7

The protagonist in my story decides to research a topic. Naturally, I wanted her to encounter some obstacles first, so I arranged the starting chapters like this:

First frustration > Second frustration > Third frustration > Success

(She researches on the Internet and fails, researches in the library and fails, tries at her university's department and fails. And finally, just as she's about to give up, she finds someone who helps her.)

I did this because I wanted to 1) show her frustration 2) show that no one was taking her seriously.

But the majority of my readers are saying that they are dead-end chapters, that maybe I should delete them.

Should I? Or maybe they think this because they haven't reached the fourth chapter yet?

EDIT (based on Monica's answer):

It's not about the research all the time. For instance, in one of the chapters she encounters an "ex-lover", in another she gets fooled by a librarian, and in the last she is laughed at in class. And I reveal some stuff about her and her thoughts.

Not sure if this is enough to keep the reader interested, though.

  • "Dead end" is a too abstract to act on. I'm not sure what it means in this specific case. Can you give a few examples of the exact words that your readers use to describe the problem? – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 17 '15 at 16:00
  • @Dale Hartley Emery They said stuff like: "...there is no real sense of drama." "...seems to almost take a break from the plot." "...doesn't seem to be forwarding the plot much." What confuses me the most is that some readers have the opposite reaction, ha: "I like the meandering approach you've taken." "Very interesting twists in this chapter." – Alexandro Chen Jun 17 '15 at 16:57
  • Thanks. I have a much better understanding now. I'll offer some ideas later today (unless other people offer them first). – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 17 '15 at 17:32
  • Related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/16197/… – Tom Au Jun 18 '15 at 14:05
  • @Tom Au I totally forgot about that one. It's not a duplicated question, right? – Alexandro Chen Jun 18 '15 at 14:54
9

While there might be a payoff coming in the fourth chapter, if readers get frustrated enough on the way there, some of them will bail and never finish your book. So while you can ask your reviewers to forge ahead and read the rest, you can't assume readers will.

Consider one of the following two approaches:

  1. Condense the material. Do you really need three chapters to convey "tried and tried and tried again, getting more and more frustrated"? It sounds like you're getting pretty detailed; I'm imagining specific Google queries, the details of the library crawl, and so on. It sounds like that's too much detail for the weight this element has in your overall story.

  2. Intersperse it with other developments. Instead of having chapters that are only about this search for information, integrate that search into the other things that are going on in the plot at the same time. This character is probably doing other things -- or, if not and if it's not first-person, other characters are surely doing other things that you can talk about. Let the search become a long-running theme but not the entirety of the text for that part of your book.

  • ♦ Oh, well. It's not about the research all the time. For instance, in one of the chapters she encounters an "ex-lover", in another she gets fooled by a librarian, and in the last she is laughed at in class. And I reveal some stuff about her and her thoughts. Anyway, your approaches seem useful. I'll give them a thought. – Alexandro Chen Jun 17 '15 at 15:22
  • Oh, sorry -- from the way I read your question it sounded more focused. – Monica Cellio Jun 17 '15 at 15:23
  • Ha, that's all right. I think I should clarify that in my question. – Alexandro Chen Jun 17 '15 at 15:24
  • 2
    +1 for "It sounds like that's too much detail for the weight this element has in your overall story." This is very important. Readers, TV viewers, and gamers all become frustrated when the payoff does not equal the investment. Check the status quo at the end of the chapter as compared to the beginning. If it's the same plot and character wise, then nothing really happened and you need to question whether it deserves an entire chapter or not. – MidwestIsTheBest Jun 7 '18 at 14:41
6

Keep them, but make them better. Your readers say that they are dead ends. So that is what you must change. Each of the chapters should open a new development in some way. Exactly what depends on your story, but it could be to introduce a possible enemy or ally, or to raise the stakes in some way - such as her realising that what seemed to be a purely academic puzzle actually puts her own life in danger.

Keep the parts showing the frustration and the humiliation that your protagonist suffers. Intensify them if possible. These painful experiences give her a strong motive to succeed in the end and prove her detractors wrong. They also make the reader sympathise and long to see the tables turned.

5

Some general reasons why readers would see a chapter as a dead end:

  • They don't care about what is happening in the chapter.
  • They don't see how the chapter contributes to the story.

I'll expand.

Possible reason: Readers don't yet care enough about the character, and so don't know why they should care about the events of the chapter.

Possible reason: Readers don't understand what problem the character is trying to solve. Sometimes the fix for this is as simple as stating the problem explicitly. (Stating it through the character, of course.)

Possible reason: Readers don't understand what makes this problem so important to the character. If the character were to solve the problem, what would that do for him? What is at stake if the character fails? Sometimes the fix for this is as simple as stating the stakes or motivation explicitly. (Again, through the character.)

Possible reason: Readers don't see how the character's actions are an attempt to solve the problem. I like the idea that a story is always the story a struggle. So one (somewhat fuzzy) test of a chapter: How does this chapter contribute to the struggle?

Possible reason: Readers don't see how each chapter moves the story forward. In genre fiction, moving the story forward often means making things worse. The character tries something. It fails. And it fails in a way that makes things even worse.

Possible reason: Readers don't see how the outcome of each chapter influences the character, or influences what happens in later chapters. Do things get worse? Does it raise the stakes? Does it reveal to the character that things were worse than he feared? Does it destroy an important resource or relationship that the character was counting on? Does it distrupt a skill or ability that the character was counting on? Does it eat up precious time, and make the ticking clock tick faster?

I'm just scratching the surface here. But if I think that if readers care about the character, and they care about the problem the character is trying to solve, and they see how each chapter is an important part of the character's struggle to solve the problem, you won't get that kind of "dead end" feedback.

ETA: I realize that I haven't answered the bottom line question of whether to remove the chapters or keep them. Instead, I've given ideas about how to figure out what people might be responding to in your story when they say "dead end." My hope is that, if you can pinpoint the problems (if indeed there are problems), that will give you a better idea of whether to keep them, throw them out, or improve them.

  • 1
    "In genre fiction, moving the story forward often means making things worse. The character tries something. It fails. And it fails in a way that makes things even worse." - I like this formulation.Taking an idea from the OP's example, Jane Doe asks the librarian to get a certain book from the stacks. Suddenly the previously helpful librarian becomes hostile. Not only is there the mystery of why the librarian reacts that way, Jane realises that she has inadvertently made an enemy of the very person whose professional skills she really needs right now. – Lostinfrance Jun 18 '15 at 19:30
4

Keep them, adapt the storyline.

How often does research succeed in one go? Life is not like that. If at any time the current attempt is shown as the way to go, and only at the end the impossibility is revealed, and in such a way it could not be known before, I say that is discovery, learning experience, and a nice way to show protagonist perseverance.

If those failures up the ante by introducing time pressure it becomes even more functional for your story. Especially if one attempt leads to the next. Just avoid your protagonist being in a drag.

4

(Disclaimer: I'm not a writer…)

Is it possible that some readers don't see the point of those chapters because they don't have a lasting effect on the story?

If so, then the solution may be to give them a lasting effect on the story; most obviously, on the main character.  Show her frustration increasing with each failure.  Perhaps show some collateral damage that that has on her life outside this particular quest.  Or maybe she gains some useful knowledge or experience from each failure, that she can use later.  Or you introduce important characters or ideas.

However you do it, I'd suggest making those chapters necessary to the story somehow; to reach the point later on where the story would be different (and not as good) had they not happened.  That way, readers may come to forgive the lack of progress on the main plot-line.

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