My Two Cents

How to Make Your Reader Throw Your Book Across the Room

by Jan 21, 2016Craft

I think it’s safe to generalize here and say that every writer wants their reader to be drawn into, and stay in, the story they’ve written. We study the craft, whether by reading other writers’ work or taking courses or both, and we invest buckets of sweat into our stories, all with the goal of ensuring readers enter our fictional world and, while there, willingly suspend disbelief.

What interferes with that goal?

As a reader, I will put a book down if it’s rife with typographical or grammatical errors. I’m going to shake my head if the red shirt a character is wearing at the beginning of a scene is black when the scene ends. Or if his Colt handgun miraculously becomes a Glock. Probably, however, I won’t toss the book across the room in disgust and curse the author for wasting my time. I know that typos or minor continuity errors can escape even the most vigilant of editorial eyes. I know you can read a text five times and not discover the blatant mistake until the sixth read-through. Been there. So perhaps, if the story is great, I will cut the writer some slack.

But a few things are guaranteed to make me throw that book at the wall and vow never to read the writer’s work again.

One such thing is implausibility.

A while ago I watched a television crime drama in which forensics played a major role. In this particular episode the victim was discovered a few hours after his death. Blood covered the corpse and most of the crime scene. Two investigators arrived and did their thing. Soon lab tests determined the victim had been infected with a highly contagious and deadly virus. Not a previously unknown virus, mind you, but one scientists were familiar with.

As a result of their possible exposure to the virus the two investigators were quarantined, with nothing more than their computers to assist them in their investigation. Of course this plot point served to heighten tension. Would the investigators survive? How could they solve the crime while quarantined?

Fifty minutes into the hour-long program, after one of the investigators had become temporarily weak and lethargic and I experienced some angst over whether this was going to be her exit from the show, it was revealed that the virus became harmless once exposed to air for ten minutes. Oh happy day – the investigators had never been in danger.

I didn’t throw the television across the room. But I wanted to.

Was it plausible that scientists would not know, when they first identified the notorious virus and listed its characteristics, that it had a “shelf-life” of ten minutes? No. Should the writers have realized viewers might remember that the investigators had arrived on scene hours after the victim died? Yes.

If we want to our readers to continue to turn pages and to add our names to their “must read” list, we must examine our story lines and plot points for plausibility. I don’t think the writers of the television drama did that, because they could have fixed the problem simply by giving the virus a much longer shelf life.

I watched a few more episodes of the drama because I liked the characters. But I found myself questioning the plausibility of each story line and realized that I was no longer willing to suspend disbelief. Which is exactly the place writers never want their readers to be.

Check your story lines. Find the implausible points. Fill the plot holes. Don’t let readers down. Keep your name off their “do not read” list.


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