Three Reasons Why Readers Skip Bits Of Novels

Posted on 20th March, 2016

At the beginning of the year, Cathy Spurling wrote a post about her Goodreads Challenge, which set me thinking. How many books do I read in a year? So I started keeping a list... which, over time, has become three lists. 


- Books I have read

- Books I abandoned

- Books I finished but skipped bits of


That third list intrigues me. What is it that makes readers skip parts of a novel?



The Padding

In one novel, an architect spent an entire chapter wandering around a city, admiring its buildings and finding inspiration. It didn't advance the plot - or if it did, I missed that bit because I skipped to the next chapter. Yes, description is important. It creates the setting and contributes to the mood and atmosphere. It deepens the reader's relationship with the character and submerges the reader more fully in the book. But description for its own sake.... sorry, that doesn't work for me.



The Lecture

Or should that be The Dreaded Lecture? In another novel involving a real theatre, the author had obviously done her homework - the operative word being 'obviously.' She couldn't stop herself blabbing about every single thing she had learned about the theatre's history. It turned into a page and a half of lecture. Keep it to yourself, love. Just because you know it, doesn't mean the rest of us need to know.



The Back Story

A bit of back story here and there is essential to an understanding of the plot, but entire chapters of it...? One book involved a family which, in spite of minor tensions, was clearly happy and united, with Mother as the lynch-pin. Early on in the plot, Mother died in a freak accident. How would her adoring husband cope? What fresh responsibilities would fall on the shoulders of our young heroine? What would happen next? What actually happened was a trip back in time to wander through Mother's childhood and see how she grew up to meet and marry Father. I wasn't interested in that - I wanted to know what happened next.



Am I skipping the parts of a book that represent the author's self-indulgence? The parts where the author, because s/he loves the book or the character so much, just can't resist adding more? Or am I missing chances to become more immersed in these stories? 


How about you? What makes you skip a part of a novel? And what do you think of what I've identified as my own triggers for skipping? I'd love to know what you think.



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Comments (11)

I love cop thrillers and action books, but I find the drawn out action/fight scenes quite dull. I realise lots of people like those scenes but I'd actually prefer it if the author could just do an alternative edition where I didn't have to read all the boring bits describing the fights etc and just tell me what happened. eg character X dies, character Y breaks leg, car chase succeeds and they get away or they don't. Then I could get back to reading the bits I enjoy.
Hi Jessica. Thanks for your reply. Something I wondered while I was writing this blog was why I abandoned some books and skipped on others. The reasons for abandoning books were obvious to me, but I found it hard to pinpoint why a book was worth sticking with even though I was jumping bits of it, especially given how ruthless I am about giving up on a book I don't take to - I don't even give 'several chances' like you do. I'm looking forward to welcoming you to my blog this weekend. see you then! xx
Hi Susanna
Really interesting post. I love your three lists but it struck me when pondering on them that I have NEVER skipped a section of a fiction book before. I used to hate giving up on books. I'd persevere, hoping upon hope that they'd improve, but a few years ago I decided that life's too short. I found myself choosing not to read, knowing that I was struggling with the chosen book, so I do now abandon them if I've given several chances and just can't warm to them. However, the reasons you cite for skipping sections feature amongst my reasons for giving up on books. Other reasons include not warming to the main character, getting halfway through and nothing significant has happened yet, or struggling with the writer's voice e.g. books that are full of cultural references with which I'm not familiar. Mind you, I do sometimes forge on when I don't warm to the main character because I still find myself intrigued as to what will happen in the end. On a good day, that is. Sometimes I'm simply not in the mood!

Great post :-)
Jessica xx
Thank you for your long and thoughtful reply, Jen. Highlighting different types of text in a variety of colours sounds like a fascinating way of seeing how you work divides up into dialogue, narrative, description etc. I must try that myself. One thing that has come out of the comments is the need for writers to be careful about using their beloved research too obviously in their writing.
Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Susanna. I do like your list! Since becoming a writer (as well as a reader), I don't skip as many passages in books as I used to (or abandon books) because I want to figure out what's not working for me and I can try to steer clear of replicating that pattern in my own writing.

As someone who loves research, I've often thought it's fortunate I don't write historical fiction as I suspect I'd be more tempted there to add in all the fascinating details that intrigued me but, as you rightly say, don't advance the plot.

I'm getting better at picking up pacing issues in my writing but it's still an ongoing struggle, especially where description is concerned. Highlighting text in different colours (e.g. dialogue, back story, etc.) often helps me see where passages I may love but which serve no useful purpose can be cut.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jan. Your example of how things work is a good one. Writers sometimes put too much detail into this, whereas all the reader often needs is a general idea. I think this is probably one of the most common ways in which writers over-write.
Thanks for your comments, Cathy - as well as for providing the inspiration in the first place. 'Writerly excesses' - what a wonderful expression. As you say, it's all about melding the detail into the story. As soon as the detail feels as though it is something extra, that breaks the spell for the reader.
Another post that got me thinking, Sue. I always try to finish what I've started reading but sometimes I find myself drifting away from what I'm reading. Those are the times I have to flip back to see what I've missed. They would often be times when the author has gone into too much detail about how something works. As for the description of a setting, even if it's overdone, I tend to read it just for the words used as I love descriptive writing! I know that's not what many people like and that it shouldn't detract from the pace of the novel.
Your three lists are very interesting. As you know I'm keeping a list of the books I've read with the Goodreads challenge but I don't have any record (other than what's in the old grey matter) of books I've abandoned or skipped. I don't have too many abandoned books any more because I mainly read with my Kindle and always read the free sample before downloading so it's unusual nowadays for me to start something I don't finish. However, I'm a great skipper. And I think you're right about the writerly excesses. I think it depends alot on how the description / lecture / back story is done. If it melds into the storyline it can be enhancing and in the process the reader can learn new stuff but if it's awkward and could be lifted out in one big chunk it's likely to get skipped by this reader. As April says above, being captivated is essential and boring bits break the spell. Great blogpost, Susanna, and I've enjoyed thinking about the questions you've posed.
You're quite right, April. Writers need to make sure they include all the necessary information, but without going too far. I think that if you've done your research, then it will inform your writing in subtle ways and help the reader to become immersed in the story. Thanks for taking the time to write such a long and thoughtful comment. I appreciate it. PS I'm pretty sure I know which thriller writer you mean!
There is a thin line between giving the reader enough information to understand what's going on and lecturing them and writers can err either way.
Often it's hard to gauge how much a reader might already know, so you have to decide whether or not to tell them what it might mean, for example, for a man to own a falcon in the fourteenth and then not to own it. If you do tell them, it should only be sentence or two and not a complete treatise on hunting in the fourteenth century.
I feel that some writers think either that they have to show that they've done their research or that they've done their research and they're going to use it all, regardless of whether it helps the story or not. One of the worst offenders is a very popular writer of thrillers who lost me as a reader by all but including the specs of an aircraft he was 'describing'. It was irrelevant, took up a couple of pages and reminded me that I was reading a story, when I should have been captivated by the story.