Deal Breakers in Romance Stories: What are yours?

A few weeks ago, I started a conversation on my live journal account regarding pet peeves in your reading, and what constitutes a deal breaking for you as a reader when it comes to romance stories?

The conversation proved so interesting, that I decided to hold an informal poll. At the time, I had no idea how to post a poll on my website so I wrote up about 25 questions and inviting people to answer them.

It’s taken me longer than I like to write up the answers and post them here, but life has been a bit hectic lately. The individual emails with the responses have been mocking me from my inbox, however, and I wanted to get this posted this weekend so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore! The big delay is me trying to figure out how to embed a poll in this post. Fortunately, my most awesome BF came to the rescue and showed me how to get the polls in the post–yay! So I’m including a few polls for you, the reader, to weigh in as well!

Have you ever continued reading a book even though you hated it? If so, why?

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I started out by asking what would make someone continuing reading a book that they actively disliked. The most common reason people gave for continuing to read a story that annoyed them was basic curiosity and wanting to know how the story ended. That’s also the reason one friend gave me for finishing 50 Shades of Grey, despite the fact that she disliked the main characters. In fact, my conversation with her, especially when I found out she bought the other books in the series for the same reason, made me ask around among my friends and colleagues as to what made them stay with a story they hated–and what was an absolute deal-breaker for them.

I found it interesting that people polled who identified themselves as primarily readers seemed slightly more likely to continue reading a book out of curiosity as to how it ended, whereas those polled who identified as writers were much more likely to quit if they had major problems with the story. In general, most felt it was both easier to read these days due to the portability of stories in e-readers, but also easier to not finish a story as well, when something else distracted them from the story at hand. Many people cited subpar writing as their main reason for not finishing a book.

That goes along with what I’ve noticed in myself: since becoming a published writer, I am a much more critical reader now. Lately I’ve been on a kick of re-reading old favorites from my past. I usually do this when I’m a bit stressed out–there is something infinitely soothing in reading a book that you know how it will turn out and that you liked very much. So I’ve gone back to my old stand-by comfort books: the crime stories of the Golden Age of Mystery, the early Dick Francis books, E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories, the Amelia Peabody novels by Elizabeth Peters.

Only this time around, I find that some of my beloved favorites grate just a little.  I catch myself editing as I read and thinking, “Wait, you can’t do that!”

Nuances that escaped me as a teenager are glaringly obvious now–sometimes enriching the story, sometimes tainting it. I am more conscious of causal misogyny and racism, and am less forgiving of the time period in which the story was written if I see another novel in the same time period that got it ‘right’.  It’s a little disheartening to realize that now my Inner Critic is going to make it tough for me to really immerse myself in a story the way I used to do when I was younger.  I miss that innocence, in a way.

Reader/writer Anne Ruane, however, made the distinction that she was less tolerant of a romance novel that disappointed. The romance genre brought with it certain expectations for her, the main one being that she was reading for entertainment. I found this an interesting take on things. Given that I am reading more romances these days than I used to, I’m going to have to pay attention and see if that is a factor in my dissatisfaction or not.

What is an absolute deal breaker for you in a romance story? Multiple answers okay

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Of the people who answered the questionnaire, the mostly writers were more likely to DNF (did not finish) a book  for editing and structural problems than strictly readers.  Paula and Chris P both cited boredom as a possible factor for continuing a less than enthralling read, with Chris mentioning that she will read anything while traveling, in the hopes that it might improve as the story unfolds.

Fen, however, is quick to ditch a story if it is badly edited or if the story and characters are poorly written. He cites not having time to waste as his main reason for the ‘cut-to-the-chase’ approach to sticking with a book or not, and I can sympathize.  As a writer myself, is it hard enough to find the time to read someone else’s work, and if I don’t like it–like bad television–I simply don’t have the time to waste.

Sometimes I’ll stick with a story to find out what all the hype is about, however. If something is hugely popular, there has to be a reason, right?  So curiosity can sometimes keep me with a book even if it is horribly written.  I’m currently reading a very popular story that is making me grind my teeth with every paragraph–but so many of my friends have told me that they loved the relationship between the two main characters so much that I am toughing it out in order to figure out why they love it despite what I see as unworkable flaws.

If you chose infidelity as a deal breaker, is there ever a situation in which is it acceptable to you as part of the story?

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Interestingly enough, infidelity did not turn out to be THE major deal-breaker for most of the questionnaire takers. By far and large, plot problems and disliking the main characters were the main reasons people gave for DNFing a book. Layla pointed out that there were a whole host of reasons that could tip her over into DNF territory if she was already sitting on the fence–and yet some of these same problems (such as mild to moderate misogyny) could be overlooked if she otherwise liked the story.

That makes sense to me.  I find if I am enjoying the story, I tend not to notice its flaws until the second or third viewing.  If I’m already annoyed with the story, I begin to nitpick right away. Errors of writing and editing were a big problem for many people in the questionnaire. I find it interesting that I am now finding editing errors (admittedly few and far between) in my old favorites that I never noticed the first gazillion times around.  Becoming a writer has definitely given me a more discerning eye when it comes to that sort of thing–and proves that editors are only human, after all.

Anne Ruane, however, stated that infidelity was a deal breaker for her, especially if the infidelity was forgiven and the couple went on to live happily ever after.  Honestly, this sets up a whole other realm of questions, such as how much realism do you want in your romance stories and what kinds of things jolt you straight out of the story.  *rubs hands together evilly and makes plans for future blog posts*  I touched on that subject briefly in the questionnaire, asking people what threw them out of a story. Chris P gave the best answer: dropping it in the bath. 🙂

How do you feel about sex scenes in a romance?

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One of the questions I asked was whether or not the quality of writing has diminished in recent years. The answers were varied, with most people saying that they felt writing quality had diminished, in part due to lower educational standards across the board, but also with the ease of digital publishing and the flooding of the market. Some people felt it was genre related, with certain subgenres suffering more than others. Both Layla and Chris P cited the fact that over time, the romantic hero has evolved for the better, and that in the heterosexual genre, such wildly inappropriate tropes, such as rape leading to love, and the heavy-handed misogynistic relationships as being the gold standard of romance, have gradually given way to more acceptable role models–even if it is still fantasy.  Interestingly, K. Lynn stated that it wasn’t so much a case of the overall level of writing going down, but that the availability of bad fiction had gone up significantly, thus obscuring the obvious standouts.

Both Chris P and K. Lynn mentioned sticking with a story out of fandom related reasons, (another blog topic!!), giving the story greater benefit of the doubt because they went into it wanting to like it, having already invested themselves in the characters. In general, both of them mentioned cutting fanfic a greater degree of slack. Mostly because fanfic is supposed to be about fun, but also, I suspect, because when you are in the throes of a fandom obsession, you will read anything about your favorite characters. This explains to me a bit of why a story that had its origins in fanfic (such as 50 Shades) can have a large built-in following before it even hits the stands–and also why some people view anything with origins in fanfic with derision and revulsion. I myself come from a background in fanfic. I have to say that for the last four or five years, I’ve read more fanfic than anything else, and let me tell you, there are a lot of fabulous writers out there who have never sold a story. I’m all on board with anything that gets us as individuals out of mere consumerism and back into creative production. Just sayin’.

Most of the people questioned stated that they very much wanted to see a character grow and mature during the course of a story. Theo, however, neatly pointed out that sometimes that’s not why we read. Sometimes we read for the formula.  He referred to Kinsey Milhone, (of the novels by Sue Grafton) who never aged, let alone grew. I’m reminded of the original Dick Francis novels, in which the protagonist was essentially the same in every story, regardless of the life and background he’d been given. We read these books because we like this protagonist’s voice very much; they suck us into the story and we want to know that the next story we read by the same author is going to have the same feel.

Perhaps that’s why we read romances in the first place: certain expectations and the comfort of knowing we’re not likely to be shocked or enraged by anything in the story. I know many people disparage romances (and mystery or sci-fi novels too, for that matter) as not being ‘real literature’. They are simply bubble gum for the brain, another means of killing a few hours with mindless entertainment, not unlike a Survivor marathon on CBS.

I say differently, however.

For the vast majority of us, life is hard.  Work is stressful, and maybe our home life is not meeting our expectations as well.  At the end of the day, we’re emotionally and physically fried. A good ‘trashy’ book is my way of taking 20 minutes during lunch and de-stressing (without having to contort myself into a yoga pose). Picking up a new book by my favorite author makes me happy. There was a time in my life in which I did nothing but work all day and take care of my dad all night. Many of us live such lives, waiting for the weekend, living for that two week vacation break. Such people often turn to romance stories to brighten their day, to take them out of their lives for a while, to a beach in sunny Greece, or a small cottage in Cornwall, or bumping along a dirt road in the Outback.  Stories where two people meet, fall in love, undergo terrible trials, and survive to live happily ever after in the end.  We need this formula to make it through each day. And hopefully, the formula won’t contain a deal breaker for us!

If anything I write makes someone feel a bit better about their day, then that’s all I really need to accomplish as a writer.  I’ll see you next off the coast of Maine, or in the South of France, or maybe just in my own backyard, with my characters striking sparks off each other until they start a fire to keep us all warm.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the stables for me, where Rich and Jake are working out their differences in the run up to the Olympics. *winks*

Going for Gold features eight Olympic themed novellas written by your favorite M/M authors, including the sport horse story Lightning in a Bottle by Sarah Madison. Check it out today!


2 thoughts on “Deal Breakers in Romance Stories: What are yours?

  1. Have you ever continued reading a book even though you hated it? If so, why?
    A different reason (please elaborate in comments):

    Because I paid good money for the darn thing 😀

  2. Hah! There is that! Though, I suspect that with e-books, without the constant physical reminder of that book sitting in front of you, it might be a little easier to forget about its existence.

    I know what you mean though. Sometimes the blurb and cover suck me into a story and then I’m grumpy when the story doesn’t live up to expectations. But by golly, I will finish the sucker because I paid for it. 🙂

    *ponders additional blog topic material here*

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