When readers settle down to enter your story world and meet your characters and become caught up in your plot, those readers are making an effort to suspend disbelief in the whole thing. They are trying to believe in what you’ve written. They want to make believe with you. They have come willingly to play with you.
It’s a writer’s job then to help readers continue to suspend that disbelief from start to finish.
Various things, however, can bump that fragile suspension. Writer errors, inconsistent characterization, implausible plot events, jarring dialogue, slow pacing due to too much description and explanation, weak scenes, and shoddy viewpoint management are all factors that can jar readers right back to the real world. Jar them too often, and they may give up on the story with impatience, frustration, or a sigh.
After all, they’ve paid good money for the entertainment your book or short story promised them. And that money will be seen as wasted.
So let’s consider these problems one at a time and see how they can be avoided or remedied.
Sometimes known in the business as “gotchas,” these are factual errors or anachronisms that readers catch. Although writers make valiant efforts to research settings, procedures, history, skills, situations, clothing or gear, etc., mistakes can and do happen.
Years ago, I was listening to best-selling thriller novelist Ridley Pearson talk at a writers conference about how he had researched the city of Seattle as a setting for some of his crime novels. He pored over maps. He consulted with Seattle law enforcement. He tracked down every detail he could think of, and then discovered–after his book was published–that he’d gotten the tides wrong and the victim’s body wouldn’t have washed ashore in the way he described. How did he discover it? Readers–maybe even readers from the Seattle sheriff’s department–let him know.
Ouch! Years after his book’s publication, Ridley was still wincing. Because he cared.
Some gotchas are fatal to a book. Others are not.
The fatal ones occur when the storyline is implausible because it’s heavily based on serious writer ignorance. For example, a writer wipes out a plane’s pilot mid-flight and then has a passenger flying the plane to a successful landing … incorrectly. So incorrectly that the plane would crack up if someone actually did what the character executes. Such extreme error occurs when writers fail to research at all, hoping lazily that no one will catch it.
Another form of fatality is to write a string of implausible character actions that leave even lay readers saying, What? Why doesn’t she just … Wouldn’t they do … Shouldn’t it be different than this?
A nonfatal gotcha can often appear as a goof in the setting detail, such as a character threading his car through afternoon rush hour traffic, with the author unaware that the street in that city at that time of day is one-way only. Locals would know it, but the majority of readers probably would not catch it.
A few months ago, I introduced a student to Jim Butcher’s first novel, Storm Front. She really enjoyed the story events, but his minor errors with the Chicago setting bugged her terribly, as she claimed to be very familiar with the locale. So she read the story because I assigned it, but itching and twitching all the way.
Naturally, some gotchas are dependent on the level of reader tolerance. Some readers will find mistakes but shrug them off. Others are bothered, or distracted, or annoyed, or offended. And some readers are themselves wrongly informed about your topic or setting and are too stubborn to believe you’re right.
Recently I read a historical romance set in the French Revolution. The plot was quick and engaging. The characters were likable. The historical period is a favorite of mine. It was evident that the author had done a considerable amount of research on her setting and period details. Since I used to write books in this time frame and have researched it, I was glad to be able to enjoy the book without gotchas.
Until the hero came into his room at a roadside tavern in 1792 France and “set a mug of coffee on the dresser.” It was so anachronistic, so wrong for the period and time, that it jolted me out of the story. I liked the plot and characters enough that I kept reading. But every time they drank coffee on the road or in a house or wherever, I remembered that phrase. Worst of all, I found it progressively harder to suspend disbelief.
You might be thinking, over a tiny detail like coffee? Lighten up!
Yeah, I do try. But you see, in the 1790s, coffee was expensive and hard to come by. It wasn’t available at modest roadside inns and most people couldn’t afford it. And people didn’t have dressers either. They used other types of furniture, but not dressers which came along in the 19th century. Worst of all, the phrase was just too modern. It was perfect for a story set in the 21st century, but not for a story set in the late 18th.
A lot of readers wouldn’t catch this and most might not care. But for me–for this reader–it was a distraction. I read books set in historical times for the flavor of the setting. A modern phrase destroys that ambiance, and it disappoints me. It also made me doubt other details the author was using. It made me doubt the story. I became wary, and my antenna went on alert for more errors that might be lurking in those pages.
Too much doubt, and readers will dump the book. I didn’t stop reading the historical because its author was pretty sound on everything else. But had I caught another glaring anachronism or error, I would have tossed the book aside.
Are you thinking, why didn’t the editor catch it?
Because editors these days are overworked and rely on writers to get things right. This particular author is successful and popular with her readers, so evidently the majority of them aren’t bothered by mugs of coffee on dressers in an era when people drank coffee rarely, went to coffee houses to partake of the beverage, didn’t use mugs unless they were peasants–and even then they were called tankards instead of mugs–and didn’t have dressers because they used wash stands, dressing tables that we would call vanities today, chests of drawers, and wardrobes instead.
Nitpicking? You bet! In all fairness to the author, she was just having the guy bring his lady love some breakfast. But I would have been happier had he whisked a tray from the hands of the chambermaid and put it on the bed so his lady could partake of a dish of tea and a morsel of ham. The lady was English and I don’t think she swallowed tea in the entire novel. And while I’m no tea drinker myself, I do know that it was the beverage of choice in that time period. If the character disliked tea, then the author should have said so and I would have loved her for it.
As a writer, you can’t be 100% perfect, but you should always strive to be as accurate as you possibly can, because you never know who’s reading your fiction or how it’s being interpreted. When you do get things right, readers notice and they are incredibly appreciative that you cared enough about their area of expertise or knowledge to check and double-check.