Road Blocks to Reading

Mark Paxson

Over at her blog, Audrey put up a post about what makes her close a book before she reaches The End. Her list of four includes: animal abuse; graphic violence or grossness as the point of the book; a hateful main character; long sections of action unrelieved by dialogue, description, or backstory.

I thought I’d bring that conversation over here because it’s an interesting topic for writers to consider as they write their stories. Not that I think one reader’s view of the road blocks is determinative. No, definitely not that. And Audrey mentions in her post how reading a book is a complex thing, an interaction between the writer’s imagination and the reader’s imagination. The result of that interaction is that the experience, the outcome, may just be different for every reader.

But, still, there are good reasons a writer might want to consider the possibility of road blocks. Each of Audrey’s road blocks is legitimate and likely held by a lot of readers. People don’t want to read about animal abuse (or child abuse), and endless graphic violence can turn off a lot of people. And, of course, one of the rules of writing is that there has to be something appealing about the main character. Right?

I commented on Audrey’s post about one of my road blocks and decided to post a few more here. But … before I do that, let me first acknowledge that I almost never have a “did not finish” on books that I read. I almost always power my way through to the bitter end. Although, I did one time stop reading a book with less than ten pages to go because … I. Just. Didn’t. Care. Anymore. Nope. I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I didn’t care how the author wrapped things up. I just didn’t care. So I stopped reading.

And that’s the first road block.

  1. Characters and/or a story line that I don’t care about. Yes, that’s vague and very specific to me. What am I going to care about? How can the writer know? I have no idea and I can’t really explain what it is that I’m looking for, but I’ve got to care about what I’m reading. Good luck writers of the world!
  2. Too many characters introduced too quickly. This really is at the top of my list, and it’s what I mentioned over on Audrey’s blog. If ten pages in, you have introduced 15 different people to me, I’m not really going to be very happy. Even worse, is if they have similar names or similar relationships. You know, like Andrew, who has four sisters — Ann, Anna, Annie, Annalisa. And Andrew’s best friend is Anthony. Stop it already!
  3. Taking too long to expose what the story actually is. I’m not sure how I select books to read, but frequently I do so without reading the blurb. Or, if I read the blurb, I don’t immediately start reading the book. It may sit in the stack for a month or two before I crack it open and, by then, I have long forgotten what the blurb disclosed. As a result, frequently, when I start reading, I have no idea what the story is actually about. And it absolutely pisses me off if the author doesn’t get into the story line and disclose something that gives me an idea pretty early on. Seriously, if I get to page 50 and I still have no idea what I’m reading and why I’m reading it, I’m going to start wondering why I’m bothering when there are other books in that stack.
  4. Too much description. How much is too much? I don’t know. I just don’t need or want a lot of description in what I read. See above about the importance of the reader’s imagination contributing to the outcome of the story for that specific reader.

The thing about this list, as I state above, is that none of these things typically rise to the point where I close the book and don’t finish it. And it’s a good thing in some instances. For example, the first time I read Kite Runner, I wanted to close the book after the first 20 pages or so. I read the first chapter (or was it two?), and I had no idea what I was reading. But I didn’t, and that book is now in my list of favorite books. I’ve read it several times since and still enjoy it.

That’s why I think I finish almost everything I start. I may miss something spectacular if I put a book away before it’s time. Yes, FOMO is a real thing!!

One final comment regarding Audrey’s list. I totally get people who don’t want to read about abuse and violence, particularly if it feels egregious and unnecessary. Those things, however, are not on my list of road blocks to reading. Instead, those things frequently draw me into a story. It’s like with movies — most of my favorite movies are intense and dark and, yes, violent.

Sadly, violence and abuse are a part of the human condition and I don’t want to shy away from those things when I read or watch. In my current stack of books to read the next couple of months is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I read it a few years ago. I will never recommend it to any other reader. It is the most brutal book I’ve ever read. Over 800 pages of the most horrendous stuff I’ve ever read. One of the main characters is absolutely beaten and brutalized throughout his life. But … here’s the deal for me … buried in those 800+ pages of brutality is the potential for hope and for love. And I need to read it again to see if my memory is correct about that — to remind myself of how it ended and that hope and love are always there.

So … if you haven’t commented over on Audrey’s post, now that you’re here, what don’t you want to read when you’re reading? What do you shy away from when you’re writing? Do you think about the reader’s experience and imagination while you’re writing?


  1. I could be wrong, but I have the impression that a lot of books from the Victorian era contain all the things you don’t like: huge casts of characters, slow developing plots, and long, florid descriptions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kingmidget says:

      That may be a reason I struggle with books of that era.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. chucklitka says:

      I think that depends a lot on the market the stories were written for. Arthur Conan Doyle and C J Cutcliffe Hyne spring to mind as anything but long winded. They were written for the Strand and other such magazines. Still, no doubt styles were changing throughout Victoria’s long reign.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yup, you’re right. ACD was an exception I thought of too. Not long winded at all. I was thinking mostly about Dickens, Hardy, and maybe Thackeray. (But I have to admit, I know Thackeray by reputation only. Never read anything by him.)

        BTW, I never heard of Cutcliffe Hyne before. Had to look him up, and he sounds interesting. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. chucklitka says:

        The Captain Kettle stories are entertaining adventures, but be warned, the character of Kettle, at least, is very racist. If anyone is not English, he uses a derogatory word for them. I’ve only read the more approachable Dickens, Great Expectations (which I had to read in HS and actually enjoyed doing so), and David Copperfield, so I don’t remember them as being all that dense. I’m reading W Somerset Mauham and his writing is pretty dense. If you want to read how writing and writers haven’t changed in 90 some years, read the “look inside” sample of his Cakes and Ale on Amazon. But I guess we’re getting off topic here, so I’ll add that some people may find racist or sexist terms or attitudes reason to stop reading, and many people today would be offended by the Captain Kettle stories. They will never be reprinted.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. There are different ways of doing grim and dark. For example, among my favourite books are some by the late Peter Straub. They contain some pretty dark stuff, but somehow it has never made me want to close the book. This is why I think the way the brain processes prose is really interesting. I really should delve into the science of it, assuming that exists in a form approachable by non-specialists.

    Liked by 1 person

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