Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Not stopping the reader: avoiding the stumbling blocks that break the spell of your story

A stumbling block is the 'huh?' factor, the 'no way!' factor. It's something that stops your readers in their tracks, something that makes them pull out of your story for a moment, or something that makes them uneasy, irritated, a little less willing to surrender themselves to the story you are weaving. It makes them do what you don't want them to do: stop reading.

The first of many possible boggle points is the stumbling block of odd names. You call your heroine Veshurpiamalee Brown. The first time your reader sees that, they'll go 'Huh?' They'll start expecting a very good explanation indeed for such an odd name. If you don't give them one you'll lose their willingness to trust you. In the same way, if you call your aristocratic love interest Lord Elmer Sheepshead, they'll go 'No way!' You haven't a hope of convincing them that the lovely Veshurpiamalee — no I can't do it — Natasha is going to fall for a guy called Elmer Sheepshead, nobleman or not.

Another stumbling block is a weird fact. Weird facts are true things that are unfamiliar to the reader. For instance, we assume that American naval vessels are called the 'USS Something-or-other', e.g. the 'USS Constitution'. In WWII, troop carrying vessels were known as 'USAT', not 'USS', so a soldier would go aboard the 'USAT George Washington', not the 'USS George Washington'. It's true, but when your readers hit 'USAT' they'll go 'Huh?' 'USAT' is factual, it's correct, but it's not what they expect. They'll stop reading to puzzle over what this could mean and you've lost them, if only for a moment. So call your troop carrier the 'USS George Washington' and stop worrying so much about accuracy.

A third stumbling block is wacky imagery. All writers strive for vivid, fresh descriptions, but saying Natasha was as pure as a peeled rutabaga is going to have your readers saying, 'Huh?' Inept descriptions do the same: The little waves foamed up and down the beach like tumbling bricks. Your readers think 'no way do waves look like bricks'. Or: He slipped into the darkened room, feeling as if a giraffe were on his shoulders. The gloom was oppressive, smothering him like a cornflake. His hand, a groping anteater, sought the switch. Your readers have now concluded, not that you are an amazingly innovative writer, but that you are a ding-a-ling.

If you want to write an outrageous, perhaps startlingly fresh and apposite metaphor, do it, and then read it aloud. Does The rain clouds bunched over the mountain range like a pod of whales sound stupid? Or apt? Does She laughed like a car backfiring' sound quite right for the heroine of a romance? Don't try to be clever with your imagery, try to be exact. And exercise restraint.

Boring writing is an all too common stumbling block. Writers can get too close to their story and put down every last thing their characters do: Jake chose five medium-sized potatoes from the paper bag. He washed them under the sink in cool water, the traces of mud swirling down the drain. Patting them dry with paper towels, he lined them up while he found the vegetable peeler. He rested the first one in the palm of his left hand and peeled it with firm strokes, the peelings tumbling into the sink. After the first one had gone from a brown lump to a shining white ovoid, he picked up the second potato... Your reader says: 'No way am I reading another word of this!'

Sometimes writers create long boring passages of dull, dull prose because they are afraid they won't make their word count. Sometimes they do it because they have no sense of the dramatic and don't understand that peeling potatoes is simply not interesting. Sometimes they themselves are fascinated by something, maybe even potatoes, and let their enthusiasm carry them away. Whatever the reason, a good writer will realise at the rewriting stage, if not before, that this boring passage has to die. Either it goes or your reader goes.

Another stumbling block is implausibility. As well as being a self-made millionaire, Lord Elmer Sheepshead was a black-belt in karate, an Olympic-level fencer, a crack shot, and an all-star wrestler who piloted his own plane, ran his own law firm, and spent his weekends both entertaining beautiful movie stars and working in an orphanage. What are your readers saying at this point? 'No way!' Readers simply won't swallow such an implausible hero. No, not even in a comic book, not any more.

In the same way, outrageous circumstances insufficiently supported will have your readers snorting 'No way!' For instance: your heroine hits Hollywood on Saturday, gets picked up by a gorgeous up-and-coming movie star that evening at a club, finds herself at the beach house of a major producer for Sunday brunch, has the latest Oscar winner asking her to star with him in the producer's next movie, and by Tuesday she's on the cover of 'Hello!' magazine. Come on. I don't care how beautiful and talented she is, your heroine will never be this lucky. It just doesn't happen. Your readers won't buy it.

Outrageous coincidences also fall into the 'I don't buy it' category, e.g.: Lord Elmer realised that the beautiful movie star who had come for a photo shoot at his orphanage was none other than his long-lost bride. "Gosh," said Natasha, gazing at the crack-shot millionaire who was her long-lost husband, "and I only got to Hollywood on Saturday!"

Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary explanations. If a miserly millionaire suddenly starts giving money away, you have to convince the reader of his motive. That's why Dickens has Scrooge visited by not one but three ghosts: it takes that many to shift Scrooge from his misanthropic ways and to convince us why and how fast he changes. Why does Lord Elmer not recognise his long-lost bride? How did he lose her in the first place? You can't simply tell the reader: Lord Elmer didn't recognise her because she'd bleached her hair. You have to be more convincing: Having lost his memory after an unfortunate karate kick to the head, Lord Elmer had started a new life for himself in America. One day, during a steep dive in his personal jet, Lord Elmer's memory came back. He began to search for the bride he had forgotten. Meanwhile, plucky Natasha, thinking that her husband no longer loved her, had found work in Hollywood, eventually becoming a star. She read of Lord Elmer's successes in the papers, but it was only when they met during a photo shoot at the orphanage that she knew his heart had not changed, for he stared at her as if seeing a ghost, crying brokenly, "Natasha, at last I've found you!" as they fell into each other's arms. Far-fetched, yes, but at least you have tried to create a plausible explanation for the circumstances. Make motivation and actions logically consistent. Your explanations need only be convincing enough to remove the boggle factor, the 'Huh?' in your readers' minds. Afterwards – well, were you ever truly convinced that Viola and her brother looked so much alike in 'Twelfth Night'? What matters is that, watching the play, you did believe it.

Unlikely human behaviour is yet another stumbling block. Lord Elmer gazed at his long-lost bride. "Knock, knock," he said, nudging her in the ribs. I don't know about you, but if I'd just read this I'd say, 'Huh?' A man who's been searching for his long-lost bride doesn't tell her a joke when at last they meet, he's stunned, he chokes with emotion. Human behaviour can be surprising, as when a jilted man magnanimously attends his ex-fiancée's wedding, but it can't be nonsensical, such as the man deciding to become a shoe salesman to mend his broken heart. (Huh?) A character who is too good, too pure, too generous, or conversely too evil, too grasping, too vindictive, loses credibility. An extraordinary personality needs to be justified by extraordinarily convincing reasons. We won't swallow: Natasha remained a pure-hearted girl even while climbing the cocaine-ridden, corrupt, dog-eat-dog ladder of Hollywood because, well, she was just a really nice human being. But Natasha remaining a modest, selfless girl even when a movie star because, deep down, she feels she is unworthy of love after her husband abandoned her is something we'll (just) swallow. We have to be able to believe your characters' motivations. It has to ring true.

In summary, don't push your luck. We, your readers, want to be swept away, but we still have our common sense. The more we stop reading to scratch our heads and say, 'Huh?' or the more we put down your book to laughing and say, 'No way!' the more stumbling blocks you should have removed in those rewrites. Remember, it won't be your readers saying 'Huh?' and 'No way!', it will be a potential editor. And 'No way!' from an editor means 'No'.