What to do when you’re reading a book that is “well written” in the sense that the author can put a decent sentence together, but it’s just so boring that you have to force yourself to keep reading? I’ve read several books like that recently…well, the truth is that I’m STILL reading them because I just can’t seem to plow through them without effort.

This is a contrast to the kind of books you can’t put down, that you stay up late reading so you can find out what happens next even though you have to get up early in the morning for work.

What’s the difference between a worthy effort by a writer who is obviously intelligent and well-educated, and a great story with wings? Sometimes the writer without the polished grammar or amazing vocabulary is the one who wows me with their story. Why?

I’ve given this some thought and came up with the following conclusions. (I don’t claim to be the first one to come up with these ideas, but they are certainly true).

1) The main character is bland.
I can just hear the author say, “But they’re realistic!” Ironically, to make a character seem more “real,” it may actually help to caricaturize them a bit, exaggerating one or two unusual traits so they stand out.

My favorite literary characters are Amelia Peabody and her husband, Emerson, in a series by Elizabeth Peters. (If you haven’t read them check the books out!) They have exaggerated traits that make them stand out from most other fictional protagonists: a passion for Egyptian archaeology, stubbornness, and a competitive spirit. Their over-the-top characteristics make them lovable and real, and anything but flat or boring.

Think about it. All literary characters who stand out have something extreme or unusual that sets them apart. Sherlock Holmes has many: his arrogance, his violin, his pipe, his misogyny. Nero Wolfe has his love for orchids, his refusal to ever leave his house, and his reliance on that womanizing sidekick, Archie Goodwin. Madame Bovary has her vanity and longing for romantic adventure. Captain Ahab has his vengeful monomania. None of them are “normal. Each is extreme! Extreme! Extreme!

2) Nothing is at stake.
Another problem that can derail an otherwise promising story is when there’s no ticking clock, no sense of impending disaster. Yes, there may be a mystery to solve or a bad guy to stop, but the reader doesn’t feel much will happen to the protagonist if he DOESN’T figure it out. Even if we know something terrible might happen to another character if the problem isn’t stopped, it must be someone close enough to the hero for the reader to share his desperation.

That’s why so many movies, both good and bad (Die Hard, Air Force One, Paul Blart, San Andreas) involve a protagonist who must accomplish something before a loved one is killed. Even though this trope has been used over and over, it always keeps me on the edge of my seat. That’s because the hero’s success MATTERS.

3) Too many digressions from the main plot.
I love a good subplot or two, but sometimes rather than adding tension, an uninspiring subplot can cause a reader to feel the main character is wandering around at random instead of focusing on the job at hand. That defuses the tension. At such times my mind meanders while waiting for the story to get back on track, and after a while I forget what the story is about and set the book down.

There is likely much else that makes a book a page turner (or not), but any author would benefit from working on these three—including myself! Namely: colorful characters that capture our imagination, a sense that something truly important is at stake, and forward momentum that keeps us reading to find out what happens next.