A DNF is a book or story that, for one reason or another, a reader Does Not Finish. Whether they simply drop it with a yawn, or fling it across the room with a righteous roar of disgust, something about the book compels them to put it aside.
There are all sorts of reasons for not finishing, and not all of them have to do with bad writing or ineffectual storytelling. Sometimes the reader has personal issues that make the story painful or disturbing. Sometimes they’re just not suited temperamentally or intellectually to be the “proper observer” of a particular work of literature. (Unfortunately, such readers are usually the ones who end up leaving one-star reviews.) Sometimes it boils down to nothing more than being easily bored.
Whatever the reason, there’s not much a writer can do about DNFs. Once the story is “out there” and available to the wider public, it’s beyond its creator’s control. Authors, publishers, and booksellers can target an audience with laser-like precision, but they can never wholly eliminate those pesky personal variables that throw the best-drawn curves askew.
I do a great deal of reading in my capacity as a reviewer, though, as an independent, I am not required to begin or finish anything I don’t fancy. Even so, I’ve been encountering a lot of DNFs lately, many of them from writers and editors whose work I’ve respected and enjoyed in the past. I’m not sure why this should be. I wonder if I’ve gotten so heavily invested in my own extremely intense process of self-criticism as to become hypersensitive to flaws in the work of other writers? Or is it that I, too, am becoming ever more easily distracted? Yet, when I don’t like something, my inclination is not simply to say “this sucks” and move on, but to wonder why I don’t like it. As such, I’ve tried to identify some of the most common reasons I end up not finishing a book. Broadly speaking, the things that are most likely to wind up impaled on my DNF spike are:
(1) Stories that fail to catch and hold my attention.
I once had an aspiring author complain that I stopped reading their story before I got to the “really good part in Chapter 5…” This same passive-aggressive spoiled-brat dilettante turned around in public and sniffed that I “couldn’t be bothered to give [their] book a fair chance…” In fact, I’d slogged through the entire first chapter—about twelve pages—even though I could tell from the opening line that the story wasn’t going to work.
Where they may only dampen a full-length novel’s promise, a dull first line or paragraph is downright fatal to a short story. Life is fleeting and time far too precious for most readers to waste on the hope that things might pick up in a page or two. A smart author grabs her readers right away and does not let go. Beyond that first line, the writer needs to keep giving the audience reasons to read on. Barring this, it’s more than likely that all but the most stalwart or masochistic members of the author’s own family will abandon the effort, probably with a great sigh of relief.
(2) Stories bogged down by superfluous detail.
In his essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell remarked on Dickens’ inclusion of unnecessary detail in his novels. These little slices of everyday life were meant to make characters more relatable yet, at the same time, more unique, imbuing scenes with a charming sense of realism. Yet this great surfeit of superfluous detail is the very thing that many readers find so off-putting about Dickens; it can be like slogging through a mud-choked nineteenth-century London street to get anywhere near the bloody point of the story. Description for its own sake, no matter how rich and colorful, does not move things forward, and often ends up exhausting a reader’s patience, if not suffocating their interest altogether.
Some authors seem bound and determined to put a Fit-Bit on their characters’ wrists, cataloging every single step they take, every insignificant gesture (“He handed the barista a crumpled twenty-dollar bill and twiddled his thumbs while waiting for her to hand him the six dollars and thirty-seven cents she owed him in change…”), and every solitary thing they see, starting from the moment they open their eyes in the morning to the second they sit down in front of the computer in their burlap-lined institutional-beige cubicle at work some 6,792 tortuously-documented steps later. (Honestly! I’ve encountered stuff just like this, not only from free-range amateurs, but from supposedly respectable traditionally-published authors who should damn-well know better!)
WE DON’T NEED TO SEE ALL THIS UNNECESSARY CRAP! What we need is a hawk-eyed focus on CHARACTERS, their thoughts, and feelings, and needs. If an action has nothing special to do with the character’s motivation within the narrative, the core problem of the story that must be solved, the particular conflict that gave rise to the story in the first place, GET RID OF IT! Details must serve the character’s story, and contribute to the reader’s understanding of that character’s journey to the ending.
Closely related to the issue of excess detail is the problem of…
(3) Stories full of over-elaborate, belabored transitions
In classic animation, when a character had to move quickly from one place to another, the animators did not draw every movement involved in that transition, which would have involved a lot of extra labor and expense. Instead, they used a type of shorthand in which the character’s image was blurred on their way from one cell to the next. (Look at something like Don Bluth’s An American Tail or The Secret of N.I.M.H. frame by frame to see how this technique worked.)
In fiction, of course, characters sometimes have to get from point A to point B, and readers need to know that they’ve moved. But even the shortest transition passages tend to place a drag on forward momentum, and drawn-out transitions full of needless description can halt that essential momentum dead in its tracks. We don’t need to see everything a character sees as they cross a room, unless, for example, what they see is the object of their most passionate desire somewhere off in the distance. Then, it’s much more interesting to talk about their reaction to what they see—what’s going through their heads as they near their destination. Best advice to avoid landing on the DNF pile is to keep transitions as simple, short and sweet as possible, or consider whether they need to be included at all.
(4) Stories that get stuck in traffic, going nowhere.
I once stopped reading a story when I came across something very much like this:
The secretary got up from her desk and walked on high heels to the area where the filing cabinets were kept. She bent down to reach the drawer marked W, opened the W drawer and filed the folders that were supposed to go under W, then closed the drawer, stood up, and walked back to her desk… [where she spent the rest of the day daydreaming about her super-hot boss].
Aside from the fact that this sentence didn’t put the story forward in any meaningful way until the very end (which I added), the author wasted words and time on a pointless bit of stage business. While movement was depicted, this wasn’t a real transition so much as a trip down a blind alley. Every word in a narrative needs to function in relationship to the totality of that narrative. Every word in a story needs to facilitate and enhance the forward flow of that story.
Stories and writing that are rambling, turgid, and unfocused invariably end up as DNFs. Static passages like the one cited above practically guarantee a DNF, not to mention all those stories that are literally about going nowhere. I am SO SICK of stories that begin with a character stuck in traffic, worrying about being late as they curse their boss or their boyfriend or their own rotten luck, spouting shopworn shite like “Damn him!” and “The bastard!”
And it’s a pretty safe bet that when nothing’s moving…
(5) Nothing Changes
In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig tells us that “stories begin when things change.” I’ve consigned way too many stillborn stories to DNF oblivion for the simple reason that they portray static characters living in worlds where nothing ever truly changes. (This seems particularly rife in erotic romance involving happily married couples, devoid of conflict or transgression.)
Maybe it’s the influence of domestic realism as purveyed by the academic/creative-writing industrial complex of the last few decades, but a lot of authors nowadays seem to think they’re telling an “authentic” story when all they’re doing is cataloging a series of unextraordinary events. (Characters wake up in the morning, make coffee, sit at their desks, or arrive home from work…) Almost nothing compels me to stop reading a story faster than the prospect of having to wade through pages and pages of this bland boring shite. Give your characters a problem to solve! Force them to deal with change! Make then do something, dammit!
(6) Buried in Backstory
Backstory can be important to understanding a character’s present circumstances. If handled well it can lend depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters and the problems they have to solve. Ideally, it should also be entertaining in itself. Unfortunately, I’ve run across a fair number of stories lately in which backstory is presented as a massive data dump right near the beginning, about as subtle as a mudslide. It feels like the authors are treating backstory as something to be presented and gotten out of the way all at once, as opposed to a gradual unspooling of detail, a delicate narrative thread woven through the fabric of the whole. (I recommend the novels of Margaret Atwood to anybody who wants to see how a true master handles backstory.)
Especially in shorter fictional forms, extended backstory does very little to advance a story. I’m not saying don’t use it; I’m saying introduce it subtly, employ it artfully, and resort to it only when necessary, that is, when it is essential to an explanation of the present. Drop it on the reader like a ton of bricks and prepare to have your book disappear into DNF limbo.
(7) “Too too”…
Stories and characters that are too perfect, too pat, too simple, too obvious. Mysteries that are too easy to solve from the get-go. Conflict that requires no real effort to overcome, giving the characters nothing interesting to do. Characters who are too 'nice' and agreeable. Dialogue that’s too straightforward and “on the nose”. Plots that are too conventional and cliché-ridden, or too reliant on coincidence. To paraphrase a song by Jethro Tull, too many “toos” add up to a DNF.
(8) Sucky Settings
I’m no fan of stories that depend on vaguely ‘exotic’ locales for interest, where, in effect, the setting is forced to do the characters’ work for them. Setting, no matter how alluring, can never redeem an uninteresting character.
Yet, there’s an even bigger issue with setting that’s annoyed me for years; that is when authors fail to take full advantage of a setting’s potential. Sometimes this is because they haven’t bothered to do even the most basic research. More often, it’s because they’ve simply failed to close their eyes and use their own imagination. Look at a room through your mind's eye: what props are available in that room for your characters to use? (View some of the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons to see how Hannah and Barbera took full advantage of even the smallest detail in a particular setting to create brilliant physical comedy! I’d recommend The Bowling Alley Cat, The Cat Concerto, and Cat Fishin’ for a start.)
(9) Trope-heavy stories.
These are slick, facile stories that rely on conventional plot devices, usually so predictable as to encourage readers to “skim” the text. (Think pretty much anything by Dan Brown.)
This issue is especially prevalent in erotic writing, where sex scenes have all the originality and passion of a checklist for an oil change. I’ve complained often about the sing-songy, almost somnolent quality of these scenes; the predictable “I do this/you do that” back-and-forth, seesaw action and reaction. There are very few authors anymore who can compel me to read straight through a sex scene. I am far less likely to skim if the scene is skillfully and subtly integrated into the narrative flow of the text—if the sex doesn’t seem like an authorial obligation or a passionless afterthought. NEVER GIVE READERS AN EXCUSE TO SKIM!!!!!
And other common and extremely irritating issues:
(10) Clunky, awkward or far-fetched plotting.
(11) Poor Pacing.
(13) Sloppy editing (allowing many of these other problems to make it into print).
(14) Downright stupid stories that fail to engage viscerally, intellectually, or even on the level of pure entertainment.
(15) Boring, annoying, or dismally forgettable writing (with the gentle admonition that some things truly are a matter of individual taste).