What Makes a Story Unputdownable?

If you’re reading this thinking there’ll be an answer in this post, turn back now.  I’m just cogitating out loud and, as always, inviting Argh Nation to co-cogitate.

I’ve been reading a lot lately thanks to Good Book Thursdays (and thanks to the Argh people who asked for them) and I just read two books that I shouldn’t have liked but read straight through, and I’m now reading one book that I’m having a hell of a time finishing.  The first two are by a new-to-me author and the other is by one of my all-time faves.  I’m trying to figure out why I read the first two at light speed, and why I keep putting down the other.

The first two have vivid characters that don’t arc at all, a protagonist who annoys me about a quarter of the time I’m reading her, and cheery-perfect-world outlook in which everything turns out great for no particular reason aside from Good People Win.   The last one has vivid characters who are vivid because this is the third book they’ve been in, not necessarily because they’re clever on the page, a protagonist . . . . actually, I’m not sure this book has a protagonist, and a sense of been-here-before that is more boring than satisfying.  The antagonists in the first two books are almost cartoons (although to be fair, the books are almost farces), and there doesn’t seem to be an antagonist in the last book.  Yet.  I’m on page 77 of 375 pages.  I think an antagonist is overdue.  The first two books deal with a clear-cut morality in which the protagonist and her pals never do anything wrong.  They make mistakes, but they fix them.  They are good of heart and clean of mind.   The last book has the kind of squishy morality I like, but so far very few people are doing anything.  

So I can say lack of  a strong protagonist, lack of action, lack of an antagonist . . . the third book is just lacking.  But why the hell am I reading the first two books?  

I think the big thing is that the heroine is so vulnerable; vulnerability gets me every time.  And she’s active, she’s trying to hard to fix her situation.   But she’s also passive in that people do things to her and she doesn’t fight back, she just finds ways to escape.  As it happens, that works out perfectly for her, but if I ever do a post on passive-aggressive heroines, she’ll be at the top.  So the stories are about a nice woman whom people are trying to victimize, and about how the people around her fight to save her which gives her a feeling of worth, and how eventually she fights back, too.  I think it’s the vulnerability.  I want to see her saved.  But she’s not my favorite character in the books (I’m not sure I have a favorite character) because everybody around her is so much more interesting.  I read the first and second one and a short story that came between, but I think if there was a third one, I’d pass it by because it would be all about this woman being saved again.  The quirky community and sunlit world is fun, but not for three books.  

And yet I will persevere and finish that damn third book if it kills me.  Because that world is not sunlit, it’s teeming with darkness and bright flashes of neon and the occasional explosion.  The community isn’t so much quirky as cheerfully depraved, and the plot isn’t so much fun as . . . well, it’s not fun, but the books that came before it were wild rides that I adored.  So I’ll see it through.  There won’t be another one after this, so I’ll have completed the series.  It’s almost an obligation to finish this book; it’s as if I owe the author for all the joy he’s given me in the past and this is how I’m honoring my debt.   I will finish this book.

But when I look back at the books that came before this one, and at those two with the gormless heroine, I’m still trying to figure out why I read them so voraciously.  (Okay, I read the second of the first example much less voraciously, but I finished it.)  Those books are missing so much of what I think is necessary in a good book, but I still read on.  

So let’s talk about what makes a story unputdownable, using examples, please.  Fling book titles about at will.  Cite specifics.  I need to figure this out.

81 thoughts on “What Makes a Story Unputdownable?

  1. The first thing that comes to me about this is Stephen R. Donaldson’s first two Thomas Covenant trilogies. I read all six of them in a fast burn, and the only thing that kept me reading was finding out how he was going to get back to our world. I disliked him to a degree that I haven’t in any other lead character I can remember, I didn’t care for the world and the people inhabiting it, and yet I was driven to read it to find out what happened. In this case the author set up a scenario and the scenario was more interesting to me than anything that happened within it. And to this day I feel my classmate who suggested them to me because she said they were better than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was way off base. (Though I’m not a huge fan of JRRT’s overwritten fantasy epic either– it’s not bad, but it’s not the salvation of literature either)
    There have been examples of books where I slogged through expecting a payoff that never arrived. A Game of Thrones did that to me, and so did Douglas Adam’s book Mostly Harmless. For the former it was because I was optimistic that some of these horrid people would take it in the head, which of course didn’t happen because all the bad people win and the good people get rogered until they bleed from their eye sockets. With the Adams it was because he’d done two excellent books and one okay one in the series so far, so I was hoping it’d follow the first and forth books. But it wasn’t that funny, so it was a let down. I still read on, though, because I was sure (and wrong about that) he’d get to the funny bits soon enough.
    Which brings me to Caitlin A Higgins’ books, Lifeforce and Supernova. What kept me listening to these was the B plots and waiting to hear how she was going to keep her A plot from falling into a cliché. I’ll admit part of my annoyance was also because of the reader, as the person reading the story had too much of a British accent, so I kept hearing the accent as it intruded into the story. (This was most annoying with how the reader tried and failed to handle monotone computer voices) And then, of course, the clichés came through, handled in a ham-handed way, and the only thing that’ll get me to listen to the third book will be a morbid curiosity at how she might manage to redeem her writing. But hold my breath I will not.
    On the other hand, there’s Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips. It read like very early pratchett or Adams, and it was drawn in broad strokes, but though it had the feel and pacing of typical British TV comedy it still managed to keep me engaged because the characters were so good at being their twisted selves. The romance paid off in the end, things worked out in their own twisted way, and if I were the kind who re-read books I’d listen to it again. It worked because it had that goofy energy to it that made it fun.
    So there are a few examples.

    1. Re your experience with Thomas Covenant – I had a similar experience with The Firm by John Grisham. By the time I realized that I hated every character in the book and I didn’t care AT ALL what happened to them, I was so invested in figuring out the plot that I had to keep reading it.

      Now that I think about it, I had a similar experience with The Russia House by John le Carré’ – in that case I think I found the writing style annoying as well as not caring very much about the characters. But I had to find out what happened.

  2. I tore through George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, including a stint where I was up till 2 am multiple work nights in a row thinking “I’m definitely going to get fired but… ONE MORE CHAPTER” (I did not get fired; luckily, I read fast and handle sleep deprivation fairly well). What made them so devourable and un-put-down-able for me was-

    –Interesting characters (some I loved, some I hated, some I loved to hate, but very few who bored me)
    –Chapters that switch pov, so even if I’m stuck with Annoying Character for now, Favorite Character is next so I want to power through!
    –the sense that nobody was safe, hinted at throughout and then massively emphasised in the giant spoiler at the end of book 1, really ratcheted up the tension and meant I was dying to know what was next
    –high stakes for every character: even the minor characters want something
    –mostly active characters (even the passive ones do stuff like gossip that affects the plot)

    In other books I can’t put down, most of these are present.

    I have had that happen with books I hated too, though. I know that Twilight was popular, then popularly mocked, but I was teaching high school English when it was popular and read the books to know what the kids were into. They were just badly crafted–passive heroine, nonsensical plot– but I kept going. Partly because I liked some of the side characters, and then toward the end of the series the plot became such a train wreck I couldn’t look away.

    But I was mad at the author when I finished, so… Probably not the desired outcome!

    I recently had a similar hate-reading experience with a book advertised as romantic suspense that was just a very dark and extremely rapey plot. I was sort of sticking in there to see how bad it would get and to scoff at the poor copy editing.

  3. Sometimes it is just me. If I think I know where the author is going and I don’t like the book, I might slow down enough that I don’t finish. But that is an error of reader anticipation.

    If an author has a reputation for a good yarn or tales well told and I find it a slog, I often have to stop and start with the reputation building book to see if it was different. Sometimes it is and so it turns out that author may’ve burned out on the way here.

    Leaps of logic, even in a suspended disbelief world, can slow me down. In worlds built, info dumps annoy.

    Large parts of irrelevant story/prologue/flashback all cause a book to stutter like an engine on last bits of coal. See A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the backstory the in the middle of a ripping good yarn.

    I put down most things where the author really embarrassed the character. If the author is good enough in writing a character I empathize with and a dilemma I want resolved, then I tend to pick up the book again. I find Susan Elizabeth Phillips to be such an author. She makes me flinch and wince and sometimes groan with what happens. But, in most cases I can finish her books.

    However, this makes her a A LOT LESS re-readable. There’s maybe two SEP books I’d re-read.

    The reader-writer contract matters. I borrowed a book about a romance stemming from an arranged marriage but instead got a post-wedding sequence of events that were misunderstandings brought about by petulance in the MC. That book was a slog. In the book I’m thinking of, the MC was in jeopardy at the end and there was a cliffhanger for next book. In my mind, the jeopardy was fatal, MC is now dead, I will not be reading book 2!

    I hated the Twilight series. They seemed slow and plodding. The only part I enjoyed from the first book was the family baseball match in the storm. It had personality and interaction.
    I skimmed through the rest, and offloaded them on the first fan I met (the series was a gift someone gave me when the first film came out.)

    I enjoyed JR Ward’s Black Dagger brotherhood’s first two books. As the series became successful, I think the editor gave them a lot more leeway so the dialogue degenerated into hiphop slang that became a strain to read in the context of the stories. I also hated the extreme amount of time spent with the villains. The rule is ‘Dont write the parts that people skip.” Well, I skipped ALL of those villain scenes. Just turned clumps of pages till it seemed like I was back with the brotherhood. Now the series is a non-starter for me.

    I have to be emotionally invested in seeing the main character get what they want. That helps in stories with difficult worlds and tough plots. A good cause counts for a lot.

    I have more, but maybe time for a break. 😉

    1. Good point about SEP’s books. I don’t revisit her books. And there was one where the hero slept with an under-age fan. That was an automatic dnf for me. I should have mentioned that under the un-relatable protagonist post.

      And I agree, that sometimes it is just me and my mood that makes or breaks a reading experience. I have to be in the right frame of mind.

  4. The last un-put-downable series I read was the Captive Prince series by C.S. Pacat. I bought the first one on a whim and read it in one sitting. Then I went back to the bookstore the next day and bought book 2. After I read that in one sitting and went back again the next day and found out that the conclusion would not be available for many months, I almost despaired.

    I reread them in short order before finally reaching the conclusion and still enjoyed them, though with less breath-holding the second time through.

    I really like them. A lot. And I tend to gush about things I think other people should read, so I am having difficultly explaining exactly why I love them so much. They were like this perfect balance of character, plot and world building. Which just sounds like gushing. Maybe the pacing had a lot to do with it? The plot built and kept me in suspense? It is told from only one point of view, with just enough hints from the love interest to keep feeding the relationship for the reader. I don’t know. Rambling.

    Anyway, I highly recommend.

  5. Hmmm…so many reasons.

    1. Sometimes the story calls to a part of me (even one that I don’t consciously know about). I’ve been hooked on a few terrible shows lately, but something about the heroine’s life/issues makes me stick around even after the plot is trite and the characters cliched. The story is bad, but something about her calls to me.

    I hated Boys Over Flowers, and I should have, but…something about it was addictive. I’ve tried to analyze it – why did I put up with the bad acting and bad hair? Maybe it was the coming of age story. Maybe the heroine was such an underdog. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Unexplainable!

    2. Sometimes the heroine’s plight pulls me into a story I wouldn’t watch otherwise – like the rom-com horror show Master’s Sun which was wonderful, but scary – and I don’t do scary, but their heroine was so pathetic that I had to know how she ended up. Every episode, I would cower under my blankets and promise myself, just one more.

    2. Sometimes I just have to have answers! I did not care for the lead in My Love From Another Star (not at first anyway – but now she’s a favorite). She was selfish, bossy, loud, and not smart. However, the story was a total page turner. Did he let her go on the boat, even after he had a premonition that she would die? Did she die? (really, there was a question about that.) Would he help her even though he loathed her? Who was the killer? I. Couldn’t. Stop. Watching. It was like a bag of cookies that you can’t resist, eating the entire bag while saying to yourself, “Just one more….”

    4. Sometimes guilt wins. When I’ve invest time in a series, even if the End is bad, sometimes I will make myself finish – as if (as Jenny wrote earlier) I owe it to myself and the author and maybe the characters.

    1. PS – The last unputdownable book I read was a surprise. It’s The Forgetting River by Doren Carvajal, a non-fiction book about finding her family’s hidden Jewish heritage in Spain. It was so beautifully written that I wanted to read it ever minute. Also, it had a mystery element which is a bit rarer in non-fiction. Anyway – it was so beautiful, I couldn’t put it down.

    2. I felt that way about the Honor Harrington series for a long while but Weber’s broken the contract so badly now I doubt I’ll ever pick another one up.

      I put up with a lot of mediocre writing and info dumps for the characters but enough’s enough.

      In anything historical or alternate history, there’s a kind of mistake that throws me out of the story and I can’t get past it. I used to love Carla Kelly and tried to skip over the historical inaccuracies but the last one I read was both sloppy and wrong. I was listening to a interview with the author of Underground Airlines and he read a little bit of the book where he had the main character refer to himself as African American – in a world where the Civil War never happened. That’s the kind of thing I can’t get past – it just annoys me too much.

  6. There are several writers I could mention, but I’ll talk about one: Jayne Ann Krentz. I think she is under-appreciated in the online-book-reviews community. People find her stories predictable, and her protagonists the same from book to book. Only their names differ. I agree with that assessment, and that’s why I like her stories and her heroes so much. She is reliable. I know what to expect when I open her books.
    I own and re-read several times almost all her books written between 1990 and 2010 (or about). Three bookshelves of mine are lined with her books. I also absolutely loved her last 2 books, although in them, she seems to veer off her former path as a strictly romance writer. In both books, there is more suspense than romance, but both are utterly enjoyable. I like all her pen names too, but I especially like her futuristic romances by Jayne Castle.
    Let’s see why I like her so much.
    1. She is excellent with beginnings. Every story starts with a big bang.
    2. Her characters are almost unbelievably good. So good, I want them as my friends. They are strong, reliable people with a heightened sense of right and wrong. The author doesn’t try to infest them with faults. They are not weaklings, nor recovering alcoholics or drug users. They might’ve made mistakes in the past, but all they do is altruistic: for their families and their friends. It’s good to have such friends.
    3. Her stories are fast-paced. No unnecessary descriptions or mushy self-searches. Action rules.
    4. In her plots, the heroes are not forced into doing anything. They choose their course of actions themselves. They could back down from the struggle, hide and suffer and meander and let others do the dirty jobs, but they choose not to. They choose to be heroes.

    1. Yes! She’s not my favorite, but she’s always reliable, and I am always happy to spend time with her characters. Character is king.

      1. I just want her to go back and finish all her trilogies. Then too, I’m slightly annoyed by certain predictabilities with her writing too. But I enjoy her people and the worlds, mostly, so I keep going back.

    2. I really like her, too. In fact, I’ve been reading some of her Harmony books this week for a change of pace. Really liked her last Amanda Quick (after the end, I smell sequel potential, and I hope she does it). My only real quibble with Krentz is the tendency of her bad guys to info dump about their crimes for like two pages while they hold the heroines at gunpoint. It seems to happen at the end of lots of her books, but it’s a pretty minor complaint considering how much I enjoy myself up to that point, and I really like the heroine that’s being held at gunpoint, so I do care about what’s happening. Not that I’m afraid she’ll die; they are romances. Favorites or hers are still All Night Long and the Eclipse Bay trilogy, but if she keeps writing about the 1930s Burning Cove as Amanda Quick, I have a feeling those books will climb my list fast.

    3. I love Jayne Ann Krentz! Her Amanda Quick novels were my entry into the romance genre (fifteen years ago). However, after reading all of her books, her predictability is what makes them difficult to finish in my opinion. It usually takes me a week or two to get through her newest release. I think my problem is that I’m less invested because I know what’s going to happen next, per her formula.

      On the other hand, I’ve recently read two books that are nothing alike, but that I could not put down: Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, a contemporary fantasy set in London, and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette?

      In the middle of Bernadette I sat down on the side of my bed, thinking I’d finish the chapter and then go to sleep as it was a work night. When my husband came to bed three hours later I was still sitting there, and it was not a very comfortable position. I just couldn’t stop until I’d finished it. I couldn’t do anything until I finished it.

      Things they had in common: engaging characters, interesting women, great settings, and a completely unpredictable plot. I had no idea what was going to happen next – and I literally could not put the book down and wait to find out.

  7. Lately, I’ve been pondering this same question because I’ve decided to go hybrid–so I’ve been reading loads of self-published contemporary romance books. I’ve noticed that the readers in trad and indie publishing are very different. They have very different expectations. In indie books, I’ve noticed a lot of rule-breaking. The hero dies at the midpoint, and the second half is all about the heroine with a new hero. Or the couple gets together through adultery. Very often the h/h have no goals. I’m talking about books that have hundreds of 5 star reviews. I had a long conversation with a blogger who loves these books (and has never read SEP or JAK or Jenny Crusie). She said she doesn’t like books that follow a “formula.” The formula being: conflict = 2 dogs 1 bone. Romance = the development of the relationship between the h/h. So I’ve been reading these books, trying to figure out what makes readers love them so much. I think it’s voice. I think it’s turning our expectations upside down–the hero dying, the heroine seducing her married professor into an affair. It’s angst and high-pitch drama. For me, personally, I need a fully fleshed-out story. I need a Nobody’s Baby But Mine kind of story. What makes it unputdownable to me is suspense. Is the bf/husband cheating? What’s the secret someone’s keeping from the heroine? You can always yank me into the story when the heroine’s been wronged–badly–and I need to find out if/how she’s going to vanquish the bad guy. I don’t need the heroine to be down on her luck–impoverished, down to her last nickle–I need her to be shocked by something that someone’s done to her. An injustice. Something that means I can’t put down the book until I find out how she’s going to get out of her mess. And, of course, voice. Good topic–lots of thoughts on it!

    1. Yes! Voice, voice, voice. I’ll read through a lot of trash and confusing crap as long as the voice interests me. I have this vague, unformed theory about literature as a kind of polished-up gossip. I want to get somewhere eventually, but I’m willing to float around for a chapter or two in a side-pool if the voice is charming and/or arresting.

  8. For me I’d say what the Leverage producers called competence porn is a big hook. More precisely maybe competence-porn-in-a-worthy-though-flawed-character. It’s what makes Moffat’s (“I’m a highly-functioning sociopath”) Sherlock so compelling to me.

    Sophie Kinsella’s Remember Me? puts a bit of spin on that too. She wakes up from a coma with a last memory of being snaggle-toothed, dumped by a loser, and in a downhill-careening career but finding out that she has perfect teeth and flexibility and thighs (as though it all changed overnight–oh this is MY dream!) and apparently is successful and a bitch. The rest of the book is about winning back her soul and friends and finding her true lover.

    And I agree with Nicole Massey on Gods Behaving Badly–they really were scumbags but still I sort of rooted for them while the real protagonists didn’t really emerge as critically important until the end. Nice twist, nice surprise.

    So final answer: competence and energy and purpose in a flawed character with lots of fun, clever discovery along the path to fairly worthy ends. Anger is ok. No earnestness, no self-flagellation.

  9. For me, the most important part of a story is the characters. Are they good people? Do I like them? Does spending time with them make me happy? If I can’t answer yes to those questions I won’t finish the book, no matter how excellent the other elements are. And at this time in my life, I avoid dark or grim stories, because there’s way too much of that in real life.

  10. Completely off topic, but for everyone using Windows who was interested when Jenny talked about how she uses Curio, I just found one for Windows. It’s called Scapple, made by the same company that makes Scrivener. It looks simpler than Curio, but it will do a collage and the same kind of graphic Jenny did for the Nick and Nita acts and turning points a couple weeks ago. I spent less than half an hour playing with it this afternoon and I’m so excited. I can already see so many ways it will help my writing.


  11. I think there are a lot of different categories of un-putdownableness. (Unputdownability? Psshh….)

    Some of them I don’t mind, but many of them make me feel manipulated, and I put those books down without finishing them for exactly that reason.

    One such category is Extreme Action, which seems to be the whole reason for being in most of today’s blockbuster movies. So much is happening, so fast, and there’s a goal, and we have to get there; find it; kill the bastards; win the championship before it’s too late; save the princess; save the universe; get there before X explodes and figure out how to deactivate the bomb, hurry, hurry it might be too late!!!!

    On TV this kind of action is always accompanied by urgent, faintly minor key music with a low rumbling baseline that’s getting louder and louder all the time. You can’t stop watching (or, e.g., reading) because you have to find out what happens next. I hate these books, just as I hate similar movies or TV shows, but I do see their appeal. They whirl you along in the action action action, and the only way to follow what’s happening is to move into a kind of identification with the character(s) because that’s what it takes to keep up with the person whose POV you’re being shown.

    There are sometimes likeable or vulnerable characters in these stories, but really, all that action they are packaged with makes their likeability almost an afterthought. They may end up somewhat happier in the end, after all the terrible threat or competition is over and done with, but even that’s not the point — it’s that the point of the action was met and dealt with, so the tension of the action is relaxed. I’ve read this kind of book and watched this type of story in my time, but I always regretted it. I think the fact that “thrillers” so often have sequel after sequel is a sign that the author is writing to a formula that is designed to hook an audience like a large fish and reel it in so fast they don’t have time to figure out they’ve been reeled at all. Because that relaxation of the fear/worry/terror at the end feels so darn GOOD.

    I think another category that causes a reluctance to put the book down is just curiosity. A detective story that unwinds and unravels, with a sleuth who is actively trying to figure out “why did he say it that way?” or “what made the sound just before the car accident?” pulls you along as a reader because the “but maybe…” thinking the sleuth is going through (or Watson’s thinking as he struggles to follow the lightning throught processes of Benedict Cumberbatch) makes you start to participate in the hypothesizing and weighing of evidence first one way and then another. You’re not at an answer yet, so you’re tempted to check out what might be happening in that one more chapter, and so on.

    The books that I have trouble putting down because I love them tend to be less thrillers or mysteries than books about relationships that are partially about two people coming to know and appreciate one another, but — crucially — also about each person coming to understand more about themselves through their interaction with the other person and their environment. Think Elizabeth first listening to the stories about Darcy as she tours Pemberly. She’s not just getting a different perspective on Darcy — she’s also getting a sudden insight into how far from right she was when she jumped to so many conclusions about him.

    I also love books that contain a lot of fascinating “we” experiences of a group that hasn’t gotten along or known one another well before. That catering scene in Bet Me where the restaurant boys and the wedding girls all have a chance to help one another do a complex group thing, or watch that group in action is compelling. It’s not just there to solve a plot point or foil an antagonist — it has some suspense and tension, but that stuff is kind of incidental and makes sense in context. I didn’t want to turn the pages to find out if disaster was averted by it, though — I was turning pages because growth and adjustment were happening — and maybe some cooking competence porn too, I guess.

  12. There’s an early book by Thomas Perry called Metzger’s Dog. I read it years ago, thought about it recently, and tracked it down like a mad woman. I read it again and realized why it was unputdownable the first time.
    The characters are crazy, immoral, funny, and so damn likeable. The story is sometimes believable and when it’s not, I don’t care.
    There are animals. Metzger is Dr. Henry Metzger, the cat of the antagonist. So, a cat and a dog who are amazing additions to the story, round out this group of criminals. Maybe ethical criminals is a better description.
    There’s a bit of a love story, not too much, just enough.
    This book makes me laugh every time I think about it.
    Unputdownable, even the second time around.

    1. I love Metzger’s Dog – especially the end and Thomas Perry is alway a great re-read for me. I just saw he has a new one out this year.

    2. It’s probably too late for an “oops”, but Dr. Henry is the cat of the PROTAGONIST. Sorry, Mr. Perry. By the way, the protagonist’s name is Chinese Gordon. How could I not love him? Readers don’t know how he got his name, and it really doesn’t matter, but I will always love Thomas Perry for coming up with that moniker.

  13. Books I couldn’t put down. All the Patrick Obrians because of his great world building and because you had to pay attention or you would miss something funny/unforgettable/ …
    The thief and all the books in that series. Again the world building and the subtle details you don’t want to miss but also you really care about the people and their interactions are really subtle. And complicated plots you only really understand after the second or third time.

    Joanna Bourne. Amazing language and great world building and again complex relationships. And interesting plots.

    Your books–again great world building and wonderful humor. And beautifully structured.

    Ben Aaronovitch. Peter just drags you in with him.

    I don’t think for me it’s about the ending–I’m one of those awful people who read the end first half the time. It’s about how you get from here to there. World building, interesting and reasonably likesble characters, pace, humor.

    There are very few books I disliked or where I disliked the main characters but couldn’t put down. Maybe Nora Roberts Happy Ever After. I hated that heroine. She was perfect in all the most annoying ways. But I really liked the hero so I stuck in there for him. (Actually, Bed of Roses is an example of a book where I almost put it down right near the end. I felt that the heroine really had invaded the heros space and then jumped to conclusions — and then every other character acted like she had been badly treated. The morals of it, in a sense, really bothered me. )

    Poorly thought out plots where the characters are not consistent. I tried a spy romance once where I though the plot had real potential–wife has had multiple miscarriages and doesn’t want to try again, which I’m sure happened a lot, and would have been interesting to play out. But instead of using that as the main story, the couple were spies but didn’t know about each other. She is dressing badly to avoid attention for some reason (not to avoid sex and miscarriages I think) yet dresses dramatically for a midnight meeting… the plot was not only unrealistic but the characters made no sense. I only made it through 30 pages.

    Books that are too grim. Unless I’m in a very particular mood they won’t work.

  14. A sympathetic character
    Overcomes almost insuperable odds
    By his or her own efforts
    To achieve a worthwhile goal.

    Mostly plots flop because the character isn’t sympathetic enough, or the odds aren’t insuperable enough, or the effort isn’t personal enough (that’s your heroine being rescued by other people), or the goal isn’t worthwhile enough. Question: do we keep reading because we have three out of four?

  15. 1. Do I believe it
    2. Have I read this story too many times before.

    These aren’t necessarily in the authors control. I’m reading a book I think I would have loved a few years ago. It’s filled with tropes I love. But it feels soulless, and too historically inaccurate to be believable, but not historically inaccurate enough to be fun to believe in. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the authors fault – I’ve just read versions of this book that did these tropes better. But honestly, if this book was your first introduction to regency romance, I think you’d love it and have a great time.

    Beyond that, the things that keep me hooked are the normal good craft things, plus a side of “Do I believe in this world?” balanced with “do I want to believe in this world?” I don’t need both of those to be a yes, but it sure helps.

  16. A note about re-reading. I still prefer actual books from the library. Not wanting to re-read for me, means not being bothered to buy a book after I’ve read it in a library.

    1. Mollie said the same thing, which surprised me, although now that I think about it, she stares at a screen all day for her business. A paper book is probably good for her eyes.

  17. My first book has no plot, but a surprising (to me) number of nice reviews. I was talking to my dad about that and he told me that the book was “an entertaining onion,” where he kept reading to learn more about the characters, not to find out what happened next. I find that comforting once in a while, as I struggle to write a book with an actual plot.

    There’s an author I love, Andrea Host, whose Stray series turned into total comfort reads for me. I’ve read them over and over again and I could list loads of reasons why I should hate them, starting with sloppy copy-editing, a too-good-to-be-true main character, an impossible number of characters to keep track of, a wandering plot… but I’m just so interested in the world she’s built. Adventure at every turn, even when it doesn’t make sense. And I like the character’s sense of humor and determination. Plus, she’s got a romance that starts with an unobtainable crush and the crush feelings are so relatable, realistic in a world that’s not. I like some of her other books, too (although not all of them) and it’s almost always, I think, because her characters tend to have senses of humor that click with mine.

    1. I have several authors that I read because I love the characters or the world, not because of the plot.

      Patricia McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorns was a very odd and very interesting book. I couldn’t put it down.

      Fascination with something in a book, a person, the setting, the plot – something hooks me and keeps me turning pages. I admit, it’s often NOT been the actual art of writing. It sometimes is though – Deerskin.

      But I think I know what the 3rd book Jenny is referring too. It was a hard read. I don’t know that I’ll go back to it again, as much as I love the author and the characters. I think part of it is because it doesn’t feel like his voice. I read somewhere that his wife and daughter knew he wasn’t done rewriting/polishing it but felt they owed it everyone to put it out there (or something.) I’m not sure that was a good idea.

      1. I think the demand for it would have been overwhelming so I can see why they went ahead.

        I finally gave up on it, and I think the big problem for me was that there was no protagonist. Theoretically this was the third (fourth? Was there one about taxes?) about this character, but he wasn’t driving the action, so there were a lot of scenes with characters I’ve loved for a long time, but none of the characters claimed the story. Add to that, there was no antagonist, so it was just a string of scenes. That’ll be the only book of his I didn’t finish–I’ve read some of the others a dozen times, no exaggeration–but there was no there there in this one.

    2. I also love Andrea Höst’s books, though my particular unputdownable favorite is the Medair duology — The Silence of Medair / Voice of the Lost, packaged together in the Kindle version as Medair. In spite of a slightly wandering second half, and extra backstory being inserted as an afterthought when it was decided to publish the print editions in two volumes instead of one, the universe is interesting, the main character is unusual for a fantasy universe (not a warrior or a sorceress, but a diplomat), the romance is subtle but works for me (the hero is so undemonstrative that the touch of his hand packs more oomph than much more explicit steamy descriptions in Harlequins). And her foreshadowing is outstanding (would have been perfect if the two-volume format had been left at one volume).

      Another completely different unputdownable book for me was … And, Ladies of the Club, by Helen Hooven Santmeyer. Pick it up and be immersed in small-town Ohio from the just-post Civil War to the Depression. Every kind of character, multiple storylines, but, as my grandmother said, a real portrait of women’s lives in that time and place.

      1. I’m so impressed that you managed the umlaut. 🙂

        I like Medair, too, but for subtle romance, Bones of the Fair was my favorite. I think I had to read it three times before I got the plot — that was another complicated world with too many characters — but I so loved the main characters. I would absolutely spend more time in that world, if I could.

        1. I also like that world — was very amused by the Champion of the Rose rosebush (NO moral standards, that rosebush).

  18. Tracy Ellen’s Adventures of Anabel Axelrod series are the ones for me. Great community and intelligent h/hs. I love her love relationship because it’s mature. FREX: in one of the books, her guy turns up at an event with a woman draped over him and he’s very callout toward Anabel. She’s perplexed, but her first thought is what is he up to, not he’s cheating on me. (He’s an agent.) And immediately that night, he shows up and fills her in. I went, what, two people who trust? Shocker. She owns a book store/ w. Coffee shop and the cast of characters are great.

    Love those books!

    1. Yep, I’m on board with any heroine who doesn’t use the Big Misunderstanding as a chance for emotional blackmail (heroes, too). That trope annoys the HELL out of me, one of the reasons I deliberated subverted it in Agnes. If you love somebody, you trust him or her; if that person turns out to be untrustworthy, that’s on them, not on you. The Big Misunderstanding always seems to me to be more about a character protecting herself or himself than trying to understand the person he or she supposedly loves.

      1. Totally agree

        Also in the list of things I can’t tolerate are all romance conflicts that could be solved by simply talking to the other person and romance conflicts driven by over the top insecurities.

        Also, rape as a motivation has been so overused that I am apt to skip any book that starts along that path. I know there are good books written with rape as a motivation but it has been so overused as a cheap ploy that it is difficult for me to get past it.

        1. I can’t express the number of times I wanted to crawl into one of Cass Morgan’s books in the “The 100” series and smack someone because they were being idiots about expressing any feelings to each other. And the constant tactic of grabbing a girl (yes, they weren’t women yet, still young enough to be below the threshold) from behind to keep her from doing anything. I kept telling myself, “It has to get better to be this popular,” but I was deluding myself. It’s why I prefer Susan Beth Pfeffer’s YA stuff more — better written, no love triangles, and believable characters that act like they’re not experiencing their first days out in the world after being locked in the closet for a decade and a half.

        2. I can’t even do rape back story on TV any more. It’s just so gratuitous as an audience manipulator and now it’s over-used, too.

  19. I find there are different kinds of unputdownableness, based on reflecting over the books that I remember, the books I use to unwind and the books I get lost in and then kind of forget.

    Category 1 – Literary fiction that really presses my buttons. Julian Barnes is one of my current favourite writers here, and I also really like Hilary Mantel, especially the Cromwell books, and Elena Ferrante. Barnes writes short sharp books, his short novel about Shostakovich Noise of Time was a book I glommed in a day and then immediately re-read. I loved everything about it – plot, characters, structure, language, ambience. I also remember picking up Wolf Hall one summer about six or seven years ago and sinking into it like a warm bath. I sat in the garden for about 8 hours straight (heaven knows what I’d done with children/husband/real life) and was lost in this amazing world. Mainly with these, it’s all about the language and the voice of the writer.

    Category 2 – thrillers and romances. Am currently catching up on the Mary Burchell Warrender books and have the third of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books ready on the TBR pile for when I need to check my brain out and unwind. These have to be easy reading, but also as with Cat 1, with a distinctive world-view/voice. I really like Burchell’s pretty direct take on talent, art, music, and she develops and sustains great characters through the series. With Rowling, I know the parts of London she writes about well, the central relationship between Strike and his assistant Robin is really developing nicely and the plots skip forward at a rollocking pace. In this category, I’d also put my re-reads, which are Crusie, Heyer and Eva Ibbotson. The other writer I re-read regularly is Dorothy Dunnett, but she hovers between Cat 1 and 2.

    Category 3 – I keep finding that most of the fantasy I read falls into this category. I like the idea of fantasy, but I still, to quote U2, haven’t found what I’m looking for. I hardly know what it is myself. I have memories of someone giving me The Princess Bride at the age of 15 and just glomming it up (especially because my family was having a really bizarre Christmas in a cabin in Massachusetts with another family and the book was a wonderful refuge). So, for example, I’ve read Rothfuss, Name of the Wind and Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Aliette Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings. I read these quite fast, but they feel sluggish and I will be honest, I remember very little about them, even the names of characters have pretty much gone. I love the ideas and the concept of the world building, but over and over with fantasy novels, however fast or slow I read them, they just don’t stick. Probably the honorable exception is Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, but maybe that’s because they seem to be more historical than fantasy in tone. Even Neil Gaiman – I’ve had to buy another copy of American Gods because we’ve lost our copy and I couldn’t remember a blessed thing when I was watching the TV series.

    So for me, part of unputdownability has to be the stickiness. That story, those people, that world, those need to stick with me and comfort me when I’m far from the book and just rewinding the story in my head and desperate to get home to the bookshelves and pick it up again.

    1. I’m not sure The Princess Bride is fantasy in the classic sense of the word. It’s much more Pratchett than Tolkien/Rowling/Brooks, et. al. I put it in the “if you liked” list with Good Omens and Guards! Guards!

      And now I really want to get back to Paradise Park and Monday Street when I’m finished with Nita.

      1. In this, I’m on your side: onward to Paradise Park and Monday Street!

        I find myself thinking of their world, and drawing up to think, “wait, I didn’t really read that.” But I did. Sort of.

        Must have more.

        1. I think Nita is a good transition point. The key to the worldbuilding there is that this is the normal world, it’s just that some people are demons in the same way that some people are Canadian: it tells you something about them but carries no moral judgment. There isn’t magic in this world, and what few powers there are–smiting, opening gates, seeing guilt–are based in logic. So not difficult. PP and MS are magic-based, so I need to work up to that, although come to think of it, a lot of that is logic-based, too, since it’s steampunk-ish.

    2. I very much enjoy fantasy and would love to barrage you with suggestions. The Onion Girl by Charles De Lint comes to mind. It’s heavy, but beautiful.

      Or the Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Although this one too might be awarded the title of classic at this point…

      I wish you well on your search!

  20. I’m liking a lot of the answers, but for me personally at where I am in my life, it comes down to is characters. I’m willing to overlook a lot in the plot, world building, and prose style if I like the characters and I’m rooting for them. Not everything, mind you. I just gave up on a book b/c the hero and heroine have no good reason not to at least talk about their attraction, but instead they’re behaving like 13 year olds (they are adults, even if they were 13, I might not buy it.), but I still feel like that’s more character based than plot based. I can’t buy where the author is taking these characters.

    Just to use an example I tried the Peter Grant mysteries (long before they were mentioned here) and I was chugging along, not loving them (little violent for my taste) but not hating them either, definitely admiring a lot of how they were written and then there was one sentence of interior dialogue, made me deeply dislike the character, I really honestly tried to keep reading, and I couldn’t. Done. And I wasn’t even interested in skipping ahead. Just 100% done.

    Now, does that mean there’s something wrong with the books? Clearly not, they’re beloved! Does that mean there’s something wrong with me? I don’t think so and I hope not. 😉

  21. Character is important to me. Not sure it’s most important, but it’s pretty high. I just started a book told in two voices and I really lime the first one; I’ve read one other book by the author and enjoyed it. However, the second POV character has bothered me enough in his first appearance that I’m going to have to work to get past it. I’ll probably try, because it is SO early on, and the other POV is great. But….ick.

    Conflict matters too. I need to feel like there’s something actually at stake to be really invested (ie, unputdownable). Though, to be honest, I will read (and even re-read) books to visit the characters and their world….but I don’t get the same satisfaction at the end. Someone already mentioned Nora Roberts’ Bridal quarter and it’s an example for me, too. The first book worked for me in terms of conflict and character/world. But some of the later books? There was NO reason why the people wouldn’t just….end up together. Which is fine in real life but makes for a dull read. I did read them all, again, because characters. So maybe that is my #1.

    1. My last re-read of the Bridal Quartet with a burning desire for a story where they’re all scrambling and failing to put on a wedding on 2 hours of broken sleep due to teething babies and family squabbles, etc.

      I work full-time, I’m not rich, I don’t have hired help, I’m not organized and I hate to cook. I have a 7 year old and a 9 year old and a husband who’s not as helpful as he could be. In short, I cannot relate to that series anymore at this point in my life.

  22. Character is the strongest hook; I learned this about myself from Agatha Christie. It doesn’t matter how well constructed the plot is if I have no investment in any of the characters. This is why I didn’t even finish ABC Murders in junior high but couldn’t get enough of Death on the Nile. Some spoilers for the latter – Jackie was really interesting to me right from the beginning, and the fact she turned out to be a killer only made her more interesting. I still love that story. I can’t actually remember a lot of the Poirot I’ve read, because there wasn’t enough in the characters to really pull me in. Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, and the stand alone books are better for me because of the characters. Even a puzzle focused mystery still has to have something happening in terms of characterization.

    Sometimes the pacing of a book makes it impossible to put down. Mary Stewart is like that for me. She usually starts slow for me at the beginning, all those descriptions at the start. But she gradually starts to move from menace to immediate physical danger, and before I realize it, the plot is going at breakneck speed and I’m so engrossed I’ve forgotten to eat. The last time I read Madam, Will You Talk, I noticed this about her stories. Pretty sure I had the same thing happen with Airs Above the Ground and Thunder on the Right – slow start, then forgot to eat. And I love her protagonists. They all end up fighting terrible dangers with nothing but their wits. They’re always so resourceful.

    It’s really rare for an author’s descriptive language to be one of my favorite things about a book, even when it’s beautiful. I’m more interested in dialogue. The exception is Laura Florand, especially her La Vie en Roses books. There’s something about the way she uses language that makes it incredibly easy and enjoyable to immerse myself in her books, and that’s a big reason I hate to put them down. Also, again, love her characters.

    I never thought about vulnerability until you and Lani talked about it. The mention of it reminds me of Kelley Armstrong’s Darkest Powers trilogy. The protagonist is 15 years old, small, has a stammer, and suddenly starts seeing ghosts; she thinks she’s just had her first experience with schizophrenia. So she’s really vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and her supernatural ability doesn’t really help with self-defense. I was very concerned about her, and I wanted her to be safe. And then she starts to arc, and you respect her more and more. She gets a handle on seeing ghosts, she actively investigates her suspicious therapy group home, she escapes the people trying to experiment on her, and the whole time, she’s telling herself to adapt or die. She’s admirably stubborn about surviving. And I loved that by the last book, she was using her obvious vulnerabilities to make the bad guys underestimate her. She fake stammers, she tries to look harmless, but she’s always planning how she’s going to save herself. So, vulnerability, strong character arc, and Armstrong’s world, which I already knew and enjoyed, made those unputdownable for me.

  23. Can’t put down

    Books by Michelle West/Sagara
    Winter’s Tale (Helprin)
    Riddle master of Hed trilogy (Patricia MacKillip)
    Fionavar Tapestry (Kaye)
    Hidden Legacy trilogy (Ilona-Andrews)
    Clive Cussler books (excluding co-authored book)
    Giovanni e Lusanna (Burkhardt? This is a truly different category because it isn’t truly a story. The author found a bunch of legal papers from the Renaissance regarding a suit from a peasant woman against a noble man claiming they were married and he wasn’t doing his duty. It is a remarkable read into Renaissance Florence and I truly recommend it to anyone who can find it but it is strictly nonfiction)

    The reasons aren’t the same for all the books but I rather think you need to hit several of these for me for them to make me want to read them all in a rush and actually remember them when they are done

    • Exquisite language and imagery – true beauty (West/Sagara, Helprin, MacKillip, Kaye)

    • A community of supporting characters I would love to be part of: supportive, talented, quirky, loyal,, etc (your strength, plus first 6 authors above)

    • A protagonist that I identify with (often because they are relatively normal or at least react the way I might) (you, Helprin, RiddleMaster, some of Michelle West, Kaye, Andrews)

    •. Really great dialogue (without a lot of cursing) (you)

    • Intricate plot or one where solution and possibly problem is not clear (many plots are predictable fairly early on and while that does not automatically take a book out of the racing-through category, it needs to be very strong in other categories) (West/Sagara in particular, also Helprin, Cussler and Giovanni ed Lusanna)

    A word regarding Stephen Donaldson: his characters for the most part are unsympathetic but his world building is exceptional and his books deal with feelings and struggle. I don’t like his books, but find them incredibly compelling. I can’t think of another author in the same category. And his Gap series is remarkable in many respects. The first book is truly terrible but blessedly short. The important thing though is that when you are done with the book you think you know what it was about. Then you read the 2nd book and realize you were horribly wrong but now you know. Then you get to the 3rd book and realize you still didn’t have it. It is really amazing craftsmanship but also a really good reminder of how we in our own personal world think we understand the implications of everything around us but we really don’t. It is also an incredibly frightening allegory of the current world where governments are ceding power to corporations on an unparalleled basis. It helps you to be aware of how seemingly harmless decisions can backlash over time. I don’t like the books, but they are compelling and do what sci-fi was originally meant to do: recast the current world in a different context so you can understand it better)

    I won’t give a list of books I have a hard times logging through but here are some characteristics

    • stupid protagonist and/or plot
    • plots that are too repetitive in an author (yes, I like to be able to have some books that I know will be an acceptable read for times I am desperate for a book with no time to look, but there are limits)
    • meanness of spirit or sheer nastiness
    • excessive swearing, drugs, crimes against children
    • overall dullness
    • excessive description unless the descriptions are truly exquisite and fill me with a sense of beauty
    • anything that I can clearly see will have an unhappy ending. There can be unhappy parts, but I want triumph at the end. This is personal taste, I realize, but true for me
    • too ordinary (if it is just like real life, there is no point. I have real life.) This doesn’t mean it has to be extraordinary. It just means it can’t be pedestrian

    1. I meant to have on the list of positive charcteristics

      • wanting to witness to protagonist triumph

      • sense of mystery ( my goodness, I have a sense for what Islander in the Michelle West books is trying to do, but it is muddy and I’d dearly like to know if I am right … and he is just a supporting character. Never mind trying to work out the ends of all the character arcs or the plot arcs)

  24. I used to be terrible about reading on and on into the night, but as I’ve aged and my sleep pattern has gotten worse again (for a while it was okay, I blame it on perimenopause + work stress) I have gotten much better about stopping the book when I need to. Very boring and responsible. Long story short, “unputdownable” is not really a thing for me.

    There are books that I will snatch up and continue reading at every opportunity, though. One such author is Jill Mansell. Her books are complex in the sense that there are a lot of intertwined storylines and characters, but the essential setup is the same each time, and some of the tropes are too. Very reliable in other words. The fun for me is in finding out how she has tweaked her formula. And I really truly like most of her characters, so I want to push through and watch each set get their happy-ever-after.

  25. The most unputdownable book I’ve read in recentish times was The Creeping Shadow (#4 Lockwood & Co) by Jonathan Stroud. As in, I sincerely tried to make it last longer – I made myself put it down to go do housework, just so I wouldn’t finish it too quickly – but I was so hooked that I gobbled it up in about an hour, and now I’m trying to be patient waiting for the final book in the series.

    The characters are the heart of it. I love Lucy Carlyle and her approach to everything, and I care very much about what happens to her. I love Lockwood, and George and even Holly. I love the snarky British humour, and the pace of the story. There’s a good balance between all the elements, and due weight is given to the relationships (not just romantic) and the way they develop. And there’s a good dash of competence porn going on.

    But basically, I care about the characters and Stroud has done a great job of giving them interesting situations and a mystery that I want to see them handling.

  26. A lot of the things that make me put down an otherwise great book are personal, like my inability to handle secondhand embarrassment (especially secret identities or anything where I’m just sitting going “Oh god she’s gonna get found out….”). Or my inability to finish series after a certain point, sometimes BECAUSE they’re great, because the longer it’s great, the more the pressure builds up my fear that it’s going to let me down at the end, or it becomes an obligation that I HAVE to finish it instead of something I want to do…. you may notice I have some issues.

    (And yet I love superheroes, go figure.)

    As far as books I put down because I just don’t like them or care about them, it’s most commonly the kind of gimmicky themed cozy mystery. I’ll pick it up because it’s crochet-themed, or has baking and magic, or monkeys! But then I just Don’t. Care. about the MC or who was murdered or any of them. The most recent attempt actively repulsed me– I /wanted/ to care about the MC trying to hold it together as her marriage fell apart, and the quirky supporting characters, and absurd monkey situations, but it was like the coworker that won’t stop talking about herself and thinks you’re just as invested in and impressed by every thought in her head. If she’d actually been half as clever as she thought she was, it might have saved it, but that combo of self-absorption and cluelessness no amount of monkeys can save. (Also I’m kind of sick of the trope of casual bystanders deciding that they need to solve the murder because of Reasons.)

    I guess unputdownableness, for me, is mostly voice and character dynamics, and just enough “what happens next?” to keep me going. Not necessarily the big climax at the end, either. First time I read The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, I was just going to read a couple of chapters to see what it was about, and then I was just going to read until the heroine met Gansey, and then etc. etc. So yeah, a progression of smaller plot/suspense points, as long as they do feel like progress and not like being strung along,

  27. For “2am and still reading” I have to care about the characters, and there has to be some sort of growth either of a character or a relationship. Wanting to find out what happens is helpful, wanting to see someone fulfill their potential is riveting. All of Lois McMaster Bujold, for example.

    I also find bits of humor/insight/delightful character side business help keep me entertained and going….. I know more good stuff is coming. Kerry Greenwood is the master of one to two line description of a person, event, emotion that makes me say “I know that feeling/person/sensation”

  28. What makes a book impossible for me to put down is narrative flow/narrative voice. These are different, indeed, opposite. Some examples of narrative voice:

    • Reading Howard Pyle’s *The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood* as a ten- or eleven-year-old. I had to keep hearing that voice in my head. These are short stories, but I would leap from the end of one to the beginning of the next, to keep hearing that voice.

    • David James Duncan’s *The River Why.* The protagonist is a teen, and no teen ever thought or spoke like this. Doesn’t matter. It’s all about fishing and I hate fishing. Doesn’t matter. There is no antagonist unless maybe it’s God. Doesn’t matter. My wife tells me when she hears me snickering and drumming my heels on the floor, she knows what book I’m rereading.

    • Sarah Caudwell’s *Thus Was Adonis Murdered* or others. [Unfortunately Caudwell died young after writing only four books.] You would hate the narrator if you knew her/him [the gender is never hinted at], but the dry, self-important voice is wonderful. I will no longer attempt a new mystery unless I suspect it has an intriguing narrative voice.

    • Steven Brust’s *The Phoenix Guards* or others. An esteemed acquaintance did himself the honor of introducing Paarfi of Roundwood [the supposed narrator] to me, and thus I nearly find my own language greatly affected at times. Please do not imagine that *The Phoenix Guards* resembles in any fashion *The Three Musketeers.* Paarfi’s voice makes TPG superior.

    Narrative flow is almost the opposite of narrative voice. The author is invisible. The plot machinery is noiseless. Every scene follows inevitably the previous scene. You are so deep in the protagonist’s head you can’t think your own thoughts, and you are pulled toward the end in a slow acceleration that you can’t stop. Connie Willis’s *To Say Nothing of the Dog* and others. *Bet Me.* Some of the early Heinleins. Good narrative flow is a sign to me of great technical skill.

    Looking at my examples, it’s interesting that antagonists are missing or secondary.

  29. Several have mentioned language making a book unputdownable. I find it sometimes makes a throw-against-the-wall book–especially if it’s excessively flowery and anachronism-laden. Infodump did not really bother me until you pointed it out; now I skip it and come back if I need it.

  30. For me it’s a protagonist who I can relate to, and the author’s finesse at transitions. I care enough to keep on reading to discover what happens next, and the author can be quite subtle in her ability to make me start that next chapter. There doesn’t have to be a major, major hook, but there has to be a reason to keep me engaged, then I’m thinking just one more chapter, maybe two, and before I know it it’s 3 am.

    1. You got it right. For me it’s the author’s finesse at transitions and relatability. The most recent books I could not put down were both by Kristan Higgins, If You Only Knew and On Second Thought. Both stories are about sisters. If You Only Knew was was not a “fun” read for me. One of the stories was so hard to read and made me feel raw, I had a lump in my throat reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I had to see what came next. I had to get to the resolution.

    2. This is why I don’t like flashbacks or jumping off to a secondary story. Unless very well done it kills the flow of the book stone dead and I often put it down then.

  31. I think Connie Willis’ books are unputdownable for me. Even when my heart is being ripped out, I can’t stop. But I have to be in the right frame of mind to reread most of them.

  32. I’m going to make a few notes before I read the comments. Sometimes a heroine is like a clothespeg. She’s the hook that all these interesting events and characters are centered upon, but she herself is a bit boring. And of course, I can’t think of a good example of this right now, but that kind of story can be a lot of fun.

    If I really think about it, Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t do much except be reasonable. She does reject a couple of guys, but a lot of what happens isn’t her doing. She gets into trouble because her sister runs off with a guy, and some other guy fixes the problem for her. All she really does is decide that sometimes first impressions aren’t all that accurate, and she changes her mind about Rejected Suitor #2.

    The heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary also seems quite tossed by the tides of fate, but I love that book on a lot of levels. IIRC, a lot of her decisions to act turn out really badly, and her bacon is saved again and again by other circumstances.

    But these are exceptions. Usually, a heroine who can’t control her destiny is a bit too wishy-washy and whiny for me to like.

    There’s this huge meme in romance, too — that love gobsmacks the hero and heroine, and the real story is not how they fall in love, but how they deal with being unable to live without each other.

    OK, off to read the comments!

  33. The most interesting examples I can think of are the books (and movies) that I can get completely, emotionally sucked into and immersed in, even though part of me is aware that objectively speaking, they’re not well crafted. And I don’t know what that thing is, what that emotional stickiness is or how one creates it, but it’s definitely real.

    Best example is the movie Jupiter Ascending – objectively it’s a terrible movie (in the same way that the original Star Wars is objectively a terrible movie) in terms of things like well-written dialog or believable acting or IDK, a plot that makes sense, but subjectively it’s FANTASTIC! I LOVED this movie – even while I was rolling my eyes at the sheer ridiculousness of it, it grabbed me on some deep emotional level and didn’t let go until the end of the movie. And I will (and have) argued that the emotional stuff that grabbed me is important – the heroine’s journey, the objectifying men not women, the spiritual metaphors. Etc. (Here’s my favorite review: https://threatquality.com/2015/02/08/is-jupiter-ascending-the-best-space-opera-of-all-time-and-also-the-best-movie/)

    There’s this interesting (to me) phenomenon of books that have a lot of effusive 5 star reviews and baffled 1 star reviews (like Twilight or Kristen Ashley or Lora Leigh or Amy Lane or JR Ward) – where the 1 star reviews are like, “um, I don’t understand how this got published / popular, what am I missing?” and the 5 star reviews are all “OMG!!! I love this book so much I want to have its book babies!!!!!!!!”.

    I’ve thought about this a lot (why, I don’t know, but it interests me) and I think the 1 star reviews are probably written by people who couldn’t connect emotionally, so they noticed all of the flaws with the craft, and the 5 star reviews are probably written by readers who connected emotionally with story enough that it pulled them through all of the problems. I’ve realized that books that are described as addictive or book-crack tend to fall into that category of emotionally satisfying / engaging but not necessarily well crafted.

    I really do prefer art that I can connect to emotionally and intellectually. Art that I can think about and analyze the structure and appreciate the craft but that also makes me feel things. But sometimes I read a book that just grabs me by the emotions and it’s kind of nice to settle in for the ride.

    1. I really enjoyed Jupiter Ascending too.

      Though my sister thought with Mila Kunis as an Alien Princess and Channing Tatum as a wolf hybrid two such impossibly hot people, if there had been alien nookie, she’d would have bothered to watch it

  34. Very interesting discussion!

    I’ve seen a lot of reference here to voice, narrative flow, style, and characters. I agree with all that.

    I think that things like plot, story arc, and character development make a book memorable rather than unputdownable… because you have to keep reading to the end–or nearly so–to find out if those things were done well and worked. “Unputdownable” refers to the qualities that get you to that point, and especially to the qualities that get you staying up until 3am reading the book before you even know if the elements all resolve in a strong and satisfying way toward the end of the novel.

    I think what makes a book unputdownable… even to the point where I enjoy it even IF I didn’t think the “finish” was strong, can be summed up as the -way- the writer tells the story.. That’s a combination of voice, tone, style, flow, and pace.

    There’s a much-lauded sf/f writer named NK Jemisin, for example, whose books are praised by many people I know (as well as nominated and given awards) for their richness of character, world-building, storytelling, ideas, and originality. Yet I have started 3 different Jemisin books and been unable to get past chapter 2, specifically because the -way- that author tells a story doesn’t appeal to me. I consistently find the author’s voice, tone, style, approach make me bounce off her books pretty quickly.

    There are other books or writers that also have the effect on me. They may write light-hearted commercial fiction or heavy litfic, comedy or genre, genre or maintsteam, they may be contemporary or historical, alive or dead, etc.

    There are always novels whose subject matter or “type” soon turn me off. (I rarely try horror novels, for example, because within a few chapters I’m always either grossed out or else rolling my eyes.) There are novels where the characters are so repellant or tiresome or cardboard/stock that I quickly quit reading. There are books I finish and then wish I hadn’t bothered, because the ending is so unsatisfying or sloppy. There are a wide variety of qualities that make us NOT like a book or even not finish it.

    But the one thing I can say about books that I bounce off within a few chapters, or that I find it a slog to get through (and where I start skimming and skipping), or where I try several times because I am interested in the subject matter or story idea but find the writing a struggle…. Is that in those instances, the -way- the writer tells the story doesn’t appeal to me, grab me, draw me in.

    Similarly, there are books which (like the two Jenny has described above) I race through and, afterwards, am perhaps even puzzled I spent my time on, though I really enjoyed the time (or else I wouldn’t have kept reading). An example that comes to mind is Jilly Cooper’s RIDERS. It was a very long book, not my sort of subject matter, and I couldn’t stand -any- of the characters… and yet the WAY she told the story was so compelling, I raced through the book and enjoyed it… even though, yes, I was a little puzzled afterward by having done so. I remember a historical romance I read years ago, back when historical romances were thick books (this was probably 175,000 words)–cant remember the title or author (I just tried googling and can’t find it). I was on vacation in Spain… and yet I couldn’t put down this book. Even though I am not really a historical romance reader Another one that comes to mind if Amy Waldman’s THE SUBMISSION. I picked it up by chance, opened it expecting to read a couple of chapters–and wound up staying up all night, unable to put it down… even though I would say it’s not particularly my sort of novel. But the way the author told her story drew me in and wouldn’t let me close the book to go to bed.

    I think “unputdownable” is a very direct connection between the author’s storytelling–particularly voice, tone, style, narrative–and the reader, in that particular book. I found Somerset Maugham’s THE RAZOR’S EDGE unputdownable, yet I don’t care for many of his books (and have bounced off several within a couple of chapters). I think it’s a quality that almost makes you feel a compelling person is speaking directly to YOU while you’re reading.

    I also think it’s elusive and very individual.

  35. Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum took me three tries with multiple false starts and two years, starting all over at the first page before I finished it. Once I got to about page 530 before I abandoned it. And I would forget about it for a while then I would see a reference and back I would go.

    It was very complex, which is why I could put it down. It was very complex which is why it kept sucking me back. I would lose track of the action and the characters and the themes which is why it lost me. But it was fascinating in a train wreck sort of way and with each rereading, I was able to sort out and remember more of what was happening. And I really did enjoy it. And someday I will reread it again.

    1. I couldn’t get through Foucault’s Pendulum – but I only tried once. Later I heard that Eco deliberately wrote Foucault’s Pendulum so that it would be hard to read because the popularity of The Name of the Rose unnerved him. Or something. That may be completely untrue, but it certainly felt true when I heard it.

      1. I think I was reading Umberto Eco before I had the internet. It was the allusions that I remember most — so fun to pick up on those weird conspiracies and obscure references. It made me feel like a Very Smart Reader, and that was definitely a good incentive to keep reading. I also loved the atmosphere of mystery and being a little lost. I always felt that Eco knew where he was going, so I was willing to go along for the ride.

        I wonder if I would still feel that way if I read him now? I read something from a beloved but dead author, and even though I felt very antagonistic towards the narrative voice, I often kept reading until the end just to see how everything would turn out. He had me driving around randomly in a cornfield for pages and pages, and I still haven’t figured out the point of *that*. David Foster Wallace, that was the guy. I would need about five recommendations from good friends before I pick up another book by him.

    2. I loved Foucault’s Pendulum but actually started reading it SLOWER towards the end, so that I could make it last longer. It was that delicious.

  36. I’ve been thinking more on this.
    For me, the Ur-novel in this category is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. My former spouse was ready to disembowel a friend of mine because he loanded it to me to read on the way to a trip to Grand Cayman, and I spent the first five hours on the island stuck in the hotel room reading the book. (It worked out, because the resulting nap set the timing up so we could do a sunrise walk along the beach) When I got into the book there was nothing that could get me to put it down, because though the main character was an over the top protagonist (named so — his name was Hiro Protagonist) and the other main character was also compelling, (named Yours Truly — Stephenson was choosing to be a bit unsubtle here) the way the story developed was so interesting, so well paced, and so non-telegraphed that I was sucked into the story until it ended. So of course, I suggested it to some other friends. One co-worker spent every spare second on her business trips to Atlanta and Honolulu in her room reading, while a roommate of mine was late to work three days in a row due to picking it up in the morning before showering. So it wasn’t only me.
    The latest Dresden Files novel, Skin Game, was like that to a lesser extent. In that case it was because Jim Butcher was doing great things with his characters, things that were amazing because we’d gone through over a dozen novels with them already, so they wre characters we knew and liked and wanted to watch as they went through some powerful changes. Butcher is a master of taking his time to resolve things, and nothing in his books does the Dickens style tie it all up in a bow ending, even if you think it is.
    I also couldn’t put down Craig Johnson’s An Obvious Fact when I listened to it earlier this year. But in this case it was because though I know the characters this was a chance for them to get out of their usual setting and flex different muscles. And it was a somewhat twisted mystery that kept you guessing as to who was responsible for the murder in question.
    I’ve noticed something else — my needs for story have changed a bit since I lost my sight, and listening to someone else reading a story, even if it’s my computer, is different from me reading it, and different things engage me. Back 14 years ago when I could see I devoured books — I’d read at about 100 pages an hour, so I coud fly through them. I can’t listen that fast (yet, though I’m going through aout an hour and three quarters every hour right now, and I suspect I’ll be at double speed by the end of the year) I do far deeper readings, and a lot of stuff pops out at me far faster than before. And my problem with starting to disengage because the story is telegraphed has gotten a lot worse.

  37. After reflection brought along by being in the midst of a massive de-hoard using KonMari I have realised that I am a “Won’t-put- it-down” reader.

    Thanks to romance and certain types of fantasy, I got used to starting a book and finishing in on sitting. Never mind sleep because I would just have a bad next day.

    I’m trying to break this habit.

    But the thing is that I’m the kind of reader that forgives a LOT. I do the work of skipping the parts that shouldn’t have been written to get to the bits I can forgive.

    Back to the de-hoard. az

    I got Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance yesterday. I saw that it was one book split into two. I expected an epic style of story with many plotlines and characters. I didn’t expect to only give a damn about two of the characters. Skip, read, turn, read, flip, skip repeat.

    Aside, I took pleasure in putting Peter Walsh’s ‘It’s all too much’ on the give pile. Gradual de-junk hasn’t worked for me since that book was published in 2007. Neither has The Minimalists 21 day game. It’s the reality of ALL of each category of items in one place that works for me.

    1. Good for you on the de-hoarding, Sure Thing!

      I have always been a sit-and-read-the-whole-thing girl, and also a if-you-take-it-you-read-it — like some sort of literary clean plate club. I think part of it is my bad memory. I don’t retain much for long unless I read it more than once, so it’s easy for me to forget who did what to whom in the chapters I read yesterday. The other part is that reading gives me the chemical hits, and I’m addicted. It’s very, very hard for me to stop, and even if the book is bad, I have faith that there was a reason why it was published, so I often keep on.

      As I get older, I just can’t support that lifestyle. My memory has gotten worse, and I can’t afford cranky days after 3 a.m. read-a-thon finish lines. So . . . I read pages from the internet, instead. It’s very easy to cruise right past my bedtime on the internet, but I rarely stay up past midnight finding “just one more hit” unless it’s on the weekend. I just don’t want to commit to books anymore, it feels like.

      That makes me terribly sad.

      Maybe I need reading glasses, too. I kind of want to go back to that addicted lifestyle.

      1. Huh. I don’t know own why there’s a De-hoard sentence in the middle there. I think that got pasted from my Twitter update.

        Micki, I get headaches now from lack of sleep. I had to start changing the reading pattern because a bad work day now included piercing pain because I stayed up reading. Enough to start me trying to cure the dont-put-it-down addiction.

      2. You aren’t the only one; my literary agent said that his kids weren’t reading as many books as they used to: not that they weren’t reading as much, but it tended to be shorter bits and pieces from the Internet instead of full-length books.

        1. Not reading books anymore sucks in some ways, but doesn’t suck in others. I would never pull out a book when I was in a three-person line at the grocery store. But now, I know I can read a few tweets or a very short article in the time it takes two people to get checked out. I think I read as much or more than I used to. But, I’m not getting one big coordinated dose of reading where one author guides me. I’m getting (if it’s a very zeit-geisty, linky sort of day) a story that I synthesize from several authors/writers.

          In a way, the writers are all reporters, and I’m the real writer. (-: Which I like doing. But sometimes I miss a big picture angle because I’m so busy amongst all the jig-saw pieces. That’s what a good novel or long piece can do — take all that info and see a bigger truth.

  38. The momentum of fast reading itself seems to make a book more unputdownable for me. If I start reading it in big chunks then I don’t have time to forget things, mix up characters, or get bogged down in endless description. Things happen at an incredible pace and that encourages me to finish the book. I’m currently going through “Dune” in 50 page chunks. Its definitely putdownable because I haven’t got the time to finish a book of that size in a day at the moment (even going to 2am!), but I’m making good speed when I do read it which keeps it fascinating. The thing I like about this book is that I don’t normally read political stuff, so this is all new and I want to know what happens. I don’t like the characters but the world is seriously cool.

  39. Stray thoughts on this cool post and comments —
    There are books I’ve read, thinking “I’ve been looking for this — it’s the story so good that I thought it had already been written down.” Curse of Chalion (and the other 5 Gods books) of Lois McMaster Bujold, To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book (Connie Willis), Guards!Guards! and Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett), Bet Me and Faking It (Jennifer Crusie), My Brother Michael (Mary Stewart), Possession (Byatt), and more. When I find one of these, I’ve hit gold. But those are Top Books, a subset of unputdownable.

    As is true with several other commenters (especially Mikki), I seldom fail to finish a book. This sometimes means that I detest it by the time I’ve skimmed to the end.

    All the factors you folks have mentioned matter in my idea of an unputdownable book. I find that YA discovery-of-self books are likely to have a proactive, developing heroine — a disappointment was Uprooted (in which I wanted a lesbian romance between the protagonist and her best friend — the protagonist and her hero didn’t interest me). My taste goes for a well-crafted world. I have discovered that I dislike reading on a screen so much that I’m less likely to enjoy a digital book than the same one in paper.

  40. I can’t believe nobody asked you what the two books are that you couldn’t put down. I desperately need some good recommendations. I’ve read all of your books more than once, so I think you have excellent taste and could give us some great list of books to read. I bought a couple of your books from Audible and enjoyed them immensely (I’ve listened to them several times).

    What are some of your favorite novels?

    1. I’m doing a Pratchett re-read now. Started with Going Postal and then went on to Hogfather and The Thief of Time. Just finished Guards! Guards! and I’m in the middle of Men at Arms.
      Also just did a post on the Aaronovitch Rivers of London series.

      I didn’t specify which books because I was critical of all three, and I don’t like dissing other writers. It seems rude.

  41. There are A LOT of books that I love, but the one that always sticks out as the most surprising is the non-fiction The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. I saw the movie first, called “Adaptation,” written by Charlie Kaufman, and the plot of the movie is the story of writer Charlie Kaufman adapting The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. It was weird and crazy, and engrossing and made me want to read the book–which I did. I’m pretty sure that I stayed up all night and read it in one sitting–it’s been a long time since I first read it. Orlean’s writing style has beautiful prose, and, just the way she weaves in the history of orchid hunting with the story of the particular present-day orchid thief she is profiling grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. The “characters” are completely unique, and sometimes not very likable, but always fascinating.

    With some exceptions, I have to be drawn in by the characters and give a damn about their journey. And the world has to feel real. It can be set on an alien planet, in an alternate universe, or any other crazy place; as long as it’s believable, I’m in.

    There are two sets of books that I often re-read when I’m in need of the book equivalent of “comfort food”: Jennifer Crusie books (hi!) and the J.D.Robb books. I will be the first to admit that, for the most part, I haven’t cared all that much about the main homicide case in any of the J.D. Robb books in quite sometime. The crimes and the details are usually interesting, but, as the series has progressed, they have come to feel more contrived and/or same/same. What I love the J.D. Robb books for are the characters and the community she has built with them. I don’t know what book she’s up to now (35?), but I have loved spending time with this group of people and watching them evolve and love and snark with one another. At this point, those characters are like family to me–so much so that I don’t care if they have a much of a plot as an excuse for me to “hang out” with them. I think someday someone might be able to adapt the series into a top-notch television series.

    Jenny, with your books, it is again, the characters and the community that are my main attraction, but each book is unique in its own way with a story that I have to see the end of–all while enjoying the ride. “Bet Me,” especially, is in my top five books I would take with me if stranded on a dessert island. Again, I want to hang out with these people, and I want to see where their journey takes them.

    So, a lot of (but by no means all of) my favorite books are series. I love being able to revisit great characters and watch them grow and evolve along the way. There have certainly been some series where the author eventually betrayed a character or vital element for me and I couldn’t read them anymore, but as long as they don’t do that, I’m pretty much in.


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