Yeah, let's get this Monday started off right with some negativity! Haha, no, just kidding. Yes, I'm going to list a few things that get under my skin when I'm reading--things I seem to cite more often than not as contributing to a lower rating when I review a book--but I'm doing this more in the interest of calling attention to them as problems so writers who commit these sins can fix them, not so much as an attempt to whine.
Okay, so it's a little about the whining.
- Over-reliance on reading eyes. I've been noticing this a lot lately: characters are supernaturally good at reading other people's eyes. They're seeing hate and fear and lust "in his eyes" all the time, and while that's not that unusual or difficult to imagine, it starts to get frustrating when characters use that as a shortcut for understanding each other's feelings all the time. At least get their eyebrows into it once in a while, or maybe even avoid the lazy "saw [emotion] in her eyes" thing and let the reader come to their own conclusions if you show your character suddenly speaking more tenderly, lowering their gaze, having trouble getting words out, or sporting tension lines in their neck--that sort of thing. Let us see what these folks' body language looks like and interpret it ourselves--let us see what the point-of-view characters are seeing to let them believe they see emotions or intentions in other people's eyes.
- Redundant dialogue tags. It really grinds my gears when someone's dialogue says "'Sorry,' he apologized" or "'Yes, let's do that!' she agreed." If the dialogue itself IS an apology or an agreement, there's no need for your dialogue tag to tell me again that it is an apology or an agreement. I see this more often in published teen fiction for some reason, but also in contemporary adult stuff and all over the place in amateur manuscripts. I promise, y'all; there's not a dang thing wrong with "said." If you think the dialogue tags need to be more varied or creative than that, you probably haven't figured out that that's not the part of the sentence that's supposed to be interesting. It's the part that's supposed to be invisible.
- Similes that don't actually clarify. Maybe it's just me, but when descriptions include similes that aren't making a comparison that eases imagination, it ticks me off. I've seen stuff like "the plume of dancing water, which glittered like handfuls of diamonds tossed into the air," and I wonder if anyone reading it can picture handfuls of diamonds better than they can dancing water. I think "handfuls of diamonds" sounds unnecessarily dramatic, because . . . you know, yes, the water is glittering and shiny, but when you go so far as to call it "handfuls of diamonds" I get distracted. It doesn't help me see the scene better if it's being compared to something less familiar than the thing I've already seen, and if it's really unusual, it's going to have me thinking of people tossing diamonds instead of plumes of water that no one's even touching.
- Jokes by the author in narration. I am absolutely, 100% on board for jokey narration if you're Lemony Snicket or Douglas Adams. As in, you're writing a humorous book in which the narrator talks to the reader. But when the author throws in "jokes" that aren't a character's dialogue and mostly seem to be designed for the reader to giggle at while the characters aren't involved with the joke-making, it pulls the reader right out of the story and reminds them it's being told to them by some third party. I once encountered a fantasy author putting a "we don't need no stinking badges!" joke into his medieval fantasy (which otherwise took itself very seriously). I once encountered a contemporary author painfully bending the narration so she could include the joke "love means never having to see your sari." And sometimes when authors try too hard to make their narration read as humorous, they end up with a story that struggles from punchline to punchline instead. Captain Underpants does a great job making an entire book full of grade-school potty humor that is actually funny. I have read several middle-grade books that do it poorly because they think all they have to do is say "poop" and children will laugh.
- Kids don't tell adults or adults don't help kids. It's one thing if it's been established that people don't trust a character or that the character has no adult to turn to, but so, so frequently in books I see a child or teen protagonist who simply doesn't tell an adult about something really dangerous or horrifying. And again, if it makes sense given the character or is justified in the narration, sure, it can work. But it's often used as a contrived way to cough up a plot: kids investigate and become tiny detectives to stop the thief or find out who's sending the threatening notes. Honey, if you find your show costume cut up in your locker accompanied by a "beware" note written in red ink, tell the freakin' teacher. Do not get your friends together and come up with "clues" about who hates you, piece together who it must be, and create a ridiculous situation that depends on the perpetrator revealing herself by accident.
- Characters start living on page one. It's like someone sat down with a character sheet, filled it out, and then mistook the facts that their character hates broccoli and likes skateboarding for a personality. They have no history with their friends, no inside jokes, no context for their lives; even if they're sixteen or thirty or fifty-five, they're reading like they don't have a lifetime of opinions, experiences, and education behind them, and that makes it very difficult to care about who they are. Blank-slate characters that were created for the story aren't people. I would rather read about people.
- Narration of the obvious. Right, so, if your protagonist's dad usually works all day and you want to start your book the day he got fired, DON'T reveal it by having your protagonist come in the door, see Dad sitting on the couch, and then stop the action to narrate to us "It was very unusual for Father to be home at this time. He had a nine-to-five job at the YMCA. And yet here he was, sitting on the couch in his pajamas. He appeared to be looking at the want ads. Had he gotten fired?" You don't need to tell us these things. It's clearly weird that Dad's on the couch in his pajamas if your protagonist walks in and asks him "what are you doing home?" or is otherwise startled by his presence. There's certainly a time for "telling" in narration, but it's especially important that you don't use those up on things we can see ourselves.
- Channeling upcoming hijinks. I see this a lot in kids' and teens' books. Some contrived situation comes up where the main characters decide unwisely to do something that they cannot get caught doing or it will ruin something, and of course even though there are pretty much no benefits to doing it, they go do it. What are the odds they'll do the thing and come back unscathed? Pretty much nil. Same with any risky (or sometimes not-so-risky) decision about which any character says they "have a bad feeling about" or any behavior that's defended as ultra-super-safe because no one else ever got in trouble or got hurt doing it. You know immediately that it's going to punish the protagonist. I hate when it feels staged.
- Characters who are mean for no reason. This goes all the way from "insta-enemy in reading group because snobby girl is snobby" way on up to "evil overlord of fantasy land because villain is crazy." There's a single, poorly reasoned explanation (or none really at all) for why the main character is fighting another character but it's clear that person was put there just for the protagonist to fight. Now sometimes the protagonist doesn't know why someone's their enemy, and there's no reason to force it into the story, but it at least has to be believably executed. Sometimes people are just jerks and that's how their personalities are. But what's much more common is a villain targets the main character for mean pranks or execution just because, uh, because, and if their motivation is revealed it's usually something like "You have a great relationship with your mother and it reminds me how I never had a mom! So I hate you!" Real enemy relationships are usually much more nuanced, so it's best if they're not reduced to one dimension.
- Bad baby talk. I see this a lot even with authors who are generally good with dialogue: writing the speech of children (especially very young children) eludes a lot of people. They shoehorn in unnatural ways of speaking so the children sound more like contrived cartoon cavemen ("me don't like vanilla! me would rather have chocolate!") or at least don't capture the supreme weirdness that is a six-year-old telling a joke or a four-year-old babbling about what happened today at preschool. I don't even spend that much time around little children and I know that's not how they talk. Authors who are going to attempt kid-talk should probably look around for transcripts or watch some videos of children's conversations. You'll see what I mean.