Critique Technique, Part 45—Pop Goes the Reader!

A toy jack-in-the-box

By United States Consumer Product Safety Commission [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ross B. Lampert

This post 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 distracts or surprises them in such a way that they fall out of the “fictive dream,” the world of the story, and think, Huh? What just happened?

This can happen in many different ways. The author can:

  • Use an unusual term. “Unusual” can mean any one of several different things:
    • A foreign or slang word or phrase, especially if such words haven’t 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. I’m still not sure what it means.
    • Any other word or phrase that stops the reader.

The key characteristic of all of these unusual terms is that they make the reader stop, even if just for a second. Foreign, slang, or made-up words are fine if they’re introduced early in the story, are appropriate to the story, or if the character who’s going to use them is shown to have the right kind of personality. But if the reader gets surprised, it’s 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. 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 an explanation coming soon because the reader is going to be confused and suspicious.
  • 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 this “plot twist.” They’re not, they’re just sowing confusion.
  • A too-convenient event. 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.

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 right. 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.

As a reviewer, then, it’s important for you to identify the kinds of things that pop you out of the story and suggest ways the author can fix them.

  • Did a word or phrase confuse me? 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? Perhaps there’s some information missing that the author needs to provide.
  • Was a plot event confusing? A confusing event might be in the wrong place or need some things to happen before it to prepare the reader.
  • Was a plot event or too convenient? A too-convenient event means the author needs to come up with a better solution to the problem the characters are facing. This 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.

Now it’s your turn. What kinds of things will pop you out of a story? When you find them, how do you help the author solve them?


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