Three letters writers dread when the reviews start rolling in.
DNF indicates the person writing a review did not finish reading, and it can be accompanied by a one-star rating if DNF itself is not made as an option of its own. They gave it a shot but determined it wasn't for them. Some will commit to a set number of pages or chapters before giving up on a book. Others might abandon it on the spot.
Readers DNF books for any number of reasons, some of which are beyond the author's control.
That said, there are things an author can do to keep their readers invested in the story. Knowing the reasons a reader might put down your book can give you a sense of what to be on the lookout for and what to avoid.
In today's post, we're exploring a few of them.
When Nothing Happens
Have you ever recommended a book or a movie to a friend and said something along the lines of, "It's a little slow in the beginning" when telling them to give it a shot and assuring them it gets better once a particular scene occurs or when a certain character is introduced?
When a reader picks up a book, there's something that drew them to it. Maybe a character, the themes explored in the central conflict, the setting, the overall premise—something caught their eye, and they're here to see how everything plays out.
So what happens when nothing happens?
Opening chapters are responsible for a great deal. Characters and conflict are introduced, the future might be hinted at, and your reader is taking their first steps into an unfamiliar world.
Among all of this should be your story's inciting incident, which is the event that kicks off the story.
Leaving your readers wondering when things are going to get going by delaying the inciting incident will likely cause them to DNF because the story has not started in earnest.
On a similar note, your inciting incident may fall at a reasonably early point in the story but then things may slow down again. In this scenario, you may lose your reader's interest.
Always keep the story moving. Every scene needs to serve a purpose, specifically propelling the story forth.
If things come to a standstill or do even take off, your readers might decide it's not worth the wait.
When Too Much Happens
As with nothing happening in the first chapters of a story, readers might also be put off by too much happening at once.
Although a portion of a book's opening is meant to catch readers up to speed and help them settle in for the journey, dropping a heap of info in their laps for them to sort through can be more intimidating than interesting.
If you're introducing a cast of a dozen right off the bat, backstory chronicling the history of your setting in passages that feel as though they could have been ripped from a textbook used in your world's college lecture halls, multiple subplots in addition to the central conflict, suffocating layers of description, readers might be left overwhelmed by everything they have to take in.
And an overwhelmed reader is one who may not wish to stick around.
Sorting through infodumps makes it difficult to ease into the story and it, too, can delay the inciting incident. Readers confronted by a heap of details and limited plot progression may walk away in search of something more engaging.
Give your readers enough information to orient them. Establish the protagonist involved, where they are, what the problem is, and why it needs to be solved. The rest can be gradually mixed in.
In other words, remember KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
The Main Character Energy Is Off
When I asked Twitter's writing community about the reasons they might DNF a book, this was the most common answer.
Simply put, your main character needs to be likable. This doesn't mean they must be perfect. Flaws often make them more endearing and relatable—provided they are not off-putting.
An unlikeable protagonist was actually the reason behind my most recent DNF.
In that particular historical romance novel, the protagonist's introduction included the narrator bragging about the time he seduced a young lady and then proceeded to also sleep with her mother soon after. It didn't sit right with me.
I don't expect every lead character in romance novels to be chaste or virgins. That's not true to life and its many paths to love.
But this implication that this man's only objective in life was jumping from one sexual conquest to the next made him unappealing to me. Even though it was likely setting him up for a redemption arc and leaving his womanizing ways in the past when he falls for "the one," I couldn't get past the lingering ugh sensation in my gut.
It's important to recognize that one person's definition of a likable protagonist can be vastly different from someone else's (all the more reason to enlist multiple beta readers in order to receive feedback from multiple perspectives!).
Readers want characters they can root for—especially when it comes to protagonists. Establishing a connection is vital. Much of that comes down to likeability.
Think of it like going on a date with someone in real life. If the sparks aren't flying, you might not agree to a second outing because you don't want to invest any more time in a person you don't like. The same can be said for protagonists in a book.
When you crack open a book, you are spending time with its characters. But if you realize that you don't like the characters enough to spend time with these characters, you might not return to read more.
There are times where an unlikeable character can work, as in the aforementioned redemption arc, but its success often depends on how they are introduced to the reader and how they grow.
The general rule of thumb is to make your character realistic, deep, and balanced. They need to be human at heart.
Voice Is Vital
Unlikeable characters were definitely the most common answer to my post on Twitter, but there was another popular reason that prompted readers to DNF: the voice.
Narration is a multi-faceted skill and an element that can potentially make or break fiction.
A narrator who fixates on intimate but inconsequential details might lose the reader's attention. If the flowery vocabulary prompts the reader to consult a dictionary every few lines, it risks the immersion crumbling. Strings of words not broken into paragraphs can blur together. The eagerness to incorporate hours upon hours of research into a story's historical setting can make a work of fiction feel more like a textbook. Too much sarcasm in a somber moment can just feel off.
Any of these things can be enough for a reader to DNF a book.
Equally true for third-person POV, in which the narrator is a separate entity not directly involved in the action, and first-person POV, where the narrator is the protagonist recounting the action, the voice of the story matters.
Another reason I DNFed the book in which the narrator lauded the love interest's sexual history was because of the tone. It was not the action on its that made me uncomfortable, but it was given the respect of an athletic achievement.
There have been a few first-person POV novels I DNFed as a result of the narration. With books written from this viewpoint, the character becomes the storyteller. It can be a fantastic way to dive deeper into the character's thoughts and gain new insight into a situation because you're put in their shoes, but their voice is the most prevalent because it's not just in the dialogue but in the prose. If the character is a Mary-Sue, a jerk, or just annoying, it can make the story hard to read because there's not as much separation from this character's voice.
A story can be intriguing, but readers may not be as inclined to stick with it if it's not written well.
Writing is a delicate entanglement of passion, freedom, and fear that what we are creating is not good enough. Accepting that you will not be able to cater to everyone's individual preferences takes years.
Just as the reasons you might choose a book are vast and countless, so too are the reasons you may decide not to see it through.
Understanding the more common reasons that readers DNF books can give you a list of things to keep in mind as you write.
It's not just a matter of grabbing the reader's attention but maintaining it throughout.
And that's the FIY about DNF.