How To Confound And Frustrate Readers

frustrate readers

There are rules and expectations that form a bond between writer and reader. But that’s so traditional. If you want to make it your mission to confound and frustrate readers and stop them cold in their tracks, these 39 tips will help.

There is a social contract in place about what readers expect from authors, built on the promise that only meaningful things will be put into the spotlight and that, generally, all parts of the story will hold meaning — like brush strokes that work together to develop the larger portrait.

But you’re a maverick, on a mission to blaze a new genre, with new expectations, so why not breach this author/reader agreement in devious and delicious ways? Need help figuring out how?

Try one or more of the following and see if you can achieve status as an “advanced frustrater.”

1. Signal your intent to frustrate early on with a liberal use of typos. Put one in the title to show you are REALLY serious.

2. Speaking of titles, try to make sure yours has little or nothing to do with the content of your story.

3. Don’t just let your typos “happen,” make them happen. Engineer some corkers yourself — just start deleting letters or switching them for the one next-door on the keyboard. Readers will just have to puzzle them out, even when it’s neigh impossible. Stwllar trock!

4. Use run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and non-sensical run-on sentence fragments to spice things up.

5. Make up your own grammar rules and stick to them — until you don’t — and readers will be dazzled.

6. Fail to introduce your lead character until you’re past the midpoint of the story.

7. Write set-up after set-up with no payoffs.

8. Build up and put a spotlight on something in your story and then let it turn out to be nothing, like a noise you hear at night that you never are able to discern.

9. Forget writing the climax. Fill your pages with a glacial opening instead.

10. Repeat yourself, over and over and over…

11. Include plenty of holes in your story, so the plot reads like Swiss cheese.

12. Put in so many characters that your readers feel they are in Tokyo subway station.

13. Make your writing as dry as possible — aim for the arid language of a shirt label.

14. Avoid conflict, the extraordinary, and the rare.

15. Never evoke emotion.

16. If you do need to turn up the dial up on emotion, express yourself in an emotionally tone-deaf manner.

17. Make the shape of your story a flat line.

18. Avoid all change. If it was good enough for page one, still good on page 753!

19. Use tons of jargon, slang, and dialect words that no one will understand. If you don’t know any, just be inventive, and never offer context clues or explanations.

20. Give one character an unusual (made-up!) accent and write it out fon-et-ick’ly.

21. Head-hop so readers are constantly trying to figure out who is saying what. You can jump from one point-of-view to the next sentence-by-sentence if you get on a roll.

22. Give all your characters similar names — or better the same name! “Hi! I’m John! Hi! I’m John too! This is Jon, my brother! We all go by the nickname ‘J!’”

23. Make your characters one-dimensional — or perfect — or both. Everyone loves a Pollyanna, the perfect, irrepressibly optimistic, cardboard-cutout character.

24. Use the worst possible tropes — unforgivingly — and in unworkable combinations.

25. Make sure readers can guess the ending on page one.

26. Better yet, make sure there is no ending, just a lot of handwaving for the last quarter of the book.

27. Copy another book — imitation is the best compliment.

28. Label the book as one genre but write it as another. If the back-flap suggests that your book, All The Girls Love Daniel, is a classic romance, why not make Daniel a stallion and deliver a Western? Readers love a good bait-and-switch. Get creative, this trick works with any combination of genres.

29. Ignore narrative structure and the three-act story structure — who needs ALL the literary elements? Boring!

30. Go to the dictionary of dead words and pick a nosegay of vernacularisms that no one will know and use them willy-nilly and without definition.

31. Forget any semblance of continuity. If they drive on the left-side of the road in the beginning of the book, have them drive on the right by the end — you’re just shaking it up!

32. Have your characters do out-of-character things all the time — but always in a new way.

33. Patterns create depth and beauty in stories — choose randomness!

34. Write often about things that you fail to understand, have never done, and wish to know nothing about. The authenticity of the inauthenticity of the subsequent writing will provoke readers to frown so hard their faces will turn upside down.

35. Add no sensory details. Readers will feel like they are in a sensory-deprivation tank and that can be very relaxing.

36. Add monologues, but not from the hero or the villain and certainly not broaching any topic of heart-rending substance.

37. Make sure your dialogue is wooden and your exposition is as dense as the Black Forest. In contrast, your descriptions should be bloated and imprecise.

38. Never stoop to adding a cliff-hanger or any kind of hook that might pique curiosity and fill a reader’s head with questions that keep the pages turning.

39. Don’t stop here. Always be on the look-out for new ways to frustrate readers. Practice makes perfect.

Do you have special ways to frustrate readers or techniques that will make any sensible person put a book down? Share them in the comments section!

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  1. I wrote a book which my friend said had an error in it, but wouldn’t say what for fear of hurting my feelings. I looked for it, and eventually found that I had said a character lived in an upstairs apartment, and later had his wife telling him to mow the lawn.
    I saw a movie called Mandingo, in which people of the old South called individuals “you all.” Later they were calling babies “sucker.” I might have fallen for it if the writer hadn’t made the first stupid mistake.

    I saw a movie called The Long Hot Summer, in which the characters were professionals and their family and friends. It was set in the ’50’s or ’60’s. People were always walking around the house, wiping their necks with handkerchiefs and complaining about the heat. Couldn’t those rich people afford air conditioning?

  2. Very funny! Some of the suggestions of others funny as well.
    What about: Hide your verbs as nouns if you can, or attach adverbs to them, and pepper nouns with as many adjectives as possible.

  3. Have your first story in a series set in a small town, then proceed to introduce every character in said small town that is going to appear in that entire series, so that the reader is confused right away as to who’s who and what their relationship to each other is. Make the main character either work at the diner or eat at the diner every day. Just make sure there’s a requisite diner, because it’s where all of the characters in the entire town gather to interact.

  4. I read this, then went to my wip and deleted every one of those. Suddenly I realized I’d deleted my whole story! (Just kidding of course. Great advice.)

  5. Tip #50;
    Write a book and pin it as something with a high payoff like -steamy romance. Then build up romantic tension between the main charcters throughout in an exhaustive way, making sure to pour the seduction on heavy. Then end the book without the lovers so much as kissing each other goodnight.

  6. Nice article. Thanks.
    Related to #22: Have various characters have names that sound similar, or better yet, give a character a name that is traditionally given to one of the opposite gender. Always fun to make more than one character be described exactly the same.

  7. Don’t forget to have a character pose an important question, then digress into a lengthy flashback or a protracted commentary about a different subject. Then, have the other character give the answer to the previously posed question, without any recap or context. Just “Yes!” or “No!” or “Alexander!” and let the reader try to remember what the question was from three pages ago. Treasure hunts are fun!

  8. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. How about:
    — Mix in plagiarized stream-of-consciousness passages from Faulkner.
    — Look for opportunities to use pronouns that could refer to more than one previously mentioned person.
    — Keep things from getting stale by mixing tenses: Jerry told his neighbor to turn down his speaker volume then, having had his say, he goes back home.
    — If you’re writing nonfiction and citing sources that have more than one edition, don’t let the reader know which edition you are citing.

  9. Don’t forget the “unfinished plot”: No need for a cliffhanger, just build your plot through the whole book, and then do something completely unrelated at the end and leave the unresolved plot hanging.

  10. Weite a prologue that covers most of the characters in the entire 20+ book series amd include meaningless data on them. (Yes, this really happened and I almost didn’t read book 1 because of it)

  11. Set up a story of passionate attraction that encounters obstacle after obstacle for several decades in the character’s lives, then when they finally get together, let one of them decide it’s not a good idea after all.

    Yeah — Gone With the Wind.
    Bloody book *did* sell. Beats me.

  12. Th only book I ever read that totally confused and frustrated me was “Andersonville” because of the lack of quotation marks during dialogue. Sometimes he used ‘inner thoughts (still without marks)’, and then switch to regular dialogue. I read it with a pen in one hand to put them in! Very hard to read…..and frustrating.

  13. She said, “dialogue tags used in excess are a great way to shut down your reader.”
    In response, “I might have to agree. Also, try not knowing to punctuate dialogue well.”. he added.
    “You always agree with me, then try to top me,” she admonished.
    “Yes, I do. But why?” He asked.
    ‘How the F**K do I know.” she said angerly.

    Hope you got a good chuckle. I had fun writing it. I said. *wink*

    • Try not knowing how to write dialog at all, and switch from direct to indirect quotation in mid-sentence! (I had to edit a book like that)

  14. I currently have a book at the editorial stage with a publisher, and after reading your blog am holding my breath! How many of these ‘clever ways to frustrate’ will they find? Yikes! Thanks a lot!

  15. These are all funny, but #34 made me laugh aloud. “The authenticity of the inauthenticity…”. . Thanks for the morning chuckles!

  16. 40. Write only when inspired – and then 24/7 during the last two weeks before the deadline.
    41. (This one is more for non-fiction:) Use lots of exclamation marks!!!
    42. In descriptions, make it a habit to repeat sentences in different words for a poetic feeling – it’s good to express each statement twice but with slight nuances to make your text sound like high-class literature.
    43. Make dialog sentences as short as possible and always add body sounds, like “grunted”, “snorted” or “sighed”.
    44. Describe quick actions extensively, so it’s like they are in fact happening very slowly.
    45. Skip from one moment in time to a much later one (or even better: an earlier one!) from one paragraph to the next without any indication – such challenges keep your readers alert.
    46. Give each of your characters their own way of speaking: repeat the same phrases over and over.
    47. Put in lots of, umm, interjections to make dialog more, ah, realistic, you know.

    • I don’t think you realize how much writing (both bad AND good) gets done in the last hours before a deadline. There are plenty of writers who make a living with this 11th-hour method.

    • Well, my first book Project Black:Water of Knowledge by Lee Wayne could relate. I’m not knocking my book by know means. However, I approached my book from a Steven King kind of way. I let the book take me were it wanted to go. I had a general plot but followed a structure of suspense were you knew something was happening, but never really understood until you read the next chapter. I lead myself astry on where I was going in my writing. It also helps not to get shafted by your editors and publishing company. Reading this parody has made me a better writer for sure.That is a blessing and I’ll use this information to better my craft. Thank you…

  17. Your sarcasm is compelling. I found as I read each item a question forming in my head, “I think I’m guilty of that.” I wrote much more, but I just deleted it. Two unsute of myselfis now

    • Great tips! One more for extra value: Give your readers lots of work in a dictionary – use similar words often and any which way you like, for example, flu flue, chord cord, grisly grizzly,
      collaboration corroboration,
      discrete discreet,
      Cheque check (in a restaurant),
      pored poured.

  18. Here’s a great idea: when you print your book, leave random blank pages, and skip sections of the story in the process. Awesome!

  19. Thanks Dawn you made my day. So hilarious. Actually a few of these alone would drive a reader mad, let alone a concerted effort to adhere to all of them. I agree with the reasons for avoiding these things and being a better writer. What about; “forget power words – nouns and verbs need to be indistinct and ordinary. Instead go mad with adjectives and adverbs. Only the wishy washy ones.” After all, the word count went out the window at page one.

  20. If you write a series of books, make sure they all follow the same formula; be as predictable as possible.

    Have a character do something stupid or foolish just to keep the pot boiling.

    If at the end of the story, the lead character figures out what must be done, don’t tell the reader if her solution worked.

    Drop characters out of your series without explanation when they have serve their purposes in keeping you turning pages.

    Don’t let married folks get too intimate. That would shock your readers. A smile or a gentle pat is enough.

    Be sure the reader knows the author is there manipulating events. Don’t let her get lost in the tale.

  21. One of my favorites: pick a pet word/phrase or tic (or two if you’re good) and try to work it in on every page—or at least every chapter.

  22. When choosing the details of your publication, make sure to find the faintest, smallest type styles that the publisher will allow.

    Make sure that you adhere to the newest novelties of publisjhing, such as only one space between snetences within a paragraph. Combined with almost invisible type and tiny at that, the reader will combine two, maybe three sentences, into one huge brain-busting rage attack.

    • Hey Richard, that’s an interesting one – I mean the point about typing two spaces after a period. I thought that was a habit carried over from typewriting and not recommended for printed type?

  23. #26b
    Don’t resolve the “big question” that’s been hovering through the entire book–just introduce a completely new plot element in the last chapter and forget about answering it.

    (This tip brought to you by Janet Daily’s book, Aspen Gold.)

  24. 40. Create scenes with your major characters that have nothing to do with advancing the plot, but reminds you of the time in the coffee shop when you met so and so while writing the book.
    41. Makeup a lnguage, and write yer tail in that lnguage, without translation.
    42. “I’ve got a million of ’em” a great quote for Millennials, who have no idea who you are quoting. Hint: a comedian famous for his large nose. Then keep using quotes that your target readers can’t identify, relate to, or recognize. Be sure not to say who said it.


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