a way it works in this discussion: formulaic plots, down to the precise number of cataclysmic events, solutions, on the next crisis, red herring, whatever. "Perfect" stories with no passion, little imagination, but a correct formula.

  2. Nicole, we are so alike. :)

    I think many of our pet peeves tie into your #5: formulaic. Give me something fresh & original that takes me down unexpected paths.

  3. Characters who don't communicate for a good chunk of the book when the whole issue could have been resolved with a 5 minute conversation. Which, in a broader sense, is when the writer fails to suspend my disbelief.

    Brenda J

  4. Brenda J - I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes a whole plot hinges on a misunderstanding that could have been cleared up if the characters would just talk for 5 minutes. I find myself getting annoyed or angry with the characters rather than emphasizing with them.

  5. Brenda, I'm adding another one:

    Those with these incredible secrets that could cost them everything. How do people get away with hiding these kind of secrets and then suddenly someone shows up who knows it ALL! Please.

  6. LOL -- you guys are making me scared to write!!!!

    Your first point about the brevity of words to describe something is interesting, Brenda, because that's what the publishers seem to be demanding and all the writing courses are teaching. I think it's possible to find a balance.

    Cheryl Wyatt who writes for Love Inspired does an absolutely amazing job of saying a lot with a little and you don't feel jipped in the reading. Every word counts. I started dog-earing pages (and nasty habit that no one should adopt)in one of her books whenever I read a stellar punch of brevity. I gave up when I realized I was dog-earing every page!!! So -- that kind of writing style can work.

    But then I think of a book I just finished reading -- Lilies by Moonlight by Allison Pittman and her descriptive phrases are so unique and they paint a picture that includes all the senes. Definitely not brief, but absolutely stunning, I think!

    Her heroine is beautiful -- but it serves a purpose in the plot and the character development. I really didn't like Lilly when I first 'met' her. Shallow, promiscuous, given to drinking a little too much upon occasion -- all traits that had me holding the book at arms' length! But I persevered for the hero's sake. Fell in love with him right away and lo and behold I was soon swept up into a story that was very different from what I have come to expect in a Christian novel...and yet Allison Pittman used some of the things listed above in her plot: secrets, non-communication, dead-beat exs, definitely opposites sparring -- at first anyway and some back-sliding Christianity, and lets not forget the aformentioned beauty. But Pittman coated all of that in layers of depth and emotion and created a memorable story. So again, I personally don't want to say that anything is overdone because, though the topic might be over-used there's always someone with an incredible imagination who can make it unique.

  7. Sorry to scare you Kav. :) But these are just my opinion, and I'm VERY picky. Obviously, I'm not talking industry or literary standards.

    You're right that an excellent author can take an over-used plot line or story device and make it new, after all there are only 7 basic literary plots.

    You've intrigued me with Pittman's book simply because you didn't like the female lead at first. Now that's different. I don't have to like the leads at first, but I do need to see them change throughout the book. There needs to be an obvious character arc. It sounds like Lilies by Moonlight achieves that.

    But, I don't know if I can get past the dead beat husband. That's probably my biggest pet peeve of all. ;-) Now, if someone wrote about a dead beat wife, that would be different ...

    I'm curious, Kav, are there any story elements that you find yourself rolling your eyes at?

  8. Hey Brenda,

    I've been trying to think of something that has me rolling my eyes but I guess you might say I'm an open book when it comes to fiction. LOL. As long as the author makes it believable, I'm willing to read.

    Re: deadbeat husbands...well you just haven't had the experience I have had, I guess. I find reading deadbeat husband scenarios somewhat therapuetic. And there are a lot more of them out there then you might think!!! Believe me!!!!

  9. I wish I were as open as you, Kav. :) I read a ton & can pick apart 90+% of what I read. Maybe it's a mental exercise for me as opposed to entertainment.

    Re: deadbeat husbands, I am sooo grateful that I'm married to a wonderful man, but I do understand about them. I know women married to them, but I still tire of reading about it. Most often the ex's character is one-dimensional and nobody is one-dimensional. As a reader, I want something different. I want the writer to stretch their imagination. But, that's my uber-picky opinion which really matters only to me.

  10. Uh oh, I'm kind of a fan of the bullet points. The entire book/story can't all be like that, but in certain scenes, depending on the mood of the character, I think it's an effective technique.

    So...I haven't read any official CBA romance, but I've skimmed a few, and... Is the first chapter break up the norm? (Girl thinks guy's going to ask her to marry him, but he breaks up with her instead. Begin story. Yawn.)

  11. Jessica, I'd bet most people are fan of bullet point prose because I see it so often now. I'm probably the odd one out, but that's okay, I'm used to that position. :)

    As for CBA romance ... it's not a genre I usually read so I can't give you a good answer.

    Thanks for stopping by today!

  12. OOOOhhhh I can answer Jessica's question because I read Christian romance. And no, a break up in the first chapter isn't the norm. In fact, I can't think of one of the top of my head that starts out that way.

    And I thought of a pet peeve, Brenda. Secret babies. You know where the heroine has kept the hero's child a secret for years and then they stumble into each other and the secret is out?

    Now, I will say that I have read a couple with that premise and while I was furious at the heroine, both authors did a good job of making the circumstances believable so it worked and I enjoyed the books.

    That's saying something because I don't believe there's a good reason to keep a father in the dark about his own child. Not fair to the father, not fair to the child. I can see where a young girl might go that route out of confusion and fear but hey -- a decade later and she still hasn't told the guy? Uh-uh -- that's pure selfish and reducing the child to a commodity to 'own' instead of a life and blessing to share. Phew -- aren't you proud of me -- I thought of one!!!!!

  13. Yeah Kav!! I am proud of you. :-)

    Secret babies bug me too, unless, as you said, the author creates circumstances that are out of the norm, or if the father's dangerous, etc. The author really has to sell the circumstances.

    I guess, when it comes down to it, all my pet peeves would be acceptable if written from a fresh angle.

  14. Here's another take on the "Perfect Protagonist."