I have a personal goal that I will never walk away from a book unfinished. Partly it’s optimism. Sometimes I just keep hoping the book will get better. Honestly, it is very rare that I come across a story that I feel the urge to pitch out into the woods. Which is why I am very, very slowly making my way through a book called The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.
Here’s the first problem. I am on page 323 (not quite half way through) and I still do not know the name of the protagonist.
Second problem. I can flip through the book, pick out a line of dialog, and not have a clue who is talking because they all sound so much alike. The father talks exactly like the teenage daughter, who in spite of being a teen in the 1970’s speaks like an old-world professor. I could cut the author slack here because dialog that is unique to the character is something we all struggle with. However, I’m also struggling with hundreds of pages with this type of dialog.
Third and biggest problem: Coincidences. Jessica Page Morrell says in her excellent book, Between the Lines, to use coincidences very sparingly. One per book could even constitute pushing believability. If you do use one, it should be written very carefully, very thoughtfully, in order to make the reader swallow it with the story as a whole. In this book, there are so many coincidences that I’ve given up counting. It would take too long to enumerate each one here, and I really don’t want to pick this book apart in that level of detail. After all, it’s not such a horrible book that I don’t keep picking it back up. It pulls at me in spite of all the problems. Either that, or I’m just hoping to find out the reason the author is withholding the protagonist’s name.
Either way, coincidences in a story bug me, and I find myself agreeing with Jessica. If one coincidence is written in, and handled professionally enough that the premise is set up beforehand, it can work. We all know that coincidences happen in real life, so a reader might be inclined to believe one showing up in a story.
In reality though, I think most readers are disinclined to believe coincidences within the story framework. I think the reason may be that there is a higher expectation that the writer will not take the easy way out by giving the characters coincidences to ease their path to the end of the book. Because after all, that’s what coincidences in a story do. Make things easier for the writer.
Although harder for the reader.