Not every reader is going to love every book.
You probably won’t even love every book that you read.
The good news is, authors can still learn a lot from books they even end up hating.
So, I didn’t finish reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, the 1965 scifi novel that has since been loved, forgotten, and loved again by nerd communities. I went in expecting to love it, as a fellow author of desert-based speculative fiction. After a disappointing beginning, I kept hoping this book would grow on me.
57% of the way through, I decided that I no longer considered it worthwhile to surrender valuable moments of my life to this book.
Previously, I wrote about what I did like about Dune. Today, we’re talking about what made me put it down and what I learned from that about keeping readers reading.
There will be spoilers for Dune.
1. Keep the Ending a Surprise
Herbert chose an interesting technique for breaking up the text in Dune. He didn’t use traditional chapters with either titles or just numbers. Instead, between breaks in scenes, he inserted “excerpts” from different texts written by a princess about a legendary figure with a mysterious title (Muad’Dib).
This could have been a powerful technique to build suspense. Done a certain way, the excerpts could have gradually developed the audience’s understanding of the role of the Muad’Dib in this sci-fantasy world. The excerpts could have added tension to the story by keeping us wondering at which of the characters would go on to become this legendary personage.
The first possibility, developing the audience’s understanding of the Muad’Dib’s role, is undercut by several narrative choices. A good portion of the excerpts are simply proverbs attributed to the Muad’Dib, proverbs which usually mean little without a deeper understanding of the broader story universe than we have or that could seem actually untrue depending on the reader’s worldview. The excerpts are often littered with so many in-world terms that only the very dedicated reader will invest the time and brain power to decipher what is actually happening in the text. It soon becomes clear, too, that the excerpts mainly function as epigraphs that mainly serve as obvious foreshadowing of the chapter’s events.
The second possibility, that the excerpts will add tension by building curiosity at which character will become the Muad’Dib, is undone in the first pages. Right from the start, we know that Paul is going to be the Muad’Dib. While the people in his time seem to have a bit of uncertainty about that, enough people suspect it and enough details in the excerpts align that there is no question in the reader’s mind.
If all else fails, an unanswered question can keep a reader with a book after they would otherwise have put it down. Be careful that the artistic choices you make maintain some level of ambiguity. Keep your readers asking how it will end, which characters will survive, what the answer to their big question will be.
2. Benefits of Limited Perspectives
Another way to add tension is to withhold information from your readers. While it’s by no means the only way to write a story, limited point of views (be they third or first person) can quickly create tension. When we only know one or two character’s thoughts, we have to guess at the thoughts of the others. This keeps our minds engaged in reading. It also gives room for subtext and the possibility that the narrator is unreliable. Maybe we will find out that Nick Caraway’s view of the people around him and Gatsby is deeply biased. Maybe we will be surprised, like Orual, to learn at the end that our interpretation of the world was wrong all along.
Telling your readers the thoughts of every character takes away this tension, so the tension will have to come from somewhere else. Unfortunately, in the case of Dune, Herbert’s exposition of every character’s thoughts took away too much tension and left me bored.
The way he accomplished this was through a technique modern writers have dubbed “head-hopping.” Head hopping is the practice of shifting which character’s thoughts are being told without obvious signals of the shift to the readers.
I don’t know if this was considered a bad thing at the time of Herbert’s writing. I do know that I found it disruptive, annoying, and tension-destroying.
Imagine the camera angle in a movie. Imagine that, every time the point of view character has a thought, there is a close-up on their face and a voice over. In a story that stays strictly in one character’s perspective, we’d get occasional close-ups and voice-overs on one character.
Now imagine a story with head-hopping. Multiple times in the same scene, the camera would close-up on each character in the scene while each character gave a quick voice-over.
That would be super distracting, right? It would interrupt the pacing of the story, especially in moments of tension or fast action.
One moment in Dune where head-hopping was particularly detrimental was in a dinner party scene after Paul’s family has moved to the planet of Arrakis. This should have been a tense scene: Each dinner guest had strong, different motivations; there were clashing cultures; the consequences of this dinner had huge implications for the future of the family’s security. Herbert set us up with insight into the motivations and cultures of everyone present. We were educated enough as readers to infer the significance of what was happening, to gasp with the characters, to have our mouths hang open in shock.
But the narrator took the time to tell us all throughout the dinner what each of the guests was thinking, even if it was a mundane thought about the food. This destroyed the pacing, and it left me feeling insulted as a reader that Herbert didn’t trust me enough to understand how the characters would react when he had set me up to understand just that.
Trust your readers. They have experience with human reactions. They can infer what characters might be thinking, and they can recognize conflict if you’ve written it well.
By giving us a play-by-play of every character’s thoughts, Herbert destroyed the uncertainty about character actions. I never wondered who the assassin was; I knew exactly who he was, who hired him, and when he would act. I never wondered if the Harkonnens were really going to betray the Atreides; I knew they were, and I knew why, and I knew the extent they were willing to go to.
Leaving ambiguity is essential for getting your readers to care. We don’t root for teams we know are going to lose; we root for teams we think are likely to lose but have a chance at winning. We don’t see a new movie because we know every detail about what is going to happen; we see a new movie because we know the general premise but hope to be surprised. The same is true for books.
3. Importance of Likable Characters
Of course, there are sometimes stories that we read despite knowing exactly what will happen. One of the reasons we might stick with a book even after it’s become predictable is that we have fallen in love with the characters. In the end, I didn’t put Dune down until the last character I liked died.
Not all of your characters have to be likable. It’s okay to have some who are true villains, some who are bland, some who are too perfect to like. But you must have at least one (preferably more) character with whom your readers can become friends.
This is not a perfect list, but reflecting on Dune, I think likable characters need a few traits:
- They have agency. Likable characters’ actions can change the story’s direction, even in a small way. If they were deleted from the story, the story wouldn’t be the same.
- They embody something we value. Likable characters are as clever as we want to be, as charismatic as we dream of being, as compassionate as we hope to be, or as strong as we strive to be. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and likable characters don’t have to embody all the things we value. There needs to be something about them that we admire, though.
- They struggle with flaws. Likable characters are, like us, imperfect. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they are repentant about mistakes, sometimes they aren’t, but their mistakes make them human and therefore relatable.
And, well, they might be someone we’d like to hang out with.
Honestly, it’s hard to define what makes someone a likable character. It’s probable that the traits of a likable character change as your culture changes. There’s no such thing as a universally likable character. Having many different characters in your story makes it more likely that a larger audience will connect with at least one of them. Getting feedback from beta readers would help make sure your characters are as likable as possible, too.
Don’t fill your story with awful jerks unless you’re going to make us like at least one of those awful jerks.