Top 10 Things That Are Making Readers Put Down Your Romance Novel

At Lyss Em Editing, the ultimate goal is reader immersion. Readers want to get lost in a story, and authors want readers to do this because it means not being able to put down their book and being hungry to pick up the next one. On the flip side, if a reader hits roadblocks that pull them out of the story, they are more likely to close a book and might not ever pick it up again, leave a review, or
recommend your book to a friend.

What are these roadblocks that can trip up your reader? There are several, and they can pop up at the story level (plot, characters, etc.) as well as the mechanics level.

Below are the top ten roadblocks that I see as an editor and that I believe hamper the reading experience the most.

10. Faulty Anchoring / the “White Room”

Anchoring your reader in the story means placing them inside the experience of the point-of-view character at the scene’s present time. They should know where they and the main character are mentally and physically to the extent that the main character themself knows.

The opposite of anchoring is what some refer do as the “white room.” The reader is floating through words with no reference point.

See the below example.

Faulty anchoring: Beginning a scene with pure inner monologue, floating through a series of flashbacks

Effective anchoring: Beginning the scene in the story’s present time before drifting more fully into the character’s inner monologue and the series of flashbacks and then returning to the present

9. Hard-to-Read Sentences

Ideally, your reader doesn’t notice your sentences. As with the physical book or e-reader, your sentences should fade into the background as your reader becomes lost in their meaning. But hard-to-read sentences call attention to themselves, pulling your reader out of the action.

Sentences can be hard to read for a number of reasons. The following are some of the most common.

Misused Pronouns

Pronouns are like variables. You can’t use them without defining them or the reader won’t know what they’re meant to be referring to. As an editor, I tend to suggest using a name instead of a pronoun whenever that pronoun could refer to another name based on the place­ment of the words in the sentence. Below are some examples.

Potentially confusing:

She rode her bicycle to work. Amy hated driving.

Better:

Amy rode her bicycle to work. She hated driving.

Potentially confusing:

Adrian approached the front desk. “A room, please.”

“Certainly,” said the clerk.

He got out his wallet, twitching his toes nervously inside his freshly shined black shoes.

(In the above example, the “he” technically refers to the clerk, not Adrian, as it would appear is the intention based on the paragraph breaks.)

Better:

Adrian approached the front desk. “A room, please.”

“Certainly,” said the clerk.

Adrian got out his wallet, twitching his toes nervously inside his freshly shined black shoes.

Wordiness

Wordiness can cause two problems: clunky rhythm and muddled meaning. In general, it’s best to use as few words as possible to get your sentence’s meaning across, though that can vary depending on style.

Wordy:

The nugget of inspiration dropped into the mental chamber that was my mind.

Better:

The idea dropped into my mind.

Wordy:

The climbing of the mountain was terrifying.

Better:

Climbing the mountain was terrifying.

Repetition

Repetition of words or phrases, especially in the same sentence or paragraph, can be distracting to the reader.

Repetitive:

She didn’t like how he’d said she looked like his mom.

Better:

She didn’t like how he’d said she resembled his mom.

Grammar and Word Usage

This one is pretty obvious, but if words and phrases are misused—such as one word being used when another is intended—the meaning of the sentence can become lost or the reader might trip over the word, having to mentally replace it with the correct one before moving on.

8. Inconsistency

It’s important to be consistent when it comes to spelling and hyphenation as well as story details. For example, readers are likely to notice if Adrian is sometimes called Adrien and if the main character’s hometown is Woodridge in one chapter and Harr­ington in another.

7. Lack of Conflict / False Conflict

Conflict is the backbone of every story. If it’s missing or feels contrived, the reader is likely to get bored or annoyed.

An example of this in romance is the miscommunication conflict. For instance, the hero sees the heroine do something that he misinterprets and that could be easily cleared up with a conversation, yet the conversation doesn’t happen in order to manufacture conflict. This is frustrating to readers because it doesn’t feel genuine. Instead, put real obstacles in front of your characters. Maybe the hero is worried the heroine is cheating on him but is too scared to confront her because he has been cheated on in the past and knows he couldn’t forgive her but doesn’t want to lose her.

Missing conflict is even more deadly. Your characters can’t be simply floating through life, happy and facing no obstacles. Readers need to get invested in your point-of-view character’s struggle.

6. Hard-to-Follow Dialogue

This is something I see in at least half the manuscripts I work on, I think because it’s not often discussed. But it’s crucial to format dialogue in such a way that the reader can always tell who is speaking without having to reread or guess. What makes this possible is effective tag placement and paragraph breaks.

Dialogue tags come in two varieties: speech tags and action tags.

A speech tag describes the speech:

“I love you,” she said.

The speech tag is “she said.”

An action tag is a sentence placed next to a line of dialogue that describes an action by the speaker:

She brushed his bottom lip with her thumb. “I love you.”

The action tag is “She brushed his bottom lip with her thumb.”

When it comes to paragraph breaks, the actions and speech of one character should not be in a paragraph with the actions and speech of another character. Some authors have been taught to always break with a new line of dialogue, but this is a simplistic idea that results in errors. It’s more helpful to think of it as breaking when there is a new actor or speaker. Below is a longer example.

Potentially confusing:

Adrian’s chest ached as he ascended the steps of Hallie’s stoop. He had been here just a few days ago, but the flaking wrought iron looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer his girl but his ex-girl. He shot her a text: Here.

The front door’s hinges whined as Hallie opened it. She didn’t make eye contact as she stepped aside, leaving room for Adrian to enter.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Adrian’s stomach gave a painful flip as he brushed past her. “Your stuff is in a box on the coffee table,” Hallie said. When Adrian caught sight of a furry pale-pink ear peeking over the edge of the box, he clenched his jaw. “You’re not supposed to give me gifts back.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want it sitting around looking at me. It hurts.” Adrian looked back at Hallie over his shoulder and stared until she looked up.

“There’s an easy solution for that. Take it back.” Hallie grimaced.

“Take back the bear?”

“Take back that text. We don’t have to be over.”

Clear:

Adrian’s chest ached as he ascended the steps of Hallie’s stoop. He had been here just a few days ago, but the flaking wrought iron looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer his girl but his ex-girl. He shot her a text: Here.

The front door’s hinges whined as Hallie opened it. She didn’t make eye contact as she stepped aside, leaving room for Adrian to enter. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Adrian’s stomach gave a painful flip as he brushed past her.

“Your stuff is in a box on the coffee table.”

When Adrian caught sight of a furry pale-pink ear peeking over the edge of the box, he clenched his jaw. “You’re not supposed to give me gifts back.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want it sitting around looking at me. It hurts.”

Adrian looked back at Hallie over his shoulder and stared until she looked up. “There’s an easy solution for that. Take it back.”

Hallie grimaced. “Take back the bear?”

“Take back that text. We don’t have to be over.”

5. Confusing Point of View

There are two problems I see over and over when it comes to point of view.

Not Signaling the POV

In stories with more than one POV character, it must be clear whose POV the reader is in when a chapter or scene begins.

In first person, this just means adding the point-of-view character’s name at the beginning of chapters and at scene breaks such as in the following example:

Adrian

My chest ached as I ascended the steps of Hallie’s stoop. I had been here just a few days ago, but the flaking wrought iron looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer my girl but my ex-girl. I shot her a text: Here.

Alternating first-person POV is also more effective if each character has a different voice. Otherwise, readers might forget whose POV they are in as they’re reading.

Making the POV immediately clear in third person means mentioning the point-of-view character by name as close to the beginning of the scene or chapter as possible and before any other character.

Confusing:

The flaking wrought iron of Hallie’s stoop looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer Adrian’s girl but his ex-girl. His chest ached as he ascended the steps. He shot her a text: Here.

Clear:

Adrian’s chest ached as he ascended the steps of Hallie’s stoop. He had been here just a few days ago, but the flaking wrought iron looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer his girl but his ex-girl. He shot her a text: Here.

Head Hopping

This is when the narration flits in and out of multiple characters’ points of view in the same scene or chapter. This is something you will see in older books, but these days, head hopping is frowned upon because it can be confusing and hard to follow. And it most definitely breaks reader immersion.

Potentially confusing:

Adrian’s chest ached as he ascended the steps of Hallie’s stoop. He had been here just a few days ago, but the flaking wrought iron looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer his girl but his ex-girl. He shot her a text: Here.

The front door’s hinges whined as Hallie opened the door. She couldn’t look at Adrian. It felt like if she did, she might tell him she regretted breaking up with him, but she didn’t—not when she really thought about it.

She stepped aside, leaving room for Adrian to enter. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Adrian’s stomach gave a painful flip as he brushed past her.

“Your stuff is in a box on the coffee table.” Hallie hated that her voice shook.

When Adrian caught sight of a furry pale-pink ear peeking over the edge of the box, he clenched his jaw. “You’re not supposed to give me gifts back.” He pointed to the teddy bear that Hallie had shoved into the box at the last minute.

“Yeah, well, I don’t want it sitting around looking at me. It hurts.”

Adrian looked back at Hallie over his shoulder and stared until she looked up. “There’s an easy solution for that. Take it back.”

Hallie grimaced and played stupid because that was easier for her. “Take back the bear?”

“Take back that text. We don’t have to be over.”

Clear:

Adrian’s chest ached as he ascended the steps of Hallie’s stoop. He had been here just a few days ago, but the flaking wrought iron looked more dismal now that Hallie was no longer his girl but his ex-girl. He shot her a text: Here.

The front door’s hinges whined as Hallie opened the door. She didn’t look at him as she stepped aside, leaving room for him to enter. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Adrian’s stomach gave a painful flip as he brushed past her.

“Your stuff is in a box on the coffee table.” Did Hallie’s voice shake or did Adrian imagine it?

When he caught sight of a furry pale-pink ear peeking over the edge of the box, he clenched his jaw. “You’re not supposed to give me gifts back.” He pointed to the teddy bear.

“Yeah, well, I don’t want it sitting around looking at me. It hurts.”

Adrian looked back at Hallie over his shoulder and stared until she looked up. “There’s an easy solution for that. Take it back.”

Hallie grimaced. “Take back the bear?” He knew she was playing stupid. Hallie had always been a shit liar.

“Take back that text. We don’t have to be over.”

As you can see in the above example, it’s possible to convey the other character’s thoughts through description from your point-of-view character, and if there’s something you want to show in the other point of view, you can do so in the next scene or chapter with a POV switch. You can also switch POVs in the middle of a scene with a break, though I don’t recommend doing this in such a way that you have a ton of breaks with short partial scenes between them unless it’s a conscious choice used sparingly for another reason.

4. Hard-to-Distinguish Characters

If you mention a bunch of characters without giving them enough details that distinguish them, they become a list of names that your reader has trouble latching onto. This is especially confusing if done at the beginning of a book when the reader is yet to be acquainted with anyone.

With main characters, this isn’t as difficult. They typically get ample description and unique voices that make them distinct in the reader’s mind; plus, they are mentioned or present for the majority of the scenes. But with secondary characters, making them distinguishable can be a tricky game of describing them enough to make them stand out in the reader’s mind but not more than is appropriate for the characters’ significance in the story. The way to achieve the correct balance is with character tags.

A character tag is a unique characteristic to jog the reader’s memory about a person. If you just have a guy named Jeff, that’s not memorable, but if he’s a guy named Jeff who always wears a top hat, that’s something that will stick in your reader’s head. Some other examples of character tags include the following:

  • walks with a cane
  • has prematurely gray hair
  • has an annoying laugh
  • is obsessed with boats
  • has a lisp
  • has a habit of staring at people a little too long
  • wears lots of rings
  • has a little heart tattoo on her cheek

The possibilities are endless with these.

Another bit of advice that you’ve probably heard over and over is to not give characters names that start with the same letter, and this is good advice. If you have an Isaiah, an Isabelle, an Ian, and an Isaac, your reader might have trouble remembering who is who.

3. Missing or Illogical Character Motivation

Your characters must have believable motivation for everything they do in your story. In other words, it must make sense that they would decide to do whatever they’re doing based on the information you’ve given the reader.

It’s tempting as an author to decide what your character should do and then simply make them do it regardless of anything else. But if the action isn’t in-character, your reader will be asking, “Huh?”

For example, let’s say you have a character who decides to rob a bank. They have to have an understandable reason to do this. Maybe they’re flat broke and need the money. That makes sense. But what if they’re rich and decide to rob a bank anyway? You will have to give them a reason that isn’t financial. In the TV show Prison Break, Michael Scofield has money and robs a bank. His reason? He wants to get himself locked up so he can help his brother break out of prison from the inside. That’s a pretty wild concept, but it’s still believable.

2. Poor Pacing

Pacing was a hard concept for me to grasp when I first started studying story. But it’s simple: it’s the speed at which events happen. When you use a lot of words to convey few events, the pacing is slow. When you use few words to convey a lot of events, the pacing is fast.

It’s important that pacing matches the emotion of the plot. For instance, during the climax, when the tension and conflict comes to a peak, the pacing should be fast. The pacing is likely to increase as the story approaches this climax also. You don’t want your reader thinking to themselves, “Just get on with it already!” Conversely, there are moments when it’s appropriate for the prose to linger on a moment, such as when your point-of-view character lays eyes on their love interest for the first time. The pacing might be slower here due to deeper descriptions of the love interest and the point-of-view character’s reactions to seeing them.

1. Foiled or Mismanaged Expectations

I’ve ranked this issue number one because it’s the most likely to get you bad reviews and have your readers telling their friends not to buy your book. This is because they may feel as if you’ve tricked them by telling them they were getting one thing but delivering another.

The most egregious example of a foiled expectation in romance is when a book is marketed as a romance novel but fails to have the required happy for now (HFN) or happily ever after (HEA) ending. If you do this to readers, they will have no qualms about leaving a scathing review and/or smearing your book on social media. But not all reader expectations are as clear-cut as that one. Sometimes, a book will have an HFN or HEA that isn’t satisfying enough, leaving the reader feeling as though something is missing from the story. Or maybe a book is well-written and delivers on in-story expectations but the marketing is off. For example, suppose you promised the reader an enemies-to-lovers story but the characters resolve their disagreement(s) early on, thus robbing the reader of the expected angst and push-pull inherent to the enemies-to-lovers trope.

Ways to avoid disappointing your readers in this way include the following:

  • reading heavily in your chosen genre to familiarize yourself with its conventions
  • using beta readers to get feedback from your target audience
  • hiring a developmental editor to give you feedback on your story’s structure and content

As you can see, it’s extremely easy to disrupt your reader’s experience. You can’t remove every single thing that could possibly trip up someone, but you can eliminate known issues like the ones in this post by continuing to improve your craft and enlisting the help of people like beta readers and editors.

A developmental editor can help you when it comes to story-level issues, allowing you improve your craft more quickly than you can on your own as they spot problems beta readers might notice but not be able to point out in a way that helps you fix them. A dev editor can make specific suggestions and answer questions from a place of experience. Then a copyeditor can help you avoid problems with grammar and usage and show you how to eliminate distractions at the mechanics level.

Do you notice the above issues when you read? Do you have a reading pet peeve that I missed? Let me know in a comment.

Work with me.

Writing a romance novel isn’t easy. An editor can help you find plot holes and make sure your characters are as sizzling on the page as you intended. Request a free sample edit.

Share Post:

Facebook
Twitter
Tumblr
Pinterest
LinkedIn
Email

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *