What feels gimmicky in one book may work beautifully and naturally in another. It all depends upon the author’s intent, execution, and skill. Some types of stories also lend themselves better to styles or devices which seem annoying and gimmicky in others. There are some things which can be gimmicky in the wrong hands, the wrong book, or for the wrong reasons.
1. Everything (or the meat of the story) was just a dream or fantasy. Who doesn’t want to bang his or her head against the wall after getting emotionally invested with characters and a story, only to discover it wasn’t real? This is a slap in the face no matter whether it’s a book, movie, or TV show (looking at the series finale of Roseanne!). It would have to be done extremely well, and for an original reason, to work and not feel like a huge insult to the reader’s intelligence, time, and emotion.
2. Nonlinear narrative. This was done very well in Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, but the author is Vietnamese, and nonlinear structure is apparently more common in Asian novels. If it’s a Western novel, I’ll be less likely to give it a pass. The main exception I can think of is if the book is being told as a flashback by someone in the present (like a grandmother telling her grandkids the story of how she immigrated), with periodic interludes to now, or if it involves someone in the present trying to solve a mystery from the past.
3. Alternating between first- and third-person. This can work in a good nonlinear book, like the examples mentioned above, but other times it just feels annoying and gimmicky. It could also be tolerable if the meat of the book is a flashback and has some wraparound segments in the present, like Nancy Garden’s classic Annie on My Mind (a classic YA I highly recommend).
4. Alternating narrators or POV characters. This just feels gimmicky and faddish after seeing it done so many times in recent years. I’m not saying writers are doing it on purpose just to mindlessly follow a trend, because that would be insulting, but when it’s all or mostly what they’ve seen examples of, how will they know how to write a good story with multiple protagonists or an ensemble cast? Third-person omniscient can be your friend!
5. An unnamed narrator. This works beautifully and perfectly in Jerzy Kosinski’s haunting classic The Painted Bird, but there’s a reason for it. In most other books, it would probably feel poorly-executed and gimmicky.
6. The narrator dies at or near the end. Unless there follows an Epilogue by another person explaining how this story came to be told, like the papers were found after the death, I can’t suspend my disbelief. Who is this “I” telling the story if s/he dies? For that matter, I also don’t feel on the edge of my seat if a first-person narrator is in a very dramatic, live-or-die situation, since I know s/he obviously survived to tell the tale.
7. Ridiculous or too-convenient deus ex machina plot twists or coincidences. Just step away from this one.
8. Death or some other omnipresent, all-knowing being as narrator (coughthebookthiefcough). There has to be a sensible, believable explanation as to why this person is telling the story, and focusing on a certain person or event. Being so completely omniscient also doesn’t mean God mode. I’m glad modern omniscient writers have moved away from that archaic style of judging characters, manipulating prose to essentially tell the reader how to feel and react, and giving away future developments.
9. The long-lost relative, suddenly, miraculously reunited or discovered.
10. A story within a story within a story. Until I radically rewrote and restructured The Very First, this is how the book was structured: It opened in 2000, as the now-elderly women gathered at Violet’s mansion to make a tape recording about their lives in the years leading up to WWII. Then it cuts to August 1938, as the Brandts arrive in Atlantic City. Violet upstages Cinni, the Most Popular Girl, by arranging a meet and greet for Sparky (Katherine) at The Tuna Paurlour.
The event doesn’t go as planned, and Cinni takes Sparky aside to teach her all about the strange town and its people. So scores of pages are just endless backstory, with occasional asides in parentheses reminding the reader that Cinni is telling this story to Sparky. The real story doesn’t begin till Part II. I had a few intermissions to the present in TVF, and The Very Next. Talk about a terrible gimmick!
Any other gimmicks you’d like to add?