Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
John Gardner wrote about the fictive dream, the writer’s imaginings about his fictional world and the characters walking through it as though they were real people engaged in real activities.
But while a story world can be as lifelike to writers as a dream world or even our real world, writers aren’t the only ones who can imagine a fictional world.
Readers can immerse themselves within stories and imagine themselves strolling city streets and smelling Grandma’s baking bread. Readers can be hurt by what a character says, so hurt that they cry genuine tears. Or a book’s events can have readers laughing out loud or scrambling to find a location touted by a character.
Readers experience the fictional world as explorers or visitors or even as one of a story’s characters.
They see colors. They experience motion. They hear sounds.
And they have very real physical and emotional reactions to events that take place in that world.
Readers invest in characters. They invest in an ongoing adventure. They invest in you.
And if you’ve given them a realistic setting with engaging characters, they enjoy the fictional world just as much as they enjoy a fantastic dream, just as much—sometimes—as they enjoy real-world events.
We’ve all had dreams that we wished would go on and on. But lucid dreaming aside, they never do. They have to end sometime.
Books also have to end. But they don’t have to end too soon. And we don’t have to waken our readers rudely. Instead of shocking them awake, we can bring them gently out of the dream once it’s complete.
We don’t have to throw water on readers or sound an alarm to shake them out of the story. We especially don’t want to do that during a good part.
Readers don’t want to wake up, not before discovering what happens. But some writers sabotage their readers’ reading experience by shaking them awake, rudely pulling them out of the fictional world that they’d been enjoying so wholeheartedly.
In more than a handful of articles, I’ve mentioned story components or author practices that can yank a reader straight out of the fictional world. Yet in those articles the focus wasn’t on the events or issues that interrupted the reader’s journey through that world; the interruptions were just one component of some other topic.
So I figured that it was time to put together a list of interruptions that you won’t want to burden your readers with.
When we’re reading a great book, we don’t want to be interrupted. Not by a ringing phone, a screaming child, a demanding spouse, or the need to go to bed or to work or to school.
We want to enjoy our adventures with the characters.
That said, I suggest that it’s easier for a reader to handle interruptions from the outside world than it is to adjust to interruptions that originate within the story itself.
We can ignore a ringing phone or doorbell, pick up a good book after dinner and get caught back up in the adventure, even ignore the ticking clock that constantly reminds us that we have to get up in a few hours. But an interruption that comes from the story or is created by the writer? Those interruptions can sour a great story and send readers running.
Interruptions from our world can be ignored. Interruptions from inside the story world become a part of that world and influence our reactions to it.
We expect interruptions from the real world, and we adapt to them. We don’t expect problems that develop within the fictional world, that reach out to us from within the dream.
A reader who notices problems is no longer merely a participant in a story’s events. Characters don’t know when there are technical problems with a story—they just keep living their lives. Readers deeply immersed in a story shouldn’t notice either, but they do. Meaning that they are no longer like a character, safely oblivious of anomalies and errors.
A reader who notices a story problem becomes an evaluator, a critic, an outside observer capable of seeing not only the fiction but fiction’s support structures. He’s now aware of not only the imagined elements but the underpinnings of the fictional world.
His attention is split between the imaginary and the real. He no longer has a single focus. He’s no longer lost to the dream.
He’s become an outsider looking in on the story environment rather than someone walking through it, someone who had once been unaware—deliberately unaware—that there was another world outside the fictional one. At least unaware for the time it took to read the book.
The reader who notices problems with a story world is like the dreamer who suddenly knows he’s dreaming. As the dreamer often wakes at the moment he realizes he’s dreaming, so does the reader awake from the fictional dream when an intrusion reminds him that he’s only reading, that the people he’s following and the world he’s experiencing don’t really exist.
A rude awakening is a downer for readers.
Interruptions in Fiction
Any detail or oddity that doesn’t fit the other story pieces can disturb a reader. Anything that messes with your carefully crafted world can be intrusive. A strong enough interruption can turn off the reader, not only waking him but making him not want to return to the fictional events.
Maybe one small interruption wouldn’t bother most readers. But it might. And more intrusive problems or multiple problems are likely to bother many readers.
It’s up to you to head off story disruptions before readers step into your story world.
A character who shows up in a scene where he couldn’t be or the character who behaves contrary to his personality and to the scene’s situation can be the shock that wakes the reader from the fictional dream. These are two blatant mistakes that can awaken readers to the fact that what they’re reading is unreal, but there are others. And some are not quite as easily noticed by the writer or editor looking for them.
How about a list of fiction disruptors to give you anomalies to look for?
Fictional Dream Disruptors
• A character who declares or behaves with an outlook or worldview that doesn’t match his era or his personal body of knowledge
• Author mistakes and miscues: bad grammar, incorrect facts, inconsistent spelling, wacky or incorrect punctuation, preaching or teaching, incorrect word choices
• Characters who think or speak like fictional characters aware of an audience rather than as real people unaware of others watching them
• Implausible plot threads
• Implausible endings and resolutions, including deus ex machina endings
• Endings that don’t match the story setup
• Characters who have no motivation for unusual actions
• Summarizing key events rather than showing them
• Showing unimportant events rather than summarizing them
• Leaving major or unusual story issues unresolved
• Confusing wording
• Having someone other than the protagonist play the major role in the climax
• Characters who know what they couldn’t know or who act on information they couldn’t have
• Characters using words they wouldn’t use or wouldn’t know
• Characters who make senseless mistakes—when they’d normally never make such mistakes—simply so that the plot works out a certain way
• You know, Bobs—character dialogue that has characters sharing information that the characters already know—and would not be talking about in such a blatant way—as a means of filling in the reader
• Patches of lyrical or poetic writing that don’t match the rest of the story’s style
• Boring dialogue that sounds like conversation—um, uh—and not like dialogue
• Dialogue that sounds like bad movie dialogue—cop talk or mafia speak or too much dialect or slang
• Repetition of the same information
• The failure to include setting markers of time and place
• A change in narrative style
These are obviously not the only problems a story can have. Look at these as the kinds of problems an otherwise strong story might occasionally produce. We’re not trying to cover every possible story weakness in this article; we’re trying to highlight those that may occur only once in a story, those you might overlook.
Good writing—and the knowledge of what makes good writing good—will help you reduce interruptions to the fictional dream. But let this list be a reminder of possible problem areas.
A great story that otherwise ticks all the boxes can fall apart with the inclusion of one of these fiction interruptions, at least as far as reader satisfaction is concerned. And a negative reaction isn’t necessarily one the reader can control. So it’s up to writers and editors to root out possible problems, to correct weaknesses in the fabric of the fiction. To keep readers inhabiting the story world without being shaken by a rude awakening.
Some weaknesses are harder to detect than others—make sure a few beta readers, a critique partner, or an editor reads your stories. Find problems on the page before they become problems in a reader’s mind. Fix problems before they shake the foundations of your fictional world.
Feel free to name other disruptors—especially those that bother you as you read—in the comments.