What Plotlines Do You Avoid in Novels?

Cover of "The Lost Mother"
Cover of The Lost Mother

Gretchen Rubin writes about admitting to herself that she doesn’t like books where a character is falsely accused of a crime.

One of the key tools for a happiness project, I’ve discovered, is mindfulness. Which is unfortunate, because I’m a very unmindful person. (Take this quiz to find out how mindful you are.) But I see that the more aware I am of my emotions, reactions, and behavior, the more readily I can shape them.

For example, it took me years to notice a very obvious fact about myself: I have a horror of any plotline involving unjust accusation. I just can’t bear it. I’d find myself intensely disturbed by books, plays, movies, or histories that other people enjoyed – if I was even able to finish them. Say, Othello.

I must be more mindful than Gretchen, because I know I dislike two types of plotlines:

  • When completely impossible things happen. This eliminates just about every fantasy and science fiction book ever written, including The Hobbit. I didn’t even enjoy The Time Traveller’s Wife, unlike everyone else I know. I don’t seem able to suspend disbelief. But for some reason I enjoy Harry Potter. I think I feel differently about children ‘s books.
  • Books about dysfunctional families. These are books where characters make one bad decision after another, are cruel to children, or undergo a series of disasters. Those are harder to avoid, so I usually stop reading in the middle. Reading The Lost Mother kept me awake one night and I never finished it.

In Rubin’s post and the comments, you can find more plotlines avoided by readers. What type of plotlines do you find disturbing?

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  1. Your remark about dysfunctional families reminds me of the first line of Anna Karenina:
    “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

    The books that I have loved in recent years have mostly been history books. I’ve had a hard time finding fiction for which I’ve had patience.

  2. I don’t mind disfunctional families and I love science fiction as long as it makes sense and is consistant with its own rules.
    I can’t read anything poorly written.
    I will not read books where the main point is about bad things happen to children (kidnapping, cancer, sexual abuse, etc…)

    This is a fun post!

  3. OK –
    That is just mildly creepy…. Ariela just took my ENTIRE answer, lol….
    The only change is that I’d put the children as innocent victims at the TOP of my list.

  4. Great topic question!!! I can’t stand airy fairy books with sickly sweet characters and everyone and everything is just perfectly lovely!!! I don’t mind if a book is just plain nice but don’t go overboard on the sweet… On the other hand someone asked me if I would review a book for tweens that was the story of a kidnapping by some really um anti-social characters with seriously malicious, deviant and criminal intent and I sent it back and asked the author if she knew any tweens!!! Because I couldn’t find anyone remotely interested in the topic, not a single adult either… madness!!!

  5. I love books about dysfunctional families – they always make me feel so well adjusted in comparison.
    I try to avoid holocaust books though I will read them (The Book Thief, The Reader)and I hate romances or chick lit. I can’t think of any specific plots I avoid but I dislike books that have false happy endings tacked on.

    • chasida: I think it’s the opposite with me, I end up convinced that I am a step away from that dysfunction.
      If a book doesn’t trivialize or sensationalize the Holocaust I’ll read it.

  6. Ms. Krieger says

    I read a lot of science-fiction, mainly because it imagines the possible and I enjoy that. If the story is completely impossible, then it is by definition not SF 🙂

    I also enjoy historical fiction if it explores psychological truth or possibility. And some magical realism is okay if it advances the story or makes it “realer than real” (Haruki Murakami, Yan Martel, Kafka, Borges, Bulgakov, Susanna Clark’s “Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange” and yes, Harry Potter etc.) But straight-up fantasy usually bothers me.

    I agree with the dislike of dysfunctional family stuff…I see plenty of awful things on the street/in the news every day, I don’t need to read about it.

  7. I can’t bear to read stories of missing or abused children. I literally feel sick. Historical romances irritate me to tears. I love detective fiction and spy fiction (or true spy stories, which sound like fiction!), but not spine-chilling blood-curdling thrillers.

  8. G6 – weird – great minds think alike?

  9. sylvia_rachel says

    I love good fantasy and character-driven SF 🙂 If the fantastic elements are handled well and the author makes me care about the characters, I can be very, very good at suspending my disbelief.

    I don’t know that there are any particular plot lines that disturb me (although admittedly I tend to avoid books I find really depressing, the kind in which everyone is uniformly unpleasant, terrible things happen constantly, and there are never any happy endings for anyone ever), but there are several that irritate me.

    One is the plot that revolves around what romance writers call the Big Misunderstanding — a simple mistake or misunderstanding that could easily be resolved via five minutes’ rational conversation between the characters involved, but instead is dragged on and on for the entire book, or nearly, by those characters’ refusal to discuss the issue or, in some cases, to speak to each other at all.

    Another is the fantasy plot in which the characters do things because someone/something (an oracle, a prophecy, a book, etc.) tells them to, and seem never to make a decision of their own: every time they’re lost and wondering what to do, they get instructions. Lots of books have an element of this in their plots, and that doesn’t bother me; it’s only when following instructions from the book (or whatever) is the author’s only means of advancing the plot that it gets really annoying.

    I’m not a huge fan of plots where I can predict the ending by the end of the second chapter, but if I’ve already started to care about the characters, I can put up with quite a lot of predictability.

    • S-R: I know what you mean about the big misunderstanding. But Shakespeare does it well. . . Can you give an example of the fantasy plot? Agreed about predictable endings.

  10. I can’t handle bad things happening to kids or chick lit books. The women in those stories drive me up a wall.

  11. sylvia_rachel says

    MII: I was thinking in particular of the Belgariad and Malloreon series (that’s series, plural) by David Eddings, which I adored when I was in junior high but couldn’t get through when I tried to re-read them as an adult. There’s this group of people on this quest, and there’s this prophecy which is stored somewhere (I forget where) and refers by some epithet to every member of the group (one guy is the Thief, I think; another person mentioned in the prophecy is The Man with Two Lives, and sure enough, at some point towards the middle of the first series a guy dies and one of the gods brings him back to life …). Basically, the plot is that they have to figure out who all the people mentioned in the prophecy are, collect all of those people, and do the things the prophecy tells them to do. The writing itself is not bad, and some of the characters are quite appealing, but I found on re-reading that once I’d been exposed to a critical mass of more interesting ways of making the plot happen, I found the follow-the-directions-on-the-box method rather dreary.

    The Big Misunderstanding can be great in comedies — I was thinking last night after I turned off the computer that I should have mentioned that. Some of my favourite funny books and films (like Bringing Up Baby, for example, and Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog) use it to hilarious effect. The trouble comes, for me at least, when it’s used as the pivot point of a story that isn’t supposed to be funny, because the effect then is that either it’s funny unintentionally, or the reader wants to knock the offending characters’ heads together ;).

  12. rickismom says

    What I don’t like is a “good” book- and then in the end the author has to have some 5 or 6 implosible things happen to save the characters that he has put into an impossible situation.

  13. I hate reading or watching any scenes where a character is embarrassed either through some faux pas, bungle, or any sort of public humiliation. It makes my skin crawl, I cringe, I will skip over it where ever possible.

    My stomach is all squiggly just thinking about it . . .

  14. Any plotline is fine if the story isn’t too dark (sorry only French authors come to mind to illustrate what I mean). Thus I have given up overrealistic novels where all the characters have no hope whatsoever; they’re too depressing.
    I enjoy thrillers when I need a rest from work or worries. They usually work well for me.
    And I never read chick lit.
    I also read non-fiction, quite a lot of it actually but this is for another post.

  15. I’ll read almost anything, but have started avoiding books by certain authors who use the same premise in every book they write. I enjoyed two books by a certain author, but when I read a third book written by her, and saw that it had the same plotline (family crisis followed by court case), I felt cheated, and put the book down.

    Chick lit is good for when I don’t have to think, or don’t want to think. Junk food for the mind.

    I also have a theory about Oprah’s Book Club. I think that Oprah is living such a fabulous life, she always chooses books that are depressing and bring her down to “our” level. My life, however, is not Oprah’s, and I don’t need any more sad stories, I have enough of my own.

  16. SR–I see what you mean about the comedies and the Edding books too.
    As I’m reading this thread I’m recalling a lot of plot lines that annoy me. I skip over battle scenes and could not read Red Badge of Courage in 7th grade.
    Mirj–Yes, many authors get tiresome after a while, whether because of formula or repetitive style. Good luck with the new blog.

  17. If it’s in print I’ll read it, fiction or non-fiction. How happy I am with a work doesn’t depend solely on plot line–the use of language and character development is just as important to me. It’s also, for me, like the habits people have regarding food. Some items are “real” food and some are snack foods, and sometimes I want one type of thing to “eat” and sometimes another. If you’re in the mood for a sugar cookie then that’s what you reach for–a whole wheat roll won’t suffice. And then there are the “pizza” works–are they a snack or a real meal? Depends on what you’re looking for and what else you’ve ingested that day.

  18. I can’t bear plots that revolve around child abuse. I avoid dark stories in general. And willingly suspend disbelief – except for JK Rowling’s books, which irritate me to death. They make great movies, though.

  19. I have no patience for scary, dark, dreary, or depressing books. As far as I’m concerned, reading should be enjoyable – not a miserable chore. In addition, the older I get, I also find that I have less and less tolerance for poorly-written books.

  20. I have issues with abuse. I tried to read The Secret Life of Bees and couldn’t get past the second page. As a survivor of abuse, it is difficult for me to relive through fiction. The movie “Precious”? No how, no way. I also don’t like anything that deals with the abuse or death of animals, the elderly, etc. I guess I like rose coloured glasses novels best. Or murder 🙂

  21. I love science fiction and especially fantasy. What I really can’t stand is senseless violence or unresolved “bad” things. It seems like a lot of modern novels (and TV dramas) try and make the point that life is pointless or meaningless by having horific things happen to the main characters and the perpetrator is never brought to justice and/or the victim never resolves the issue. I find that really frustrating and upsetting. Even if I thought real life was pointless, I don’t read novels to understand real life. I read them for entertainment, and to be emotionally and morally satisfied. I want the good guys to win. I want victims to get justice or retribution. I want things to always end the way they *should* in real life.

  22. Elianah-Sharon–Precious was one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever watched. Good decision to skip that one.


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