Some people are more annoying than others—and you know who you are. And some writers are more annoying than others—and you may not know who you are. So I’m here to help. Here are six ways writers of fiction can annoy the heck out of the readers:
- Give your characters similar or hard-to-pronounce names
Fantasy writers, I’m talking to you. How in the world am I supposed to pronounce Fleurxgh? Sure, I know fantasy names can be fun and creative, but it’s irritating to repeatedly read a name that defies pronunciation.
That’s not the only way to annoy your reader with character names, though. I’m a Louis L’Amour fan, but I remember reading one of his novels that had several characters with similar names—something like Fletcher, Finnegan, and Fallon. Come on, man, throw me a “Bone” here or there.
- Make your characters talk too much and say too little
Characters in stories by developing writers (I’m one, too) talk way too much—and say far too little. Don’t get me wrong, I love dialogue, and I sometimes skip over passages with no dialogue. But dialogue is not transcribed speech. I sometimes call it telescoped speech. So don’t have your character answer the phone and say, “Hello, Alison speaking. Yes, this is she. Oh, hi, how are you, Fiona?” and so on. Have her put the phone to her ear and say, “Yeah, what do you want?” Fewer words, more calories.
- Head hop
It was different back in the day, when Dickens and Austen were writing. But to modern readers, point of view is important, so it’s important to master it. That is, know what POV you’re using and who your POV characters are, and don’t depart from it. When you “head hop” (cheat POV by giving me, the reader, information from more than one POV at a time, it reminds me that there is an author pulling the strings—and fiction readers never want to be reminded that it’s “just a story.” We want to lose ourselves in the story, and head hopping ruins the illusion.
- Explain the obvious
This is one reason dialogue tags can be so dangerous. We write:
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that,” she warned.
Yeah, I sorta picked up on that from her words; you didn’t have to tell me it was a warning. As my son would say often in his teen years: “I’m not stupid, you know,” he said disgustedly.
It’s better to stick with simply “he said” (which most readers skip over anyway) or, best, tag dialogue with action, not words (He tossed his math book across the room. “I’m not stupid, you know.”).
- Use “crutch” words
We all have them. One of my crutches is the word “nod.” People in the first drafts of my stories nod way too much. So that’s one of the searches I perform in self-editing in order to root out all but a nod or two. Many fiction writers have their characters look here and look there and look everywhere. Others overuse “frown,” “smile,” “turn,” “motioned,” etc.
- Write detailed descriptions that have nothing to do with the plot
Years ago, I edited a book for a writer who frequently descended into comprehensive descriptions of a room: furnishings, paintings, knick knacks, fabrics, you name it. It was excruciating. I commented, half joking, that he shouldn’t imitate descriptions in home design magazines to set the scene; he later admitted that’s exactly what he was doing! Yikes. Your reader needs vivid hints to set the scene, and not much more.
What about you? What annoys you as a reader of fiction?
Detailed descriptions . . . Hey, it’s OK if I don’t imagine the scene exactly the way the author does. Grant me a little freedom.
My inpatient son, then in middle school, came across more description than he liked in his first exposure to Dickens. He said, “Somebody should teach this guy how to write!”
Yep, it was different back in the day.
Yes, Shirlee. Absolutely. Give me (as a reader) enough to begin imagining, but let me finish the imagining process.
Rebekah Love Dorris
Seriously, I also have bobblehead characters who constantly cross and uncross their arms—anything to prevent me using “he said” again. How can we avoid this? I guess I just need to study some Chris Fabry books and brush up on vivid description.
“Bobblehead characters.” Brilliant.
Sharon Kay Connell
Great article, Bob. Sometimes I try to write as if I were a reader. No…I am not skitzo. And I don’t have any more of a split personality than any other writer. LOL But when I do my first read-through of what I’ve written in a story, I try to do so as a reader would and catch the things you mentioned above. It’s not an easy job, but someone has to do it, right?
Thank you, Sharon. You’re right, it’s not an easy job….but worth doing.
Great advice! I get ripped for long sections of self-reflection. I can’t help it. My characters overthink. It’s a habit they inherited from their creator. Fortunately, my editor gave me some tips to break it up so it is more palatable.
Overthinking can be a revealing character trait….but in fiction as in real life it can also be annoying. Not that I know anything about overthinking, myself.
Thank you! I just watched a YouTube video about this yesterday. All these points are so helpful to remember.
Crutch words are my downfall. All my characters grin, especially when they make award-winning statements that fill every plot hole in my story (ta-da!). I normally have to do a Ctrl+F and replace my grins with other fun actions that keep the pace of my book going!
One I would add is explaining too much, which I’ve learned is called “throat clearing.” I guess that would fall under “useless descriptions,” but instead of describing the scenery, the writer describes each character’s back story in one giant paragraph. There is an interesting dialogue going on, and then all of a sudden the writer finds it necessary to explain where each character is coming from, and then the story continues again. I’m working on improving this in my own writing as well!
You’re right, Bob. Things are sometimes better left unsaid 🙂
Great advice. I have been dinged on bobbleheadedness and other words of repetition. A lot.
So I have created (and continue to) an Excel sheet of overused words. Any repeat action above the neck more than once in a novel is too much, and as a reader and writer I notice this, even phrases that repeat.
I read an article about word hoarding. Great article and I add that into my spreadsheet as well as behaviors that I can replace DTs (not delirium tremors…) with. Also, assigning certain actions/words to each character is a great way to define and make that one character unique. At which point, one doesn’t need a dialogue tags, not even behaviors.
I might add, extra behaviors may be as bad as DTs + action. One needed.
A friend of mine read my MS and noted how many eyebrows were raised. She said, too many. Then, she threatened to shave eyebrows. Last, her comments in the MS said ‘runs after Claire with a bat.’
As I write first draft at lightning speed, I don’t get into the uniqueness or DT (sometimes I need those for me!), behaviors. These come later during my rewrite(s) and edits.
Great timing for this article. I’ve rewritten my first novel and I’m doing a search for repetitive words. Oh, my! Talk about overuse. I’m presently removing a ton of some, something, someone, somehow and I’m liking the rewritten sentences better.
Repetitive words are repetitive. Repeatedly.
Ctrl+F is my best friend when I’m editing! I did some research on common “filler words,” so now I’m going through and taking those out. Rewriting is a joy as much as it is a chore 🙂
Overuse of italics. When a character thinks, and dithers, and then asks question after question (all in italics) it drives me nuts. These same characters obsess over the male main character, and how much they dislike the guy, until they suddenly realize it was love all along.
Oh, I get so annoyed in fiction and drama when the characters act in transparently obtuse ways. (Can someone be “transparently obtuse?”)
Amen on italics. I am guilty. It works for internal dialogue, but not much else.
I also … overuse … ellipses … to … my … peril. My proofer comes after me with a hatchet for that. ‘Stop it. Stop it. No, really. Stop it!)
Creative spelling of a common name also pulls me out of the story every time. To me, it’s best to spell it the usual way.
Great reminders. Thanks!
Yep. I’m thinking I’m not going to be able to finish editing my first manuscript until The Steve Laube Agency runs out of tips. By far my favorite well to draw from 🙂
It’s what we do. 🙂
Same here! Whenever I think it’s ready, I find more room for improvement. However, isn’t there always room for improvement?
Many blessings on your writing, rewriting, and editing (repeat as necessary)!
These are too good! Thank you!
For me, it’s ‘loving;y’ described violence. The last Tom Clancy novel I tried to read opened with the stabbing of a Mossad station chief in a Rome lavatory whilst servicing a dead drop (unrealistic, by the way), and the detail was nauseating enough to make me close the book and send it back to the library.
I don’t need those images in my head; I have enough from real life.
As much as I love Christian fiction, big preachy sections cause much gnashing of teeth.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
I’m with you on that, Michelle. I pay too much to my dentist to gnash my teeth too much, so I would just toss the book….Ayn Rand about drove me insane with “Atlas Shrugged.”
Agent said why, why, why? You are preaching to the choir. Get rid of the Christianese.
I did. I hope.
I know. I’m guilty too. I’m learning to use “truthlets” (thank you, Susan May Warren) rather than sermons. It takes some getting used to!
Thanks, Bob, for the great advice. I need to keep this particular blog post beside my computer when I write. I know these things, but I need constant reminding to prevent me from slipping into them unconsciously.
My characters have the same nodding problem. And my thesaurus hasn’t helped much. If they don’t nod too much, they point too much. I need to tell them to just stop it!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
My characters turn around and look at others a lot…frequently…I confess. They also laugh quite a bit…I mean, I’m glad they’re happy because they aren’t very pleased a lot of the time…Oops! Thanks, Bob!
Using a clever word more than once. It’s so clever, it stays in my mind and nudges me every time it comes up again as if to say ” Hey, did you get that??” Let’s use the thesaurus, folks! Another clever word is only a click away.
Yes, Nancy. I think it was Charlie Shedd who listed rules for writing that included not using an unfamiliar or noticeable word more than once in a whole manuscript.
Oh, the annoyances that we list
with relief, and some unholy glee
that we can watch Dickens twist
in head hops’ breeze; then agree
on nuances that just shouldn’t exist,
like grinning and nodding; but I see
in my own prose that I persist
in using these; I can’t get free
of what was conventional style
ere today, and now, benighted, raises bile.
I’m with you … I enjoy reading a nice, thick doorstop with an omniscient narrator, like in Tolstoy (poignant) or Trollope (funny). Of course, those guys were masters.
Thanks, Jennifer! And I am with you in your preferences.
Joyce K. Ellis
To expand on your comment about a writer’s tendency to live in the Land of Nod, one of my pet peeves is the redundancy that often accompanies that word.
When I’m teaching, I often ask my students to watch me as I nod. “This means yes, right?” I say.
Then I shake my head. “And this means no.”
Therefore we do not have to say he nodded yes or she shook her head no.
Yet I see that all the time in mss. I edit or critique.
We also don’t need to say that the characters nodded their heads. What other body parts can be used to nod?
I nod in agreement with your comment.
Molly Jo Realy
Love this, Bob. I know I use “nod” quite often. How do you get around it without being too wordy?
I have to remind myself that people seldom nod without other action or expression. And there are many other actions with which one can tag dialogue.
“It’s better to stick with simply “he said” (which most readers skip over anyway)…”
I hear this a lot and I think it’s wrong.
First, it’s controversial whether readers skip over ‘said’. I for one don’t skip it and it annoys me when authors rely on it too much. I once read a space opera where all the author used was ‘said’ — he said, she said, Bill said, Ted said, Fran said, etc. — and it became increasingly grating. I would of killed for some ‘warned’, ‘cautioned’, ‘presumed’, or similar boogeymen to be thrown into the mix. Even actions, which you rightly laud, can be noticeable if used constantly. Sometimes characters just need to speak.
Best to use a mix of everything, or avoid a dialogue tab altogether, so the reader doesn’t notice the repetition. And that sort of ties back to your ‘crutch words’ point which I also concur with.
“Write detailed descriptions that have nothing to do with the plot”
Not a fan of epic fantasy I see 🙂
Thank you for posting. I enjoy the site.
You could be right. However, it could be that the writer who annoyed you with “he said” simply used too many tags, when using action to tag the dialogue or writing a scene in such a way as to make tags unnecessary could have prevented “he said” from becoming annoying.
One of the fastest ways to annoy me as a reader is with characters whose choices aren’t consistent with their backstory or previous behaviors and the the only explanation for their behavior is “it was in the script.” This is twice as bad when the choice just seems to lack any reasonable level of intelligence.
In my own early draft manuscripts, I have definitely noticed a few bobbleheads. I like your perspective that people rarely nod without doing something else as well. It’s a useful way of looking at it.
I’ve noticed books by the same author that tend to use the same descriptive crutch phrase: “She wiped her sweaty palms on her pants.”
I use Ctrl-F a lot too. I discovered my characters were doing a lot of “turning” and “grinning.” And don’t even get me started about my overuse of “very” (you supply the adjective.)
I suspect it’s *very* annoying to my readers.
Meg Mac Donald
Matthew, I’m in your camp. “Said” can be invisible…until it is overused, then it makes me as weary as completely tagless dialogue that runs for pages and you have talking heads in the dark. I don’t mind a little tagless dialigue when it is clear who is speaking. It often works to kick up the pace in an argument or banter. I would rather “see” what’s going on (stage directions, as it were), with the dialogue woven in naturally. Good dialogue (and correct punctuation) tells us what the mood of the character is.
Worldbuiling, Good. Info Dumping, Bad. Please, I don’t need to have the Great Tree described for four pages, but if I need to know they light it with fluorescent bats, do mention it before the fate of the land depends on the return of said bats.
Nancy, you would definitely not like Gene Wolfe. lol
Bob, this was another great post. BTW, I’d pronounce “Fleurxgh” Fleur-zig or with a guttural fleur-zaugh (as in van Gough—which does not rhyme with van go).
Here’s hoping I caught all of my ohone’s autocorrects. It really did not like this reply. lol
It’s not helpful to read two sentences that say the same thing. One sentence can be narration, and the other dialogue that pretty much repeats what the first sentence said.
Timely post. Such good advice. Just ask my editor how much my characters pace. They can’t sit still. And weasel words? I bet you see at least one in this reply.
As a reader, you’ll lose me when characters just accept the opposing view and change their behavior on a dime. Like when the antagonist hears the impassioned speech from the protagonist and goes, “oh, okay, fair enough, looks like I was wrong.”
As a writer, I tend to focus too much on blood pressure. People get flushed, their pulses race, veins in their neck throb and their blood pressure rises. When I read it back in my early drafts, it’s so frustrating it makes my blood boil. 🙂
hallo Bob, great list!
to #6 – where’s the line on “too much” description? perhaps because i’m also an actress and i visualize the setting, or because (and this more likely) because i’m an interior designer, i tend to get too descriptive describing my characters’ surroundings. on the other hand, when i read stories with zero indication of decor or setting, i flounder and feel lost…
~ Robin E. Mason
What annoys me as a reader?
Unrelatable female characters. This is a particular problem in some sci-fi.
OK, it’s fine if your ex-Navy SEAL character only needs 3 hours of sleep a night and is impervious to pain, but does every single character in the book have to be like that? Even the women?
I guess it’s because when I am whisked away to an exotic world, I like to imagine it’s one that I could actually inhabit, not one where I’d instantly get killed because I am a weak, contemptible normal person.
That’s what’s so great about the Lord of the Rings … the main characters (the Hobbits) start out as flabby homebodies who love their creature comforts, and even later, when they have toughened up, there are natural limits to their warrior skills and athleticism. Yet they are still treated as having value.
Jennifer, you’re spot on, and you highlighted one of my pet peeves.
Tier One operators are almost never depicted accurately…they aren’t impervious to pain, they can get by on little sleep for awhile, and while they’re fit, that’s not the defining quality.
Their hallmark is mindset; it’s not the ability to ignore pain, but the willingness to go on in spite of it. Part of that’s nature, but the necessary nature begets nurture…you CAN learn how far you can push yourself, and it’s way further than you would have thought.
It’s hard to really describe in words, because the skill sets and the apparent ‘toughness’ are more immediately accessible, but if you start with a character who looks for excuses not to give up, you’ve got a good beginning.
When I said “impervious to pain,” I didn’t mean it literally. I meant having the kind of attitude you describe, as a habit of mind, plus substantial natural gifts of endurance and a history of training such as military or martial arts training. All before the story begins.
Sure, people like that exist (and I really admire them), but they’re kind of rare. If an author creates a world where only people who have already been extensively trained (or have trained themselves) can survive, it does not do much for hobbits like me. I like it when there’s room in the world for sick people, pregnant mothers, kids, etc. Then the one or two people who are already well prepped for adversity are that much more heroic, because they’re actually a lifeline in the midst of disaster.
Sorry for the long post.
(Tier One operators means … Navy SEALs, I’m guessing?)
I like Hobbits too, Jennifer. They’re my favourite folk.
Tier One are SEALs, Delta, GSG9, SAS, and especially (well, to me), Marine Force Recon.
They are rare, but one thing they’re taught to be is accessible, and that often doesn’t come out in fiction (books or films). I can’t do any good by impressing you in a bad situation, but if I can help you to impress yourself, I’ve not only increased your chances for survival – I’ve increased my own by making you a potential force multiplier.
Battles aren’t won by force; they’re won by the love of what we’re protecting.
Thanks for the education. You are very accessible. 🙂
Jennifer, thank you. We’re truly all in this together.
Not especially interested in event after event without any depth in character(s). Also, have just completed a book that surprisingly had one traumatic experience after another without a break, then suddenly all ends happily. It didn’t sound like natural experiences people might have in life. It felt a bit as if the author was trying to hard.
I was kind of looking for a “roller coaster” effect; where I’m lulled into a rest period, then everything plunges and I have to hold on tight!
But many times I get too close to my writing, and never consider the points in this post–Thanks, Bob!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Well, Bob, after all the deep and thoughtful posts, this may seem petty, but you asked. 😀 I really don’t like to read highly descriptive passages that don’t have any directionality in them, then find later that relative positions and directions very much mattered. I just finished a book that did that.
I’m annoyed by reading and imagining a pivotal scene, then in the NEXT chapter reading about the same scene, seeing something like “To her right…” (I had pictured it on her left) or “Off to the north…” ( I had pictured it to the south), or “the river turned sharply, and in the wheelhouse, the setting sun suddenly blinded Jack,” (I had pictured the them traveling due east). Re-orienting is a significant distraction. I savor the detailed descriptions and picture the details of the settings as I read. If you’re going to tell me all about the overstuffed chair by the fireplace where the crime took place, then at least tell me which side of the fireplace it was on in the initial description, instead of forcing me to reconstruct the entire drama in my mind when the detective investigates it a few chapters later and it mattered that the victims right arm was closest to the heat.
I wish the author would leave directions and positions out and let me imagine all the way, or if that detail matters, reveal it up front. (Sigh. The burden of an overly-visual mind. ;-D)
Yes, Linda, absolutely. I heartily agree. I once had to edit a manuscript for a novelist that had been accepted for publication…but as I read, I kept a map of physical locations…and when I finished, and showed it to the author, he said my map was the reverse of what he had in mind. Coulda fooled me. Actually, he DID fool me! Hate when that happens. So disorienting.