Four Things That Make Me Close a Book

This may be the first of several posts about reading. (Or it may not.)

I’ve been thinking about the process of reading. It seems to me that reading a piece of fiction is more than scanning a text with the eyes and understanding the words. It’s more complex than that. Something happens in the reader’s brain to create the book for that reader. In a way, the reader’s brain works with the writer’s creation to make a new thing. This new thing exists only for that reader, while they are reading. They may think about it afterward, remember it, talk about it with others, or even write about the experience, as one does after seeing a movie.

I will start with a few things (aside from incoherent writing) that stop me from reading a book, or at least make me reluctant to read. They make me want to leave the Mind-Movie Theatre.

  1. Animal abuse
  2. Graphic violence or grossness as the point of the book
  3. A main character or characters I consider hateful
  4. Long sections of nonstop action unrelieved by dialogue, description, or backstory

I am reluctant to read books with scenes that describe animals suffering or being killed, even if the book as a whole is interesting. Human suffering and death are not as repugnant, unless described with gratuitous detail.

Strange, isn’t it? Especially because this abhorrence has grown stronger with age. I seem to recall being able to shrug it off as “only a story” when I was younger. Maybe I can no longer do that because I know too much.

There are books whose point is to induce disgust, or a kind of stomach-churning fascination. Fine, but I’d rather not read them.

Flawed characters are all right, but when a book has no characters with a few sympathetic qualities, I want out.

Reading page after page describing people slashing, stabbing, and hewing each other is too much like work. The mental movie-maker starts to protest. “I’m all out of fake blood,” it whines.

Am I squeamish, cowardly, or in denial? I’m not sure. Am I saying writers should purge such elements from their books? Not at all, but I do want to know they’re there before I commit to reading.

This brings up the matter of “trigger warnings.” While I don’t think it’s necessary to spell out every possible thing that may shock or offend some readers, I do think we authors owe it to our readers to clearly indicate the nature of a book in its description. Words like “harsh,” “gory,” “brutal,” or “explicit” give readers a good idea of what to expect.

Writers and readers, what puts you off reading a book? What do you think of trigger warnings?

Featured image from Pexels.

65 comments

  1. I’m with you on all four points. I am very squeamish so gore does not work with me at all. I enjoy history but along with that comes wars so I often have to gloss over the battle scenes if graphically described. I also stop reading if the story is too bleak like The Road.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’m with you, Audrey. Endless and grotesque violence is a big turn off. If I can see that’s the way a book is going, we part company very quickly. I think an isolated depiction of a violent act gains impact for its sparing use, but would have to be important to the plot development. I also need at least one relatable character, and not necessarily the central one. The voice of the writer, too, is important and there’s something in a compelling narrative that seems to follow the rise and fall of the chest, if that makes sense, otherwise it jars awkwardly and I never get to the end of the story.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think animal and child abuse turn most readers off. And I say that having written a story based on real-life dog abuse. I must have NEEDED to write it because my dog nightmares finally stopped.

    I’ve put aside true-crime stories with grim outcomes. I feel sad for the victim and family, and I feel guilty for reading something that violates their privacy (even if the family profits) unless the book is about an historic case that was eventually solved. So now I don’t even try to read true crime.

    Poor editing will get me, too. Not just a typo per page, but one-per-sentence kind of thing. I was asked to review a book that bad. I couldn’t believe it was published. (I emailed the author instead.)

    I don’t need to like the mc. I don’t need trigger warnings, either.

    About trigger warnings, if the book sends me back to an incident from my childhood and brings on a panic attack, I feel brave and in control when I can close the book and walk away. I am better for it (well, once I can breathe again). But I understand why other readers would want to be warned and turned away beforehand.

    As far as splatterpunk and other extreme horror stories go, I can read them. They are to me like Road Runner cartoons (the falling anvil and so forth). But I’m not sure reading and writing such things are the best use of either the author’s or the reader’s time. Horror can provide comfort to a reader who’s suffering by being a companion in the suffering, but in the end does it really help the reader towards healing? (I’ve been pondering that a lot lately. Maybe it’s a sign I should switch genres!)

    Dang, Audrey, you sure do write thought-provoking blog posts!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Priscilla, for reading this and commenting as you did. I admit your recent book release nudged me to write this post.
      I used to enjoy reading horror more than I do now. Your comparison to Road Runner cartoons is a good one; that was how I regarded gore and violence in fiction then. Somehow I can’t do that anymore, maybe because there’s so much info about real life horrors now that it all mushes together, or maybe I’d rather not experience that stuff in fiction as well as news reports.
      It’s interesting that writing a book involving dog abuse was somehow therapeutic for you. I admit I’ve never thought about that aspect of horror.
      Thanks again for your thoughts!

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Unbelievable characters, situations that very too far from om reality (depending on the genre), boring plots, a plotline that takes too long to get anywhere, especially if anywhere is nowhere ( thinking of Barbara Cartland where the insipid heroine spends 200 pages for her first peck on the cheek). A clumsily derived tongue in cheek of real life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Characters’ superpowers have to be presented in such a way that the reader finds them plausible, which can be tricky.
      I have a pretty high tolerance for slow plots; as long as it looks like we’re going somewhere and there’s interesting scenery along the way, I’m fine. But if the plot seems to bog down too often, I’m tempted to skim and/or abandon the book. In that case, I forget it pretty much immediately, but scenes of intense gore or violence linger like fragments of nightmares.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. “Something happens in the reader’s brain to create the book for that reader. In a way, the reader’s brain works with the writer’s creation to make a new thing.” I find that very true. I’ve had reactions from readers of my books that I never would have expected – that really make my jaw drop, like a couple of people who interpret Griffen Gwidian in The Termite Queen as a stalker. He’s the farthest thing in the world from that.
    As for trigger warnings, the closest I’ve come to that is the descriptions for Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder, which is much more graphic that any of my other books.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I like the way you describe how the reader’s imagination interacts with the writer’s creation to make something that only that reader experiences. Well done.

    One of my biggest pet peeves when reading is a story that introduces too many characters too quickly. If by page 20, I have to keep track three brothers, two sisters, their neighbors on both sides, the guy at the corner store, the one brother’s boss, and the one sister’s husband, and let’s not forget the parents, who are likely divorced, so there are step parents involved as well … and! … too many of have names that are very similar … I’m likely not going to continue on.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Mark. I’m really interested in the way the brain processes writing, mostly because of all those rules I’m always questioning.
      I know what you mean about too many characters, especially if they have similar names. Now I’m thinking about a couple of my books…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Violence against women or children will usually make me put a book down.

    On content warnings: generally, I can tell early on what kind of book it’s going to be from the cover or the teaser synopsis. e.g. when a murder mystery synopsis starts off with, “When a beautiful young heiress disappears…” and etc. I can predict whether I want to read it or not. I can also usually tell by the cover, other reviews, and stuff like that, whether a book is going to be for me or not.

    That said, I’m not against content warnings. When I see a movie, I usually read about it first to get a handle on what to expect. It’s not often you’ll hear me praise the movie industry, but I have to admit, the MPAA rating system is pretty good, at least in theory. If you see an “R” movie, you know to be prepared for some pretty harsh stuff, even if you don’t know exactly what it will be.

    But, to the point that Mark brought up in our chat the other day, what about when a content warning would be a spoiler? Indeed, suppose the whole story hinges on the reader not seeing the dark twist coming. How to handle this?

    As a reader, I’ve read a couple books like this, where they had something that “triggers” me (I dislike using this word in this context, but what the hey), happen in the final act as a surprising plot twist. And the fact is, I enjoyed both books. In each case, the unexpected nature of the twist is necessary for the story to work, and while it may have made me uncomfortable to read, I couldn’t blame the author for doing what they did.

    There’s an element of risk to it. If it works, the reader can do nothing but sit back and say, “You got me.” If it doesn’t, the reader will feel cheated and lied to. This is true with all surprise twists, but maybe even more so with those that involve possibly disturbing material.

    Finally, on distinguishing what needs a warning vs. what doesn’t. This is also tricky. I’m inclined to say that common sense will work in 99% of cases. But I guess you can never be sure. Perhaps there is someone out there who once had a precious silver cow creamer stolen from them, and will be horribly offended by the works of P.G. Wodehouse. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In most cases, the combination of an accurate book description, appropriate (in the sense of fitting the genre) cover, and reader reviews does tell the reader what to expect. Trigger warnings that are in effect spoilers should be avoided, in my opinion, especially if plot twists are compromised.
      Ultimately, we can’t anticipate how 100% of readers will receive our works.
      Silver cow creamer, eh? I definitely have to read some Wodehouse!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I don’t do gore, either. I feel the same about violent, graphic movies. Though I understand we all have individual preferences, I don’t know why anyone would want to put themselves through that. Writers and filmmakers should be able to create suspenseful scenes without all the blood and gore.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I dunno, Pete! Judging by reviews I’ve read for books I’d never read, there are people who actually like extreme gore. Maybe it crosses a line and enters the realm of fantasy, as Priscilla reminded me when she mentioned cartoon violence in her comment.
      There’s something for everyone, it seems, and writers to serve every niche taste.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I never feel compelled to keep reading — anything — except business docs that must be read.
    I dare say I’d have put down any books with those 4 factors long before I got to the repulsive bits, no doubt the poor writing itself would have indicated bad things are ahead.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ironically, it’s good writing about horrible stuff that makes lasting impressions. Especially when the writer creates a character who struggles and succeeds, until something even worse happens to them (or to their dog).

      Like

  10. I agree with you Audrey. And neither am I as tolerant of these ‘gory’ story-lines as in my youth! When I read I imagine the scenes, the characters and so forth…I suppose that’s why! Let’s enjoy reading those books that makes us joyful… Good idea about authors providing warnings. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Lee-Anne. Especially with full names and physical descriptions. Some characters are just ciphers (the uber driver, the postie) and don’t need the full treatment.
      That said, a couple of my books do have some complicated family backstory near the beginning.

      Like

  11. Great topic, Audrey!

    If I sense that there could be a death of a child, I’m done. On my blacklist are books with descriptive abuse (either animal or human) or extreme violence, stories with unnecessary deaths as well as those with just too many plot holes and shallow emotions.

    When I was younger, I would often go through the entire book no matter if I liked it or not. Now, the moment I start disliking it, I close it and move to something else.

    I don’t read horror stories. They’re never been therapeutic to me; they only give me nightmares that can last for years. Having said that, I’ve just read and reviewed something way out of my comfort zone–an extremely well-written but very disturbing dystopian novella.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Like you, I don’t want to read nonstop action scenes. I get bored very quickly. I also don’t go for stomach-churning horror. Why would I want to read something that will make me sick to my stomach? Using the f-word as a verbal tic will also make me stop reading. (I don’t care if all the author’s friends speak that way in real life; it bores me.) Curse words in fiction, particularly that one, should be reserved for times of strong emotion. I do appreciate some trigger warnings that immediately make me say no and move on, so I’m not wasting time reading any further. I try not to write in a way that would need a trigger warning, although I think I’ve walked the razor’s edge at times.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m with you on animal abuse. It often amuses/worries me (depending on my mood) that I can read quite happily about people being abused but not animals. I don’t read books that I know in advance will include child abuse but that’s more a matter of principle – they don’t actually upset me as much as reading about animal abuse does. Strange!
    As for trigger warnings, the words you give as an example are fine, but I hate the kind of trigger warning that gives away a major plot point – child death, elder abuse, abortion, etc. I think it’s possible to get over the idea that the book may have disturbing aspects without spoiling the story for potential readers. I decided not to put trigger warnings on my reviews, but I do try to let people know if there were aspects that I felt were graphic or potentially upsetting. Not always easy to do!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m the same as you when it comes to child abuse–definitely would rather not read about it, but for some reason animal abuse seems even worse. And I don’t know why.
      Your reviews don’t need trigger warnings, since you explain things clearly without spoilers.
      The word “disturbing” is useful without being too specific.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I usually never get to all the things you describe and I don’t like either, for one simple reason – its blurb. I never open it. But if I do try a book, the single most common reason I close it, is that I think it’s just dumb, be it the writing or the storyline.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I notice that reading preferences do change over time. I used to hate reading horror and romance genres, but now, I find myself becoming a horror nut and enjoying historical romance novels. I personally don’t like overbearing amounts of descriptions. I feel like it takes away from the storyline, and I find myself becoming rather bored while reading them. I agree that some sort of trigger warning is a good idea! I’m in the middle of writing my first novel, which is a horror, and I plan on letting my readers know that there are some disturbing things that happen in the novel. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and happy Monday! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Audrey,
    First my sincerest apologies for blathering on and on! Oh my goodness 😊!! Lolol But you brought up a point that I’m so passionate about that I wrote a dissertation length comment & felt the need to come back to apologize to you & your fellow readers! Lolol 😄! Especially since I just found your site and as I say below absolutely love it! However, Onwards! Lolol…
    I absolutely loved this post and even more so as it was my very first post of yours I read on your site which I’m enjoying immensely!

    I do absolutely agree with you about warning ⚠️ people about content! One of my WordPress sites, Lady Anne’s Scribbles, which is mainly a personal poetry & editorial essay site, starts out with a warning that not only is it NOT appropriate for anyone under 18, BUT, I then continue on directly below that to state that a lot of my poetry (and I use that term loosely Lolol, as I’m definitely not a professional writer nor particularly good creative writer IMOHO! Lolol 😄 – we being our own harshest critics! Lolol 😄! ), as well as other items, are in a sense, me, trying to work through a very violent situation I went through.

    I then re – warn ⚠️ the reader again on each individual poem or essay if it is about that, and warn ⚠️ especially people who are trying to come to terms with their own situations and haven’t yet reached a point in their process to feel comfortable or even that it could trigger a PTSD episode so I recommend that they wait before reading it, if at all.

    I PROFOUNDLY and ARDENTLY feel that it is ABSOLUTELY my responsibility to warn ⚠️ people and I was overjoyed to see you addressing this particular issue as I’ve had this happen to me.

    I would also like to thank anymore who’s read my work and 1 – thanked me for the warnings and 2 – for the overwhelmingly outpouring of support, kindness, and honestly – as you could/can seriously blow me over with a feather 🪶 to this day – for the amazing comments I’ve received, none of which was expected but all of which was positive bordering on the profound for several. BUT – they all started with something along the lines of “first I’d like to thank you for putting up that warning ⚠️!”

    It is indeed our responsibility, as writers, to warn ⚠️, our readers about ANY CONTENT that could be potentially graphic, jarring, or in anyway harmful to their state of mind or sense of being. I simply cannot stress this enough and have even found myself in the midst of reading something and without any forewarning found myself in the middle of something extraordinarily off-putting, to the point I just could not finish the book – sadly.

    So, again, I absolutely cannot thank you enough for bringing this up and doing so in such an eloquent, intelligent, and superb manner!
    Very Respectfully,
    Lady Anne ^^ö^^
    (Jessica M. Kandal, PhD)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad my post was agreeable to you, Jessica. I do think we authors must give readers a clear idea about the contents of our published works, especially if they approach or cross lines of acceptability. I myself favour using the book’s description for this purpose, but if an author wants to use the “trigger warning” label, that’s fine too. Some caution against being so specific that they constitute spoilers.
      I have myself bought a book based on its description and then discovered it wasn’t what I expected, to the point I abandoned it unfinished. So I can relate to your comments.
      Thanks, Jessica, for reading and sharing your thoughts on this topic!

      Like

      1. Whoops! This was my fault for misunderstanding/misreading your original post as well! Lolol I was referring ONLY to private poems or essays I’d written on my site – I always put up a warning ⚠️ before I post the poem/essays below them as – like anything we read – I feel strongly, as you do, that’s the author’s responsibility. My apologies for not reading that correctly! Although either way, I 100% agree with you!
        Very Respectfully,
        Jessica M. Kandal, Ph.D.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. “I’m all out of fake blood,” it whines. Hehehe. That made me laugh, Audrey. Yes, I think trigger warnings (or using the blurb to inform readers about what to expect) make sense. Not for every little thing that offends people (since some people are easily offended), but for the big things – animal abuse, child abuse, rape, and erotica. Those are mine anyway. Violence is a tricky one. I don’t mind violence and it can be graphic, but there’s a limit. Gratuitous violence and endless blood and guts wear on me. Does it need a trigger warning? Maybe not, but it may show up in my review as something I didn’t enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I totally agree with you. I love a good thriller but I don’t understand that fascination/ obsession with a lot of blood and unnecessary disgusting details. Yes, a good book is one that you can’t forget but does it have to be repugnant in order to achieve that? Maybe, I have enough of that in real life, being Haitian, or simply human cause the whole world is swimming in a blood bath. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a good point here, Nina JO; could be that when times are quiet, some people want to vicariously experience blood and gore, but when there is a lot of that in real life, we prefer pleasant distractions.Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  19. Loving the roundup of four excellent reasons why you close a book, especially when it comes to hateful characters.

    I also enjoyed your thoughts in a previous post on book reviews on how it is perfectly fine to close a half-finished book and walk away. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  20. For me it’s too many characters, especially if their names are similar (why do some writers do that). I need to get to know the characters and understand them. Perhaps not all of them but all of the major characters.

    The other thing that puts me off is just a poorly written book that has me catching myself daydreaming while I’m reading because I’m either lost or bored. That will do it every time.

    Interesting topic in your blog. Unlike yourself I’m not put off by animal abuse in the written form as long as the perpetrator gets what’s coming to him or her before the book ends.

    Liked by 1 person

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