What’s Killing John Doe: Patterson Syndrome and Summaries

John Doe toe tagLadies and gentlemen, students of death, welcome back to the morgue! Here we dissect bodies of readers murdered by their reading. If you’ve read something lately that’s made you want to toss a book across the room or pound your head into the drywall, drop me a line at whatskillingjohndoe@gmail.com. You never know…your body could be next up on the slab!

Today I bring you one victim of Patterson Syndrome and one of Summarian’s Disease.

Victim 1: Jane Doe: A Short, Unhappy Chapter of Life Ended by Patterson’s Syndrome

Agggh. I can’t take it any more. It used to be just thrillers, but recently I’ve seen it bleeding over to every other kind of book I’ve been reading. Not only are the sentences short and the paragraphs short, but the chapters average about two or three pages. Here’s a scan of a typical chapter in the last book I read. I took off the identifying marks because it’s not as if this author is alone in this ridiculous style of writing. This is just the only evidence I have on hand.

short chapter scan

And that’s a typical chapter length! I kid you not! The ones from the killer’s point of view are sometimes one paragraph long and then on to a new chapter! I bought this flipping book in hardcover!

Coroner’s note: The trend toward one-page chapters seems to have begun with James Patterson, thus the syndrome that destroyed this book—and quite possibly the reader’s abode given that hardcovers can seriously damage drywall—has been named for him.

Victim 2: John Doe: To Sum It Up, He Died.

Every book has filler. And every mystery or thriller has people leaping to correct conclusions. I totally get that a bit of that is unavoidable. But I hate it when huge chunks of summary appear as dialog. “Look, here’s what the villain is doing, I just know it!”  An example, from a pseudo-medical thriller I read recently:

“So he has Chris watching people who are working in related fields,” Carly said, continuing his though. “Not only to make sure they aren’t getting ahead, but probably to steal ideas that Xander can use. But why take Mason? Why risk it?”

“Xander must be close to something. But he has a problem—something his people can’t figure out,” Richard said. “Even at half speed, August Mason has twice the mental horsepower of anyone else alive. So Chris uses Mason’s guilt about turning me in to lure him to the airport. Then Xander’s people grab him and get him out of the country. I’d bet every dime we have left that Mason’s sitting in a lab right now with a gun pointed at him.”

And here’s the thing. Not only are thrillers filled with the overblown characters smarter than everyone else on the planet, the heroes are never wrong about the essentials. Oh, they have to make a few mistakes—get the head baddy wrong so they confront him and…whoops…he’s not so awful—but the overarching assumptions they make about the whys and wherefores are always correct. It drives me crazy!

Alas, poor John Doe. He wants a slow and thoughtful revelation of the facts, a buildup of tension as he twists along a narrow road in the country. Instead, he’s been hit by the summary train blasting full force through the station.

Don’t forget to send your own letters to whatskillingjohndoe@gmail.com for your own turn on the table.


  1. Betty Breier

    I think Patterson syndrome is a way to create a lot of white space in a book. You don’t need much of a story and people will buy it because of the name on the cover. It is really cheating the buyer to charge $27.95 for a book like that.

  2. David Spiller

    I’m sure I’m going to be in the minority here but I love books with short chapters. Short chapters get me to read in larger chunks, because I keep thinking, just one more chapter.

  3. Laura K. Curtis

    @David —
    Hey, different strokes for different folks!

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