Over dinner one night on our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my friend Penny Williamson and I go to talking about what a lot of our writers friends call “deal-breakers.” Something in a book–a type of plot twist or character, a setting, a premise–that will make you not read ever the most well-recommended book or put a book down unfinished if one stumbles on it unawares. Rather to my own surprise, I realized that while I have plenty of likes and dislikes as a reader, I have very few actual deal-breakers.

I don’t tend to like stories in which a major part of the conflict is based on a misunderstanding. And yet to some extent that ‘s true in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a book I love. But the misunderstanding is so grounded in who Marguerite and Percy are as characters that it makes for fascinating reading (and there’s never a sense of “oh, if they just had a conversation they could clear this up.”). I don’t like series in which an ongoing character, particularly a love interest dies, and yet I’m currently thoroughly engrossed in Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red, despite the events of her last two books. I have a really hard time with books in which children die, but several writers I very much admire–Dorothy Dunnett, Sebastian Faulks, Penny herself–have used this plot element in ways that were so integral to the story I couldn’t quarrel with it, however devastating the scenes.

In general, I prefer books with happy endings. But I recognize that happy endings don’t suit all books. I found the ending of Atonement so fascinating in what it was saying about the very nature of fiction, that I can’t imagine the story ending in a different way (or perhaps I should say “ways” :-). In our conversation, Penny and I agreed that Casablanca wouldn’t work with a happy ending–that, in fact, if Rick and Ilsa went off together, it would somehow cheapen the power of their love for each other.

Are there elements in books that are deal-breakers for you? Things that will make you not pick up a book or stop reading a book or series? Have you ever read a book with an element you thought was a deal-breaker for you but found it worked for you in the context of that story? If you read the Charles & Mélanie books, are there any turns the series could take that would be deal-breakers?

Be sure to check out the Fraser Correspondence. I’ve just posted a letter from Aspasia Newland to her sister, written as Aspasia is about to leave for the house party at Dunmykel.

Update 28 May: I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about the ethical and logistical challenges of writing fictional stories that involve real people and events. Do stop by and join the discussion.