Zeke the Cat sleeping on pond bench,

“Boring!”

A cat would rather sleep than read a book.* So would many readers, if the book they’re reading is boring.

This is the ultimate condemnation of a piece of writing. It’s OK (sort of) for a book to be gross, disgusting, crude and even lame (well, lame isn’t so good), but to be labelled boring means a book is a dead duck. Review sites are full of comments like, “If you can’t sleep, take this book,” or, “The only time the story moved along was when I threw the book at the wall.” Accompanied by single stars.

So, authors — don’t write boring! Easy peasy.

But…

What is boring, anyway?  “Boring,” like “fun,” “profound,” or “disgusting,” is a judgment, not an absolute.

Words and phrases often seen in reviews along with “boring” include: slow, too much description, too complicated, doesn’t go anywhere.

So, to many readers, “boring” = slow, wordy, confusing, pointless. But some readers describe slow-paced books as engrossing, with vivid descriptions, complex characters and intricate plots. Questions, puzzles or mysteries engage readers and make them eager to go on the journey created by the author, even if it’s 700 pages long.

For examples of diverging reader opinions, have a look at Goodreads reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

The deciding element seems to be purpose — slow or fast, wordy or terse, simple or complex, if a story doesn’t present a destination, however distant, many readers are not willing to put in the time and effort to read it. To put it crudely, there has to be a payoff.

July 2, 2012

Where?

A book must offer something worth the reader’s time, a path with promise. If the path heads into a dismal swamp or an arid wasteland, instead of climbing to gorgeous views and dramatic heights, the reader will turn around and go home.

Beautiful prose alone isn’t enough reason to keep reading. A plot full of twists and turns won’t keep the reader’s interest if it wanders around aimlessly without a resolution. Fulsome descriptions, extensive backstory, and philosophizing by the narrator put demands on readers’ patience, but they are willing to do the work and put in the time if there is a question to be answered, a mystery to be solved, a revelation to be revealed. The author must acknowledge this and keep the story moving, even if it’s slow and complicated.

Some readers appreciate books that require a bit of intellectual effort. Others demand pure escapism, effortlessly absorbed. The cover image and book description should accurately signal the book’s genre and tone, but, like body language at a cocktail party, there may be room for misinterpretation. If a book’s exterior says “I’m a thriller,” but the story inside is actually romance or another genre, readers feel deceived.

Once annoyed with a book, readers may detach from the story and start to notice things they wouldn’t otherwise: overused phrases or reminders of character quirks; writing that calls attention to itself  (“Hey, check out my strong verbs!”); potentially confusing complications such as chronological and p.o.v. jumps. And, of course, typos, misspellings and grammatical errors.

At this point, the reader closes the book never to open it again. Or maybe throws it at the wall and writes a one-star, one-word review: “Boring.”

Finally, “boring” may be short for “It wasn’t my kind of book.” Reading, after all, is a two-way process. Just as publishing has become easier, so has reviewing and commenting on books. Not all reviews and comments are thoughtful and eloquently expressed.

Authors, be aware of the expectations your book creates, and make sure it delivers what is promised.

Readers, if you think a book is boring, try to figure out why, and put those thoughts into your review. They might help the author write a better book.

* Of course, cats would rather sleep than do just about anything.

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24 comments

  1. You’re right – ‘boring’ is often in the eye of the beholder (mind of the reader, as it were). Different people will always have different tastes. I suspect that’s particularly true of the difference between so-called ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ writing. That said, it’s possible books can be MADE to be boring, if people are forced to read it. I had an English teacher at high school who was a master at the technique. He even rendered ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next’ and ‘Catch-22’ excruciatingly dull! (I might have mentioned him before…)

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  2. As a novice writer, I’m learning on how to keep the story moving. I often feel I don’t put enough detail, yet it can also be overkill. It must be a learned craft to keep the reader interest, the story moving, and the characters developing. For me, it is a hobby that I enjoy and keep learning the more I write. I think I would starve if I had to depend on my writing. Thank you for sharing a critical area.

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  3. Great post Audrey. I agree that boring can be sometimes in the eye of the beholder. And some novels should come with a manual how to read them (if they did, nobody would read it :-). Sometimes I feel some reviews are a little unfair since initial expectations were very far from what was put into a book. But that’s the reader’s privilege.

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  4. Good post Audrey. Great advice. I concur with others have said about ‘eye of the beholder’. Boring really depends on what turns your crank. For murder mysteries I like to write in ‘scenes’, with each one ending in a conflict, confrontation or revelation that keeps the tension ramped up and the story moving forward.

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    1. Maintaining forward motion is especially important in genres such as mysteries and thrillers. Writers of literary fiction are allowed to meander a bit more, but they have to engage their readers and persuade them to come along.

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      1. It is frustrating to see reviews without substance. We all have our genre preferences. One may not be a fan of a particular genre but still respect the writing and all of the work that has gone into it – something that non-writers just don’t get. There is a big difference between simply liking or disliking and critiquing a piece of writing.

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  5. These are good points Audrey which the novice and lesser known writers need to take notice of. Sadly those who are fashionable or have their own devoted followings don’t feel the need for this and indulge far too much and do not set a good example.
    Then it has to be said there are readers who seem to fancy themselves as lit. critics, saving their venom for new authors and leave me feeling ‘Those of cannot write, criticise’ . If they are going to say ‘boring’ I expect a good mannered chapter & verse reason why they felt that way.

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    1. Ha, I like your observation that those who can’t write criticise. It makes sense. And yes, the worst one-star reviews are those that condemn a book as boring without saying why. They’re not helpful, either to the writer or other potential readers.

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              1. I’d have a tough time with the first. Sensible and constructive I can accept. Snarky; the temptation to give a quirky response would be very strong!
                On the serious side, sadly the latter prohibition breaks down very quickly.

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  6. Someone once said if you find it boring to write something others will find it boring to read. That’s a rule I live by. If I’m not looking forward to writing a scene or a chapter, I don’t write it.

    And I’ve read a lot of reviews of books, films, television series where the reviewer says something along the lines of ‘it was so boring I fell asleep.’ No you did not! No one in the history of the world ever fell asleep because they were bored. Fatigue doesn’t work that way, you liars.

    There. Had to get that one off my chest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It could be that if tired enough, you would fall asleep no matter what you’re reading. Experiments could be done! But I’ve seen at least two different books compared to Ambien; the physiology of a sleep-inducing drug is different from simple fatigue, so maybe they were onto something. (Maybe.) A good point, in any case!
      And I like your observation that boring to write = boring to read. I’ll keep that in mind as a beaver away on my current opus.

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