Tripping Up Readers

How often has it happened to you? You’re reading a book, caught up in the tale, and then a chance word or phrase makes you stumble. As a result, you’re taken out of the story.

If the writer’s lucky, you get up, dust yourself off, and return to the world he wanted you to experience. But if you don’t, he may have lost you for good. That’s a writer’s nightmare.

(Actually, we have lots of nightmares. But I think losing readers is one of the worst. In the dream, they usually go on to post damning reviews that go viral and every media outlet is trashing you, including your family and friends on Facebook and Twitter. Even worse, your mother learns how to post a video on YouTube and denies any relationship with you.)

Sometimes, it’s as simple as a word we don’t know. This happened with one of my beta readers. In Death Out of Time, a crime scene analyst says there was an anomalous reading on a radiation detector. My reader wasn’t familiar with “anomalous.” She picked up its meaning in the following dialogue, but it still took her out of the story for a moment.

Other times, a passage might make perfect sense to the writer, but something about it makes the reader say, “Wait a minute. Where did that come from?” Readers bring a lot to a book. They form their own images of the characters and events, sometimes colored by their own experiences. But most of them don’t bring telepathic skills.

If calm, cool, and snake-owning Main Character suddenly freaks out in the middle of the book when he sees a worm, the writer better make it clear why that happened—either in good foreshadowing in an earlier section or right then and there when Main screams and climbs the nearest tree. Otherwise, readers will start to wonder what they missed.

Readers also stumble on inconsistencies. In an earlier version of my work-in-progress Summer at the Crossroads, Kathryn and Mikhail were asked to bring a bottle of red wine to a dinner. When they got there a few sections later, I had Mikhail open a bottle of white. Oops.

There’s probably nothing wrong with momentarily confusing the occasional reader in different parts of a story. And one or two unfamiliar words in a gripping story shouldn’t cost you a reader. But there’s a problem if lots of people are getting pulled out in the same places. We haven’t done our job as storytellers if that happens.

So before you release that story to the world, check your manuscript for trip wires. Listen when your beta readers describe their confusion about a scene and then sit down and make it clearer. If necessary, take some of the back story out of your head and put it in the book. Don’t give people a reason to put down your book for good—unfinished.

Has a published author tripped you up so badly that you stopped enjoying a book? Or worse, stopped reading it? Have you writers in the audience found trip wires in your drafts?

21 thoughts on “Tripping Up Readers

  1. I’ve just asked a friend to read the first 3 chapters of my novel and she had a similar gripe (in the nicest possible way). She complained that she didn’t understand a reference to an old film and had to look it up. Nothing major, but it took her out of the story for a time. But surely reading is also a learning curve – isn’t that part of why we do it? I don’t want to dumb down in case a reader doesn’t understand a reference, but I’m mindful of the pitfalls.
    When I’m reading, if I don’t understand something I look it up (if I’m interested enough). If not,I let it go. It’s a tricky balance. Let me know when you’ve got the answer! Great post 🙂

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    • I agree that reading shouldn’t be dumbed down. Learning a new word or two is a good thing to my mind. I like to pick up its meaning from the context of the surrounding few sentences, but I don’t mind grabbing the dictionary if I can’t figure it out. Of course, I don’t want to do that more than a few times in a book. If I have to do it frequently, there’s probably a lot more about the book I don’t like.

      And it’s not hard to use a search engine for things like unfamiliar movie references—I would really need to do it for new ones. 😉

      If I find the balance, I’ll be sure to post about it! 🙂

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  2. I sometimes feel “tripped up” when the author infuses sentences in a foreign language. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about other cultures, but unless the writer slips in French phrases (which I can understand), I’m taken out of the story a bit. Especially if the phrase is not defined in another sentence. It’s not a reason for me to bail on a book, but I think such bilingualism should be limited. Unless it’s a travel book. 🙂

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    • I promise the few foreign words in my books are quickly followed by explanatory dialogue or description!

      For example, a boy in Death Out of Time uses a term in his native language when talking with Jack. But the following sentence is “Deda must be Croatian for grandfather, Jack thought.” I don’t think it’ll pull a reader too far out of the story.

      That balance Norfolk Novelist refers to extends to so many parts of a novel. I enjoy learning new things, even when reading fiction for fun. But I don’t want to feel like I’m reading a text book or being lectured to! 🙂

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        • That is the only one in there, too! Good old Google Translate. I knew Deda was Serbian for grandfather, but I wanted to be sure it was the same in Croatian. We won’t even get into the distinctions between Serbian, Croatian, and Serbo-Croatian…. 🙂

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  3. Thanks for this post. Sometimes I get carried away and use an uncommon word that I like a lot to describe a normal situation. Who am I trying to impress? Of course the reader. But if that word costs me a reader than I guess my plan would have backfired. Got to keep that in mind. 🙂 Cheers!

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    • I think it’s fine to use a few uncommon words—as long as we can make it quickly clear to the reader what the gists of them are. It’s when a writer uses a lot of that I get frustrated. That’s when I might walk away. Of course, I’m not writing literary fiction. I’m going for more commercial/genre fiction 🙂 People writing literary fiction can get away with that more.

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  4. From what I’m learning, writers have to walk that fine line of giving enough information vs. too much. Readers aren’t dumb–but according to S. King what we give them needs to be just enough to let them form their own images and not replace that with our own, blotting out the reader being able to engage in the story ie. “…the radiation level didn’t fit within the normal standard…it’s what we call an anomalous reading…” or whatever…LOL

    I do read about how to do it…in practice it’s so much harder to get it just right. Must be why I stick with poetry more often than not!

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    • The practice is hard. I know Hemingway would’ve never used “big” words. But I find his work rather dry. I like more variation in the words and sentence structure than I find in his stories. Still, I know I can’t be too in love with the dictionary or thesaurus, either! I hope I’m managing a good balance….

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  5. Personally I think narrative and dialogue should sound natural so you need to use the words that fit with the character and style of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever stepped out of a book because I didn’t understand what they’re saying, but I might get frustrated if the style doesn’t feel natural to the writer or say a writer is writing from the POV of a teen, but sounds like an adult – I critiqued a writer’s work who also made the mistake of using her own cultural references so she constantly had the contemporary teen characters referring to films and film stars from the 80s and 90s and making bad puns! Like you say in the comments above, you can generally pick up the meaning of a word from its surroundings and I’m happy to let the occasional word drop, but definitely wouldn’t want to sit there consulting a dictionary more than once. I think you’re safe with anomalous though.

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    • Ooh, that’s probably why I’ll never have many children or teens in my books! I wouldn’t have a clue what they would say or what their cultural references are! The one I have in “Death Out of Time” immigrated with his parents, and he has to work in their restaurant. So he isn’t the typical American 13-year-old by a long shot! And if I have more in sequels, they won’t have been raised on Earth! 🙂 Aha—I can have them talk any way I’d like!

      I agree on anomalous. The following dialogue in the book should really make it clear. And other than that, no one pointed out any other “big words” that tripped them up. Hopefully the revised draft won’t change that. 🙂

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  6. Sometimes when writing I get bonded with a phrase or a paragraph and have trouble letting it go if it doesn’t serve the good of the story. Finally I made up a document where I store all my good paragraph’s that had to be deleted so I don’t suffer separation anxiety. 🙂

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    • I’ve done exactly the same thing. 🙂 I like to think maybe I can recycle them into another story down the line.

      I actually had to remove the first scene I wrote in my first novel, Summer at the Crossroads. It didn’t fit the book once the story was fully developed. That was the hardest thing I’ve done in writing. I think it hurt as much as a pass from an agent….

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  7. Nice post! I love getting these reminders of things to be careful of in my writing. So thanks! I am the type of reader writers love–because not much trips me up–unless it’s grammar and just plain awful writing…then I can get annoyed enough to stop a book. Usually though, I’m reading fast enough, that a slip up here and there doesn’t throw me into a mind glitch. But I needed this post to help me make sure my book doesn’t make someone trip! (“Have a nice fall!”)

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    • I usually read that way, too. Is that a terrible confession for a writer?! Are we supposed to read everything like we’ll have to write an in-depth exposition about the author’s symbolic meanings and portrayal of the human condition? (I hope not!)

      But more recently I have been reading some science fiction with a more critical eye—how would my work compare, how is the author’s plotting? dialogue? That’s usually when something trips me up.

      And there’s another reason why beta readers are worth their weight in gold. They help us find those trip wires before the public does!

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  8. I hate it when that happens! I can’t actually remember which book it was, but I’ve had it before where I’ve had to read the same thing about 50 times. However, this did happen with me so much with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that I had to give up!

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    • Oh, I’ve taken a pass on Stieg Larsson. I’ve heard the books are brutal, and I just don’t have the stomach for that kind of thing. And then hearing that some people have walked out of the recent movie has just reinforced that!

      I’ve just got to remember this post and to take my own advice as I keep working on my own works-in-progress!

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  9. I love using less familiar words. It tends to trip up my readers. I use them sparingly and try to make it clear from context. On my last round of revisions, I made a mote everytime i got pulled out of the story. Sometimes it’s a bad transition or a lack of transition or a sentence in the wrong place in a paragraph. Amazing how often it happens and how easy it is to fix. 🙂

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    • I have no problem introducing readers to a few new words! We should learn new things, and the best time to me is when we’re enjoying ourselves—either by reading or doing something fun. And beta readers can be so helpful in pointing out where they’re pulled out of the story. I’m leaving “anomalous” in there, but I’ve tightened up the wording around it, hopefully making for a good transition!

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