Stuff That Takes Readers Out of a Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today is an open forum. I want to discuss my theory of speed bumps. Why do we writers seem a bit obsessive about things like point of view, “head hopping,” dialogue attributions and so on? Some might think, Hey, man, if you’ve got a good story, those things won’t matter so much.

Well, I think they do. Because if you’re enjoying a pleasant drive, but keep hitting speed bumps, the pleasure you might otherwise have enjoyed will be diminished. And if it happens a lot, you may decide not to take that road again (meaning, not buy another book by the same author).

We want our novels to be more than good. We want them to be unforgettable. A high bar indeed, but why settle for less? “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one,” the old saying goes, “but you won’t get a handful of mud, either.”

I thought about all this the other day when reading a thriller by a bestselling author. Four things bumped me out of the story. I’d like to see if you agree. I have tweaked the details just a bit because I’m not here to throw shade on a fellow writer. But I do want us to learn.

The novel is about a female police detective on the trail of a serial killer.

  1. Double Punctuation

So I’m reading along and come to this line:

“You mean she took all of them!?”

I blinked a couple of times to make sure I was seeing correctly. Yes, they were there, the two punctuation marks.

It jolted me because I don’t even think this was done in the old Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books. Where was it done? In comic strips.

But here it is, in a contemporary thriller. I think it looks amateurish. But maybe that’s just me. Would a reader really care?

What do you think?

  1. Unneeded Attribution for Italicized Thoughts

It’s not going to happen, she thinks. Not here, not ever.

There are several ways to give us the interior thoughts of a character. One of them is via italics. But the whole point of an italicized thought is so you don’t have to use a tag like she thinks or she thought.

It’s an unnecessary interruption and thus a speed bump. Sure, maybe it’s a little one, but why have any at all when it’s so easy to smooth them out?

  1. But The Rock Does It!

Now we come to the climactic scene. The cop comes home only to find the serial killer waiting for her, with a gun, and holding a hostage by the neck.

The killer shoots. The bullet hits the cop in her upper arm and propels her body backward into the living room wall.

You know how we see this in movies all the time? Like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with a sawed-off shotgun and the bad guy’s body slamming into a wall or out a window or through a door.

Only problem: bodies don’t do that. Brother Gilstrap will back me up on this, but even with a shotgun blast to the chest a body falls downward like a sack of laundry.

But here we have a mere bullet from a revolver hitting an arm. I’m taken out of the scene because there’s no possible way for a body slam to happen.

But will readers notice? I ask you.

  1. Thrillus ex machina

You should be familiar with deus ex machina—Latin for “god from the machine.” It’s a term for something that happens to resolve the climax, only it drops in out-of-the-blue, unjustified. The protagonist is saved but the reader utters a great big “Come on!”

In some thrillers I’ve read there’s a kind of thrillus ex machina (apologies to Aristotle) at work. Suddenly the protagonist develops an instant set of skills or finds almost superhuman strength at just the right time. Or maybe there’s a suspension of physical or forensic reality.

So here we have our serial killer winging the protagonist while holding a hostage. The cop reaches behind her, with her left hand, for the service revolver she has holstered at the small of her back.

Then, using the hand she’s never practiced with, she fires off a shot and hits the killer’s right shoulder, inches from the hostage’s head.

Blood sprays from the wound.

The cop fires another round with her left, a perfect shot to the killer’s other shoulder, once again next to the hostage’s head.

At which point the killer passes out from shock and blood loss.

If I may: A bullet to the shoulder (or other soft tissue) does not cause a spray of blood.

Also, it’s hard for me to believe a trained cop would shoot with her unskilled hand with an innocent target exposed. But perhaps we can let that first shot pass. That she manages another perfect shot with her left, hostage still there, is too much.

Finally, someone doesn’t pass out from blood loss in a matter of seconds. A person needs to lose 3 to 4 pints of blood before they start to have oxygen issues.

Again, I’m not here to throw stones at this author. It’s doggone hard to end a thriller in a way that’s satisfying and unpredictable. Perhaps an A-list writer can get away with thrillus ex machina from time to time. It probably won’t put a big dent in the ol’ fan base.

But why risk any dents at all?

The floor is open.

15+

66 thoughts on “Stuff That Takes Readers Out of a Story

  1. If I may, I see a violation of Rock-Physics in the last example as well, with no body-slam to the bad guy from the protag’s ambidextrous/wrong-handed shooting prowess (more a speed table than mere speed bump to me).

    I think the compound punctuation may have crept in from too much social media, especially Twitter, where it’s all about emphasis and not grammar, if u no what I mean… 🙂

    I’m reading one with a bump that sort of makes sense the second time it happens – starts in first person, jumps around the world in chapter two into third where a character is quickly developed to be as quickly done in by the well disguised assassin, then back to FP for a chapter or two before zipping around the world again for another round of bad guy antics.

    I’m sure eventually it’ll all tie together, but it was a bit of a sleeping policeman – as they call speed bumps in the Caribbean (and perhaps appropriately here?) – to jump from inside to outside. I reading on, anticipating it happening a few more times until the two finally meet. A bit annoying, but not a cover-closer for me… yet.

  2. Interesting that you should mention “sleeping policeman.” On my first trip to the Caribbean, I saw a sign at our resort to that effect, and thought “How thoughtful.” But, of course, I soon learned (the hard way) what it meant.
    Your listing of stuff that takes the reader out of the story is certainly accurate, and I can hardly wait to see what other errors the readers of this blog point out.

  3. Ugh. Double punctuation marks drive me crazy. A good editor would never allow it, which makes me wonder if the author bothered to hire an editor, if self-pubbed. The implausibilities you mentioned would also be too much for me to continue. I’m willing to ignore some procedural mistakes, but too many pull me out of the story. I must admit, I’ve become a bit of a book snob. There are too many fantastic books to waste time reading poorly written/researched stories.

  4. Great post, but what else is to be expected at TKZ? I agree with all your speed bumps and sleeping policemen (love that!) and with the exception of the double punctuation which I haven’t seen, all the rest have yanked me out of stories, many written by best-selling authors. In fact, I’ve addressed them all on my blog over the years.
    If anyone is writing “cop stuff” and has no first-hand experience or is using television for research, I HIGHLY recommend Lee Lofland’s “The Graveyard Shift” blog.
    Other “cop stuff” gaffes that will pull me out – thumbing safeties off of Glocks, fingers on the trigger before being ready to shoot, smelling cordite.

  5. I think a bit of laziness is at work with the punctuation and perhaps with the unbelievable precision of the protagonists final shots. I hear that tiny voice saying find the right word, the right expression to show emotion. The punctuation left me wondering if the author simply wanted to move on without the effort to make every word count. Same for the ending. Seems rushed. End the novel, get on to the next.

  6. I don’t recall seeing the double punctuation in any books but it wouldn’t stop me. I would think an author would use it very sparingly & I know what they meant when they use it. As a reader, blood spatter and falling backwards wouldn’t stop me because I haven’t shot anyone recently 😎 & have no idea how they’d spatter. Also, if they fall backwards “as seen on TV” I wouldn’t bat an eyelash because I watch TV for entertainment, not analysis.

    Of the examples provided, the only one that would make me scoff (but not necessarily stop reading) is the bit about shooting with the non-dominant hand if it had not been supported as a skill earlier in the story and yes, I would wonder why they took such risks with a victim so close to the danger zone.

    There may be some speed bumps people react to in common but I think it’s highly individualized for each reader. I’m more likely to get into a snit if you get something wrong about Arizona history, for example, then something about procedure or guns. For someone else, it would be something totally different. All in all, I’m willing to give writers a lot of leeway. I want entertainment. You give me that, I don’t care about your exclamation and question mark together.

  7. That double punctuation is one of those problems the Word program won’t pick up. You just have to learn about that. Thanks for pointing out those problems. Would you put a period and quotation marks at the end of a question sentence of dialogue, just leave out the quotation marks, or rewrite the dialogue so isn’t the last sentence? —- Suzanne

    • Would you put a period and quotation marks at the end of a question sentence of dialogue, just leave out the quotation marks, or rewrite the dialogue so isn’t the last sentence?

      In the example provided, since it’s a true question, I’d just use the question mark. If I wanted to emphasize the surprise aspect of it, I’d put in an action beat after that. E.g.,

      “You mean she took all of them?” Sally slapped the desk and shook her head.

  8. Double punctuation doesn’t take me out of the story if it’s not done too often. I guess I’m used to it because of social media. Occasional unnecessary attribution for italicized thoughts won’t take me out, either, unless they get overly used. An occasional reminder of who’s thinking is fine with me.

    Bullet-induced body slams, now that does take me out! Unfortunately, I’ve seen video of someone being shot. He dropped straight down. Another guy didn’t miss a step while running and didn’t realize until later that he even had a bullet in him.

    A little set up would help the instant set of skills be more believable and thus not knock us out of the story. In this example, perhaps we could have learned earlier that the cop is ambidextrous and practices shooting with both hands. Perhaps she started her adult life as a med student and knew exactly where to aim just to the inside of the head of the humerus in order for a bullet to tear into the brachial artery (spurt for sure).

    I’m kind of iffy on the passing out thing. It wouldn’t automatically take me out of a story. I have a friend who was in the hospital. His wound dressing was being changed. The doc was pulling off old dressing and immediately applying pressure. My friend passed out before the doc even got the pressure on. Ew, my friend did see the little red fountain squirt up as he was passing out. Then again, my childhood friend shoveled her foot into a snowblower, wondered why the spewing snow had turned red, and remained conscious long enough for her dad to come to the rescue.

    I agree with George Smith’s comment in that changing POV too often or with too much of a jump in circumstances takes me out of the story. I recently read an Andrew Pyper novel that stayed completely in one POV the whole way through. That made it refreshingly easy to read, and I zoomed through it. (Scary, too. He writes scary stuff.)

  9. Great examples, Jim.

    You mentioned unneeded attribution. On the other end of the spectrum, confusing or absent attribution bothers me. When I have to repeatedly go back to see whose turn it is to talk, or try to figure out who is talking, I am tempted to set the book down. I would prefer repetition over lack of clarity.

  10. I’m reading a novel by an extremely good writer and it has a speed bump that knocked me out. The author had the main character go north on I-10. Problem, north and south Interstates are numbered ending in odd numbers. i-10 goes east and west. This might not have stuck out in a lesser book.

    In another book, a NYT bestseller, the main character clicks off the safety on his Glock. Except, Glocks don’t have a traditional safety.

      • I-10 (which dips by 4 miles from my Tallahassee home) does TECHNICALLY go north around San Antonio for a bit. But if the writer was trucking through anywhere else, well, he’s dead meat. In my last book, I had someone driving from Morning Sun, Iowa to San Francisco. I had heard somewhere that you can do that and never leave I-80. But no way was I gonna chance it. I Google-mapped it, and even did Street View for a lot of the way so I could make it read “real” since I had never driven it. Still had one eagle-eyed reader point out a mistake I made in Wyoming. 🙂

  11. Excellent points, Jim. More and more, I find myself saying, “Oh, come on,” in books pubbed by bestselling authors who know better. Perhaps it’s the crunch of deadlines and pressure to churn out more books. But I’ve given up on several authors I used to like b/c of such sloppiness.

    About italics and internal monologue–I’ve always followed your guidelines, yet when my book came back from the editor, she had inserted “she thought” to places already italicized that were clearly internal thoughts. What’s with that? Did she really believe readers have become that dumbed down that they don’t recognize italics=internal thought. I hope not.

    It’s like adding a stop sign to an intersection where there’s already a red light.

  12. Maybe shotgun blast as short range is different? Connelly, _The Black Ice_:

    “Harry’s finger closed over the shotgun’s triggers. The double-barrel blast was deafening in the room. Moore took the brunt of it in the face, Through the smoke Bosch saw his body jerk backward into the air. His hands fled up toward the ceiling and he landed on the bed.”
    ====
    I agree with the comment that different things take different people out of the story. I wonder how much of what takes this group out is that we’re trained to see things as errors. If someone uses a form of ‘lay’ rather than ‘lie,’ it takes me out of the story (unless it’s in dialogue). Yet I doubt if that error takes more than a handful of pedants out of the story. In the double punctuation Jim mentioned, I had to look twice after he mentioned it to see it before I saw it.

    I agree about thrillis ex machina unless it’s clearly a James-Bond-type story.

    • I wonder if this shotgun trope is so ingrained now that 99.9% of readers won’t care a bit. Esp. in the heat of the action. It’s wrong … but it “works.” Author must make the choice.

      It’s like the cops who slap on the cuffs and immediately start in with, “You have the right to remain silent …” Real-world cops never do that (spontaneous statements are admissible). But TV … movies … now readers might think HEY! He didn’t read him his rights! We face the irony of the right way being seen as a mistake that takes the reader out of the story!

  13. I read a story where the female cop and her baby were trapped in her house with the bad guys coming soon. She had a chance to escape, but instead stayed behind to make sure her dogs were okay. I love dogs, but if it were them or my baby, I’d be out of there. That lack of logic was just the worst of several speed bumps in the book and was the last straw. I closed the book and forgot about it.

  14. The worst speed bump for me is too many characters in the first few chapters. I do not want to go back and find where the character came in and reread, who they are. On unabridged books on tape, too many characters in the first few chapters, you can’t go back and reread who they are, or what they did. The worst is a book on tape where all you hear is he said, she said, he said, she said over and over. That’s when it’s over for me as to listening to anything more.

  15. John Gardner, the author of GRENDEL, created the perfect analogy of writing in THE ART OF FICTION. He said that the writer creates a dream for the reader, and the writer must do nothing which wakes the reader up.

    The problem for writers is that the smallest thing like the impact of a bullet on a human may wake up some readers so it’s always smart to make everything as correct as the writer can make it.

    • In college in my Intro to Creative Writing, The Art of Fiction was the go-to text. Yes, this was eons ago before the internet. John Gardner had great tips but he was a definite snob when it came to commercial fiction. He thought literary fiction was the only way to go. I did learn a lot from him, however.

  16. Bro James:

    “There are several ways to give us the interior thoughts of a character. One of them is via italics. But the whole point of an italicized thought is so you don’t have to use a tag like she thinks or she thought.”

    Seems that there are times in a story that a reader should be given a opportunity to realize the importance of a point by slowing them a moment.

    One such time perhaps is in the situation you speak of above.

    This would be my example: Keys knew that, when the JDAM released, it would fall, unh, X number of feet per section. In one or four or six seconds, his family would die. Would die, he thought. Would die.

    Maybe I’m a little too in love with my own writing, but me just re-reading my example gives me chills. I put the action into slow motion. Already, Keys is grieving.

  17. Jim, everything you mentioned would be noticeable to me, except the way the body falls and blood lands, because I have no writing or personal experience with either. However, if I were to write such a scene, I would know enough to research these details first.

    I’ve read several books by a best-selling, traditionally published, historical mystery writer. I like the plots, characters, and historical aspects. But in one particular book, the author used a word,unfamiliar to me in two important scenes. When I looked it up, I discovered the word wasn’t in use until thirteen years later than the year the story took place. The author is British, so I double-checked in the OED. The time I spent researching this, probably only took five minutes, but I was writing a review of the book for an online review site and since the book was promoted as historical fiction, I felt obliged to include the erroneous word usage in my review. On a positive note, I learned a cool new-to-me word.

  18. I read mostly historical fiction and one thing that can throw me out of a story faster than anything is a modern reference. One author I read had an obvious allusion to Star Wars and it was annoying because I had been completely immersed in the book until then.

    And I agree with your list entirely!

  19. Here are my thoughts:

    1. Double punctuation marks shouldn’t be used in a novel, unless the double punctuation marks are part of an e-mail or text message.

    2. It’s best to avoid using attribution for italicized thoughts.

    3. I’m not a gun or blood expert; however, anything too convenient or unreasonable would throw me out of a story. If I were writing a scene that required an intimate knowledge of guns/blood and such, I’d do my homework before writing. Then I’d get the writing critiqued by people who’d be able to point out any problems with logistics.

    “Speed bumps” definitely throw me out of a story. I’m more forgiving of minor issues when a writer has an especially witty or engaging voice.

  20. I understand the occasional typo or punctuation errors. It is the misuse of grammar that will throw me out of the book completely. Any author, even a newbie, should have a grasp of grammar. If they know this is a problem for them, then they should definitely make sure that it is edited. Another thing that will make me quit reading is the huge information dump at the start of a novel. I reviewed a book for my blog once that had 64 pages of info dump with not one word of dialogue! I kept reading it to see if it improved. As you have probably already surmised, it got worse. I won’t waste my time now.

  21. There is a writer named Jefferson Smith (creativityhacker.ca) who does a blog series on speed bumps called “immerse or die.” He starts a 40 minute walk with your book on his Kindle and when he hits a speed bump (he has a coarser name for these things that break his immersion) he makes a note.

    If he hits three bumps he stops reading and writes a blog post explaining the problems. If he gets through 40 minutes he finishes your book and may include it in a promotional anthology.

    Though he has found many things that break immersion, he has found also that they fall into categories. He has a great downloadable list of his top 51 that makes a fine checklist for self editing.

    • Just for fun, I downloaded one of his free short stories called “Bodies of Evidence.” Here are a few sample phrases from the opening of his story:

      “cogs in the vast economic machinery of despotic do-baddery”
      “cackles of laughter pitched in eery harmony to the shrill warble of the electronics”
      “acrid sizzle that wafted up from the demicorpse”

      So TKZ friends, what do you think? While I appreciate the fact that this author is trying to rid the world of bad first pages, “the acrid sizzle that wafted up from the demicorpse” didn’t pass my sniff test. (Do acrid sizzles ever waft down, I wonder?)

  22. I have an opposite problem.
    I shot my MC. The shooter wasn’t a trained killer, so I showed through my MC the shooter’s surprise when MC just continued to charge at him. It ended in a disarming.
    I smelled trouble form the beginning, so I risked to slow down that action scene with MC’s thinking how this wasn’t his first caught bullet. He knew shock and pain will follow shortly, but not immediately.

    And what happened when I sent that scene to my beta readers? Of course they said it wasn’t believable – the guy should’ve fell backwards. No way he could continue. (They do read action and thrillers and suspense – I didn’t give that scene to a bunch of romance readers).

    Either way, whichever I write, I’ll get bad reviews.

    And don’t get me started on almond smell of C4 :/
    In a book 2, the same MC used a marzipan dough to trick the bad guys into thinking he had C4 with a dead man’s switch. I had to use another character, a TV writer, to laugh about it and EXPLAIN (sic) why they fell for it.

    Of course I got: But explosive DOES smell like almonds.

    Lose-lose situation.

    • I’m sorry for my typos and overall lousy English. I can’t send my every comment to my editor first.

  23. I’m an editor as well as a writer, and have a long list of speed bumps. A few:

    — The flip side of the shoulder-wound trope is that when it happens to a hero, it’s a minor inconvenience. Somehow he can shake it off long enough to keep on kicking butt. In real life, he’s done fighting for several months. (Same with “convenient” arm, leg, side and through-and-through wounds, all of which are used to minimum diminishment and maximum sympathy for the character.

    — “He shrugged his shoulders.” THERE IS NO OTHE LEGITIMATELY SHRUGGABLE BODY PART. (See also “she had a smile on her face.”)

    — Stage-managed action: “He moved to the left as she angled to the far wall and Creech dived to the opposite side near the back corner.”

    — Dialogue tags when it’s clear who’s talking.

    — Reaction beats that do nothing to develop character, deepen suspense or advance the story: “He scratched his chin as a dog barked in the distance.”

    — Physically describing characters (or worse, having characters physically describe themselves). Smart writers know that the best way to give readers a clear image of what a character looks like is to show how other characters respond to them (indifference, instant respect, fear, lust, dismissal, etc.).

    I could list twenty more like this.

  24. Agree on the punctuation. The writer must craft the scene skillfully enough (tension, etc.) to not feel a need for such a trick. Good post. I’ll be sharing it far and wide.

    In my own reading of a household-name author, I came across places where, apparently for emphasis, the writer or editor used ALL CAPS, sometimes ALL CAPS IN BOLD, and sometimes Just Bold text. Sometimes it was for something as simple as a sign that read EAT AT JOES, or a street sign that screamed YIELD.

    I couldn’t continue. I’ve read several of this author’s book and enjoyed every one until I hit this one. Ugh.

    Other show stoppers for me include the writer using “clip” when he/she means “magazine,” writing “marine” in all lowercase when speaking of a member of the US Marine Corps (it’s always capitalized) and silly, made-up acronyms, like SNE (Silent Neutralization of the Enemy). Eye roll. Come on, Dude.

  25. When I took my editing courses at Univ. of Chicago, I learned that the only time you can use multiple punctuation marks is when you are attacked while writing. Makes sense.

  26. I get that double punctuation is wrong. I wonder, though, what is the proper punctuation for a shocked question?

    “Where did you get that Rolex, Bill?”
    “I stole it.”
    “You stole it?” (no feeling of surprise or shock here).

    “Where did you get that Rolex, Bill?”
    “I stole it.”
    “You stole it!” (This sounds to me like Bill’s boasting).

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  28. Double and triple (ugh!?!) punctuation is distracting.

    Attribution assigned after the obvious is made known by italics is not so much distracting in just the every day Joe or Sally Reader; but, for the writer like you said – if you’re going for the stars then why not be aware of such things? And then, quit being lazy and owe up to it and just fix it. This is where I have a problem giving a Beta Reader who doesn’t know what to look for a portion of a manuscript only to be flambeed later by someone who does know what they’re looking for and finds “I” have made an error – OMG!?!

    Hmm? Concerning the skill of shooting and the retort and reaction of not just the shooter but also the hostage while holding the hostage and pulling off a “magic bullet” shot which finds its intended target; although it seems a head-shot would have been the object to damage, yes, does seem remarkable. I want this person on my side when we go into the field against the bad guys. Oh, she is a bad guy or bad gal.

    Sorry, on the part of the shooting ability of the trained cop – uh, yeah. Two shots with that accuracy from her left hand / OMG! I want her also to cover my back in the field.

    And then, letting the air out of the balloon with the bigger than life heroine puncturing it does exactly that – leaving the reader with ‘what just happened?’. Just sayin’/agreeing.

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