Critique Technique, Part 44 — Pop Goes the Reader!

A toy jack-in-the-box
By United States Consumer Product Safety Commission [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This article starts a series on general story-telling problems and how to identify and critique them.

One of the worst things a writer can do is to write something that “pops the reader out of the story,” in other words, write something that so distracts or surprises them that they fall out of the “fictive dream,” the world of the story, and think, Wait… what?

Pop Starts

This can happen in many different ways.

The author can use an unusual term. As I discussed in Part 17, “unusual” can mean several different things.

  • A foreign or slang word or phrase, a jargon term, or writing in dialect, especially if such words have not been part of the story before.
  • A made-up word or phrase. Science fiction and fantasy are notorious for this.
  • A word or phrase that is too high-brow or low-brow for the story. For example, a friend of mine used the word “mephitic” in a mainstream story to describe the odor of a men’s restroom in a hotel. When I hit that word, I was popped out of the story because I did not know what it meant.
  • Any other word or phrase that stops the reader.

The key characteristic of these unusual terms is that they make the reader stop, even if for just a second. Foreign, slang, jargon, or made-up words are fine if they’re introduced early in the story, their meaning is clear, they’re appropriate to the story or its genre, or if the character who uses them has the right kind of personality to use them. But if the reader gets surprised, they’re a kind of verbal landmine that blows the reader out of the story.

A sudden and unexplained or unexplainable change in a character’s behavior will also pop the reader out. Behavior changes are fine, even expected, when the story demands them. But when a character suddenly does something out of character, there’d better be a believable explanation coming soon or the reader is going to become confused and suspicious. (See Part 14 for more on this topic.)

Same for an event that happens for no apparent reason. As soon as the reader wonders, What’s going on here? she’s left the story. New writers will sometimes throw in an event like this because they think they’re adding to the tension and drama of the story with a “plot twist.” They’re not, they’re just sowing confusion.

Similarly, a too-convenient event can be a reader-ejector. Writers may pull a rabbit out of a hat at the end of a story in order to solve a plot problem or save the hero. As soon as the reader says to himself, Oh, come on now, he’s out of the story.

Not Surprises

So it would seem like I could summarize the things that will pop a reader out of the story as surprises. That’s not quite true. Readers love surprises. They love surprises that keep them wondering what’s going to happen next, how the hero or heroine is going to get out of this new predicament, or how this new wrinkle is going to play out. All of these surprises move the story forward.

What readers don’t love are surprises that don’t make sense within the context of the story. So whether it’s a word or phrase, a character’s behavior, or an event, if it makes them stop to try to understand it, they’re popped out, and that’s what we don’t want.

Questions for You

As a reviewer, then, if you get popped out of a story, it’s important to identify what did it and suggest ways the author can fix the problem.

  • Did a word or phrase confuse you?
    • If so, what’s a better alternative? It could be a more common word or one that’s more appropriate to the speaker.
  • Did a character suddenly behave in an unexpected way, and for which an explanation never showed up, or was not believable when it did? Perhaps there’s some information missing that the author needs to provide.
  • Was a plot event confusing?
    • Was it placed in the wrong spot or need some things to happen before it to prepare the reader?
    • Was the reason for it, when it did arrive, not believable?
    • In either case, what can the writer do to fix the problem?
  • Was a plot event too convenient?
    • If it was, why was it?
    • How can the author come up with a better solution to the problem the characters are facing?

The kinds of corrections discussed here could require significant changes or additions earlier in the story to lay the groundwork for that solution, when it comes, or a rewrite for a totally different solution or outcome. The author may not be happy to hear that news, but a temporarily unhappy writer is better than a disbelieving or distracted reader.

What kinds of things pop you out of a story? When you find them, how do you help the author fix them? Pop on down to the comments box below to add your suggestions.

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