One of our most important jobs as writers is to create a product that will allow our readers to suspend disbelief while they enter the worlds we create long enough to consider them real places with real people doing real things.
In order to achieve this, we have to be careful to make sure we don’t do anything that will cause the reader to stop and remember his is merely reading a story and not experiencing it.
In a lot of ways, this may sound like I’m simply giving a reiteration of show, don’t tell, but it’s more than that. Too much “telling” is certainly a big way to pull a reader out of the story, there are plenty other ways.
Here are five of them.
1. Addressing the reader
One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction often begins with the words “Dear reader.” I know this is a stylistic thing and it was fairly common in previous centuries, especially in classic horror, but it just never worked for me. I read fiction to believe, and when the author outright tells me that he’s telling me a story, well, then I kind of feel like I’m being told a story. Like I said earlier, I want to live the story, not simply hear it.
2. Being too wordy
We expect our narrator to use a style and tone similar to that of a real person, but we also expect the narration to stay out of of the way of the story. If your narrative is filled with two adjectives for every noun, or packed full of adverbs, it would feel authentic. Likewise, if your narrator fills the story with too much “personality” it could be a huge distraction from the plot.
3. Improper use of dialogue
Your characters need to be people. Or robots, or animals, or whatever, but you know what I mean. They have to feel real. Their dialogue needs to be purposeful, consistent, and realistic. When the characters exchange words, it needs to feel like a conversation you’d hear in real life. That means avoiding doing things like having them tell each other things they already know, or over-describing something, or overusing adjectives. Another thing a character might do to pull the reader out of the story is give a long speech. As much as I enjoyed parts of Atlas Shrugged, there were plenty of parts where the characters were no longer real people and they were simply Ayn Rand writing an essay in their place.
4. Using a prologue
Now, I know some people are totally into prologues, but I also know every agent I’ve ever seen give a speech has said “Don’t include one,” when asked. Use your own judgement, I suppose, but to me, nothing screams, “Hey reader, I’m going to tell you a story,” like a prologue. Again, I like to experience a world, and not be given a history lesson of it.
Gross. That’s about the best way to sum up an infodump. I hate it when I’m reading a story and really enjoying it, only to have all of the action come to a screeching halt as the writer decided it would be a great time to stop and explain everything to me. It’s like I said about prologues. You want to feel like you’re living the story, not feel like you’re reading it.
And that’s it. These are the ones I’ve seen the most, either in Theme of Absence submissions or in other fiction I’ve read. You’ve just got to remember, every time you remind a reader that they’re reading a story, you risk losing a reader before they finish.
What other mistakes might a writer make to pull a reader out of the story? Leave a comment and let us know!