Tag Archives: suspension of disbelief

Contriving to be Stupid

One of the pitfalls writers can stumble into is when they know exactly where they want their story to go. Their ending and theme are clear in their minds, and they are so determined to reach that plot point that if they aren’t careful they may end up contriving part of the storyline to reach it.

Let me provide you with a couple of examples: [SPOILER ALERT!]

The 1940 film THE MORTAL STORM depicts a non-Jewish German family in the 1930s that begins as a comfortable, well-established, close-knit group but is torn apart as Hitler rises to power and the sons and their best friend are caught up in fascism. The film presents a chilling example of how dangerous peer pressure can be for adults, and was made as a warning at a time when the U.S.A. was not yet involved in WWII.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Despite this compelling plot and its inherent conflict, the film stumbles at the climax. The heroine and her friend attempt to escape over the Alps and are nearly to the Austrian border where safety lies. (In the story’s time frame, Austria has not yet been annexed by Germany.) However, just as they have one last slope to ski down to safety, a German patrol shows up. All the couple has to do is wait until the patrol is gone. They are breathless and exhausted. They are hidden in the rocks with a good vantage point. Why not sit down and take a breather? Oh no! As soon as they see the patrol and exclaim in dismay that it’s shown up, they immediately launch their skis and head down a long, open, snow-covered slope where they can’t help but be spotted.

Now the whole point of this character action is to test the girl’s ex-fiance who is in command of the patrol. Will he order his men to open fire on his girlfriend? He does, and she’s killed. The screenwriter or director or producer wanted to depict how far her young man will go in order to follow Hitler. There’s a close up of the agony in his face as he gives the command. And the ending is very sad.

Except it’s not. How can viewers share emotionally in this “tragedy” when the girl has been so stupid? Her fate has been contrived to achieve a certain end, and it just doesn’t fly.

Here’s another example:

Some years ago, I was writing a historical romance set during the French Revolution for Harlequin Books. To tip the book from its mid-point into the third act, I needed the heroine to be abducted by the villain. So focused was I on this objective that I contrived her capture by having her leave her hiding place and go wandering out through an orchard in search of something to eat. The idea was that she would pick a peach, be seen, and although she would run for it, the villain would catch her.

Fortunately I had an editor that refused to pass such nonsense. She yanked my chain hard, calling my heroine “stupid.” And she was right. I had to go back to the drawing board and rewrite that story event completely, coming up with a much more plausible way for the heroine to land in trouble without being a complete idiot.

Here’s the lesson: of course every event in fiction is a contrivance. Writers are moving their characters here and there through a plot for a desired effect. The challenge lies in concealing that contrivance from readers, so that readers suspend disbelief and vicariously experience the story as it unfolds.

The trick in achieving that concealment hinges on proper character motivation for every action, no matter how risky. Failure to provide a plausible reason leads to characters that may be too stupid to live.  And stupid characters become unsympathetic characters.

Perhaps in THE MORTAL STORM the screenwriter wrote a valid reason for the couple to risk death in skiing where a German patrol could not help but see them. But it ended up on the cutting room floor. Oops.

My novel ended up with a rewrite and some Band-Aids, but it got the job done. Even so, I still wince when I think of that scene.

Know where you’re going, but avoid character stupidity in getting there.

 

 

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Floating Viewpoint

The last area I want to discuss in my series regarding breaking reader suspension of disbelief is the mistake of poor viewpoint management.

Generally, viewpoint is indicated through three techniques:  through the internalized description of a character’s thoughts; through the internalized description of a character’s emotions; and through the internalized depiction of a character’s physical senses–including sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

Therefore, when you write subjectively–that is, from a character’s viewpoint–you are sharing these three types of subjective perspectives.

Thought:  John wondered why no one was working at the lab today.

Emotion:  Shaking, John stared at the oncoming T. Rex. His brain was screaming for him to run, but his feet remained frozen. He tried to scream, but his breath was trapped in his lungs. His throat felt constricted, and sweat popped out all over his body.

Physical senses:  John smelled something rotten in the flowerbed, like a rodent had died there.

Viewpoint brings a character alive. It provides readers with a story person to inhabit, to become, either for the duration of the story or for a portion of it.

Viewpoint puts readers into a story in ways the film or television screen cannot. Vicariously, through imagination, readers can experience the story as it unfolds from inside a character.

Consequently, because readers are given this psychologically intimate experience, the management of viewpoint takes on significant importance. Select a correct viewpoint character and handle his or her viewpoint well, and the reader goes on a marvelous journey of the imagination. Select the wrong viewpoint character or fumble how viewpoint is utilized, and the reader will be jolted back into reality.

How, then, do you select the best character in your cast to be the viewpoint?

Answer the following questions:

Who has the most to lose?

Who has the most at stake, or at risk?

Who is at the center of the action?

Who has the most to learn?

The character that qualifies is the person that should carry your story’s perspective.

However, should you choose to write from the viewpoint of a character with only a small stake in the story’s outcome or who happens to be absent during the most exciting or dangerous story events, you have not chosen wisely and will encounter increasing difficulty in persuading readers to believe in–much less follow–your plot.

Once you’ve selected an active viewpoint character that is in trouble, with much to learn, and participating in the very heart of the story action, you sustain this viewpoint through the individual’s emotions, thoughts, and physical senses. Again and again, over and over, through a page, a scene, a chapter, or a complete story.

It’s not sufficient to establish viewpoint once and then never provide that character’s perspective again. You, writer, are responsible for keeping viewpoint clear.

Also, beware the temptation to share thoughts and internal reactions from other characters present in a scene. Stick with your chosen one … at least until a scene concludes.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t change viewpoint in a story? Not at all. Multiple viewpoints can be effective, dramatic, and thrilling for readers. However, you shouldn’t allow viewpoint to wander from head to head in an exchange of dialogue without any control or direction.

While writers should always know what all their characters are thinking, feeling, and experiencing, readers don’t need to know.

Give readers one perspective at a time. They will not be confused, and their vicarious reading experience will be stronger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Notorious Info-Dump

Among the many pitfalls for the unwary writer is an urgent “need” to share far too much information and explanation with our readers. After we’ve created settings and characters that require considerable detail and knowledge within our heads, it seems only natural that we should then want to blurt out all this lavish wealth of information and share it with everyone.

However, readers should know only about ten percent of what a writer invents for his or her story. And if that’s the case … and if we aren’t going to cram this stuff into our stories, why should we bother to create it at all?

Well, one reason is that writers should work very, very hard so that their readers never struggle, become confused, or lose suspension of disbelief.

Another reason is that our characters will be more plausible and dimensional if we create elaborate and sometimes lengthy dossiers for them. This effort acquaints us with their psychology, their motivations, their fears, their ambitions, their hidden weaknesses. If we know that a character was bitten by a rabid dog when a child and had to undergo painful rabies treatments, then we can write this adult individual’s extreme, panicky reaction to any canine with far more verve and authority than if we just randomly decide she should be frightened of dogs.

However, do we need to put the story on pause while this character’s entire backstory and horrifying childhood experience is dumped in? No, we do not. Readers are clever in picking up clues and hints dropped through character dialogue, reactions, and behavior. Allow your adult character to encounter a growling German Shepherd and show only her response to it–without additional explanation. Because you know all the background behind her fears, you will write her reaction much differently than if you never plan that event in her past.

Then, trust the character to carry the story for you. She should deliver a doozy of a reaction.

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Fatal Summary

Controlling reader involvement is another necessary component of suspension of disbelief. Making readers care about your story is the first step. Thereafter, making them continue to care will encourage them to stick with your characters, willingly following the events in their imagination.

However, reader involvement can be discouraged, diminished, and even lost altogether when an author relies too heavily on narrative summary.

One of the five modes of discourse available to writers, narrative condenses story events or information into a summarized capsule that can boost story pacing, skim over trivial incidents, manage background or explanation, and transition quickly from one setting or time to another.

Narrative is extremely useful, but it carries a price in that it doesn’t lend itself to reader involvement.

Think of how you feel when a friend starts telling you about a terrific novel she’s just read. You’re interested at first, thinking you might want to read the book yourself, but when she launches into a lengthy summary of the entire plot, your interest flags, then you become bored, and finally you stop listening. Eager friend has spoiled it for you by skimming through the best parts, giving away the plot twists, and–worst of all–making it impossible for you to experience the novel in your imagination as it unfolds.

Therefore, when you write fiction, try not to fall into the trap of thinking you’re quickening pace by summarizing the dramatic action. Unless forced by length restrictions to shorten a story, you should never condense important scenes.

By their very purpose and construction, scenes are the most involving dramatic points a short story or novel can offer. Because of that, they are written in a way that immerses readers into the situation, the conflict, and every moment of the action and dialogue that transpires. But summarize a scene or important event, and you render it insignificant in a reader’s perception.

Suddenly, having set up reader expectation for exciting scene action, you drop kick your readers out of that vicarious experience.

It can be quite an unpleasant jolt when it happens. If readers enjoy the story otherwise, they’ll forgive such momentary turbulence and continue. But do this too often in the same tale, and you may well lose your audience completely.

For example, for the past week or so, I’ve been trying to read a mystery novel called PHOTO FINISH by Dame Ngaio Marsh. I’ve known about this author for years, but never acquainted myself with her work until a few months ago. She is considered one of the four original “queens of crime” from the golden age of mystery writing in the 1920s-1930s.

So far, I’ve read perhaps three or four of her books, all of them competent mysteries that I enjoyed. This one, however, I am struggling to finish. I’ve read another book since starting PHOTO FINISH, and I find myself doing other things instead of picking up the book. Worst of all, after several days, I have only reached the halfway mark.

(All fairly fatal signs, don’t you think?)

Now, in all fairness, PHOTO FINISH was published in 1980, two years before Dame Ngaio’s death. It was the next-to-last book she published, and I hope that I can do as well in my nineties after such a lengthy, distinguished, and successful career. The story is set in her native New Zealand, and her depictions of the scenery take me to a remarkable, most unusual backdrop.

Yet despite the flamboyant characters and exotic setting, despite the by-now familiar protagonist–Inspector Alleyn–and his wife Troy, the story just isn’t holding my attention.

The story premise is rock solid and exciting. The plot itself has a few hiccups, chiefly because at the halfway point there’s been no crime committed and as yet there’s still no mystery to solve. However, I realized that the primary reason I’m not engrossed is due to the author’s over-reliance on narrative.

The moment something exciting happens, Dame Ngaio pulls back the camera, so to speak, and relates the event in summary rather than letting the story action take place in moment-by-moment conflict. This unfortunate tactic, coupled with a lack of “real trouble” for the characters to handle, has created a slow, rather circular plot that’s stalled. And all the lovely scenery, vivid characters, and likeable protagonists are insufficient to hold my attention.

I’m going to finish reading PHOTO FINISH, even with gritted teeth and sheer determination, because I think it’s intriguing to see a notable author’s final works as well as her early efforts, but I am having to work much too hard to suspend disbelief in order to stay involved. Unfortunately, this particular story has become a curiosity for me rather than a novel that can carry me away.

Summarize too much of a story, and you end up with readers who just don’t care.

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Dialogue Don’ts

Another misstep that can jolt readers from suspension of disbelief occurs when a character’s dialogue sounds phony, contrived, or inconsistent.

Developing an ear for dialogue takes practice. It’s helpful to read aloud a character’s lines to make sure they flow well and make sense. However, dialogue should also work visually by being quick and easy to read. Divide it into small paragraphs, breaking to a new paragraph each time a different character speaks.

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”

     “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”

     She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”

     “Tyrant.”

By contrast, consider this mash-up:

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”  “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”  She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”  “Tyrant.”

The separate paragraphs seem like such a small, obvious detail, and yet inexperienced or careless writers tend to overlook this element of readability flow. Certainly it makes following the conversation difficult for readers.

Phony Dialogue

When a character speaks in a stilted, unnatural way or delivers what is known as dialogue of information, it comes across as false and implausible.

For example, consider this:

     “Darling, darling, darling, I just LOVE your hair. It’s so brown today, catching all those delicious little highlights in the sunlight. And it curls so prettily. Do you wear colored contacts? I think you must because your eyes exactly match that pale streak of color at your temples. And never let anyone tell you to wear pastels, my dear, because they would wash out your skin tones. Leopard prints are what you need. Leopard and jewel tones, always.”

Gushing and flamboyant? Yes.

Over-the-top? Yes.

Dialogue of information? Unfortunately, yes.

Viable? Possibly, if the speaker is a gushing, insincere, middle-aged babbler.

However, sometimes dialogue seems phony because the cadence and vocabulary of the speaker just don’t match his or her design. Let’s say we have a character who is shy, reserved, highly educated, and cultured.

She’s probably not going to say lines such as these:

“So, uh, like I was there, but it was seriously lame. So I bounced, and I wasn’t at the club when the fight broke out.”

Or these:

     “Yeah, I saw the fight. What about it? I hated being a witness. I didn’t notice anything. So why don’t you go pester somebody else?”

Or these:

     “I most certainly did witness the altercation. Unfortunately I had just happened to stop briefly in that den of iniquity to say hello to my dearest friend, a sorority sister if you must know. However, I left promptly since I had no desire to be jostled by the hoi polloi or have cheap beer sloshed across my Armani skirt.”

What’s best is to let the character’s personality shine through without beating readers over the head with it. Therefore, a shy, reserved character would probably answer without mugging or embellishing. Her level of education would come through the use of correct, albeit casual, grammar and an absence of slang:

     “Yes, officer, I went there. I don’t normally go to clubs, but a friend urged me to go with her. I said I would for a short while. But I was needed at home, so I left after about twenty minutes. I didn’t see a fight.”

Contrived Dialogue

I am a fan of the classic THIN MAN series of films featuring Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. But near the end of the third film, ANOTHER THIN MAN, [SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!] the murdered man’s adopted daughter Lois suddenly switches her dialogue and manner in a way that is jarring and entirely implausible. Up to this point in the movie, she has been cultured and refined, an entirely gracious and charming person. In the climax [SPOILER!!!!], her vocabulary and tone become harsh and lower-class.

It’s an extremely crude and awkward transformation that gets the director’s point across, but with such contrivance that I dislike the entire movie.

Inconsistent Dialogue

This can happen when a writer is using dialect, habitual phrases, or a distinct speech pattern to tag a character and make him or her stand out from the rest of the cast. At some point in the story, especially in a novel, said writer is prone to forget those speech tags and allow the character to start talking like some of the others. Somewhere in the swampy middle of a book, writer fatigue sets in. And if multiple viewpoints are being used, or if some of the secondary characters disappear for a while and return after the midpoint, it’s easy to lose track of their individual voices and speaking styles.

So, for example, let’s say that on pages 12-30, Ezra Honeycutt has been cutting a vivid swath across the storyline like this:

     “Now see here, son! I ain’t standing for no foolery when it comes to property lines. I know how much land I own, and that dratted skunk Jones can take me to court all day long and it won’t make no difference. What’s right is right, and I’m darned sure right!”

As you can see, Ezra is testy. He’s not too concerned with proper grammar, through his usage of “ain’t” and double negatives, yet although he’s angry he’s avoiding the curse word “damned.” These are little clues to his personality and upbringing, or even his personal code. He prefaces many of his remarks with “now see here.”

However, Ezra is a minor character. He vanishes from the story for a while, and when he returns on, say, pages 96-117, he speaks this way:

     “Now see here, you! I thought I made myself clear when I took Mr. Jones to court last month, but it would appear that I need to explain this property squabble once more.”

Although one of his phrases remains, the rest of his speaking pattern–the rhythm of it, if you will–has changed. He is no longer consistent. He has become less vivid. He doesn’t appear to be quite the same as he was before. Depending on how remarkable, feisty, and bold he was the previous times he appeared, he may not break the bubble of suspension of disbelief, but he’ll affect it.

If needed, take the trouble to create a speech tag chart for each of your characters and keep it near your computer–or even in a computer file–for a handy reference.

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Wobbly Characters

A few weeks ago, I launched the first of an intended series of posts about breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Then a deadline happened.

With apologies for the one or two of you who might possibly have been waiting on the edge of your seats for the next installment, I am now, at last, continuing.

Although one of the most prevalent reasons readers are bumped from the story are writer errors, inconsistent characters can wreak havoc with suspension of disbelief, too.

Readers come to your story, willing to play, anxious to accept your plotline, eager to enter your story world, and ready to meet your characters.

In fact, they want desperately to like your protagonist. This character is going to become their new bestie — even if for a short duration — and it’s up to you the writer to supply them with a character that’s appealing, likable, pro-active, clever, resourceful, admirable, and capable of heroism.

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it?

But I think writers hit trouble with characters for two primary reasons:

1) they try to create complexity the wrong way

2) they aren’t paying attention to their own story people

Let’s deal with #2 first.

How, you may be wondering, can a writer lose track of his character? Isn’t the character his creation? His baby?

But a sloppily designed character–one that’s thinly constructed with next-to-no background, few if any physical attributes, no tags other than a name chosen at random, and entirely lacking in motivation for whatever its writer intends for it to do–is quite easy to forget.

What happens when you can’t choose the right name for your character? You realize the importance of connotation in names, but you just can’t find it. Nothing seems right. Nothing really fits. So, with the pressure of a looming deadline upon you–or possibly just impatience to get started–you slap a temporary moniker on the character and proceed.

BOO! Wrong idea.

Sticking a temporary name on your elf is like trying to use one of those modern, stretchy-fabric Band-Aids that are supposed to be ouchless, but instead just fall off.

You call the elf Bob, promising yourself that you’ll find the right name later. But because Bob doesn’t work as the character’s name, you will probably forget it in the heat of writing your battle scene between the elves and the swamp lizards. So somewhere amidst the flying arrows and slashing swords, Bob becomes George. Or Jerry. Or Bill. Or XX.

Yeah, you know. You intend to fix it. But once the battle scene is over, you may be struggling with its problems that distract you away from your nameless elf, who isn’t really working as a character anyway.

If you can’t find the right name, you haven’t met your character properly. You don’t know him. And until you do, you can’t possibly write his dialogue or story actions with any degree of plausibility.

Not knowing your character means you will be hesitant when it comes to what he says and does. This tentative effect weakens the character. It’s easy to forget how he reacted in Scene 1 so that in Scene 7–when Nameless Elf needs to respond in a similar manner to whatever’s happening–you can’t remember what he did before, or you can’t remember his position, stance, or opinion–so you write his reaction differently.

Result? An inconsistent character that no reader will believe in.

Take your character and determine exactly what he looks like. Write a description that’s specific, not vague. Overflowing the sleek Porsche’s back seat, a drooling St. Bernard gusted hot breath on the nape of Joan’s neck is much more vivid than The big brown dog sat panting in the car behind Joan.

When you know what your character looks like–how tall is your elf? Are his pointed ears delicate and small, or huge like Dobby’s in the Harry Potter books? Are his eyes large and protruding? Does he have warts? Is his skin green or as pale as milk?–then you can think about what makes him tick.

If he lived with you, for example, in the here and now, who would he favor in the next presidential election? What’s his favorite food–snail eggs or chocolate chip cookies?

What’s his personality? Is he meek and mild-tempered? Is he rash and impetuous? Does he blurt out comments before he thinks? Is he incapable of lying? Or is he incapable of honesty? What are his best traits? What are his flaws?

Why is he in your story? Maybe you only intend him to appear in two scenes, complaining about your housecat’s forays into his garden, but however minor his role he should be vividly portrayed and matter to the story.

What is his goal? Why does he want that goal? If he fails to achieve his desire, what effect will that failure have on him?

By the time you answer all these questions, you will know that his name is Delfwin, for example. He has come alive to you. You now know him well.

And whether he’s important or minor to the story, your elf will be consistent and plausible each time he appears on the page.

As for reason #1 why story people fail to work, this occurs through a writer’s efforts to deepen character.

Perhaps a writing coach has told you that your character is too one-dimensional and needs to have more depth and complexity.

So you think, aha! I’ll come up with a more elaborate backstory for my shy, orphaned girl that’s backward for her age.

Accordingly, you weave a larger and more convoluted past for the character, making her an orphan raised by wolves from the age of one until she was five, at which time a forest ranger found her and brought her home for his wife to housebreak. Since learning to speak and eat cooked foods, Sheila Wolfbane has grown up wary of people, inclined to snap and lose her temper. But because her biological parents were concert musicians who died tragically in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, Sheila has considerable talent and plays the piano, violin, clarinet, and harmonica adeptly. She plans to attend Harvard and study environmental law.

Wow! Isn’t she now an amazing character? In draft one, Sheila was just an ordinary backwoods girl, but now … look at her!

I’d rather not, thanks.

Sheila isn’t any more complex in version two than she was in version one. The writer has invented a plethora of extra details about her, but that’s just more sequins glued to her shirt.

She won’t become complex until she has inner conflict. Let’s say that she acts meek and demure, avoiding eye contact and pretending to be shy, when in fact she hates Ranger Rick and Mrs. Rick for taking her away from her true family, her pack, and she’s planning to murder the Ricks so she can run back to the woods where she belongs.

Now when she snarls and snaps, she immediately shuts down her temper and apologizes, but inside she isn’t sorry. She wishes she could bite them and tear out their soft throats.

She’s psychotic, but she’s also more complex than before.

Too far out for your taste? Then perhaps Sheila survived the plane crash in the woods and lived on her own for several weeks until she was found. Trauma has rendered her mute. As she grows to young womanhood, she yearns to speak, wonders what the world is like beyond the forest, but is afraid to leave her home with the Ricks despite the fact that Ranger Rick is getting old and must retire soon. Sheila is terrified of change, yet curious of what she might see and learn. The young, handsome ranger taking Rick’s position is attracted to her. Sheila could live with him, and remain in the woods that are her refuge, yet a part of her wonders if she really loves this man or is just using him as a way to avoid facing her fears.

If a writer doesn’t understand how complexity is achieved, the piling on of more and more detail will at some point become implausible, even silly, and readers can no longer comfortably remain with the story.

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Bubble Bursting

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.

Writer Errors

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.

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