Story Stoppers

Craft question of the day:

What stylistic error or other writerly sin is guaranteed to jolt you out of a story?

For me, a big one is when a first-person narrator’s language or observations don’t seem to match who the character is supposed to be.

The child narrator of Emma Donaghue’s The Room, for example, is supposed to be a normal 5-year-old (or as normal as a child raised in a garden shed can be). But one minute he’s using the sentence structure and vocabulary of a 2-year-old, and the next he’s using complex metaphors and concepts far beyond his age. Ultimately the narration became such an artificial device that I couldn’t forget myself in the story.

Another big one is plausibility. The narrator of S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep has a memory condition wherein she forgets everything that transpired during the day once she falls asleep. She’s figured out how to keep a secret journal for herself–but as the days pass, the cumulative entries of that diary have grown so ridiculously long that it’s simply impossible for her to have time to do anything before sleeping except read the journal! Gripped though I was by the premise, ultimately I couldn’t believe in the sequence of events anymore.

What are your story-stoppers?


Story Stoppers — 5 Comments

  1. Interesting question.

    Prattling on about things that don’t matter to the story slides me into skimming mode. I’m sure that’s a pretty common behavior. My definition of prattling on is when a page or two has gone by discussing things or describing scenery that will obviously have no turn in the events. (Of course, I never do that in MY writing…)

    Political lecturing is another killer for me. Go ahead, make your political point in a paragraph or two, but not over and over, and not for pages.

    Disappointment in a character is deadly. This is akin to your complaint about characters not staying true to type. A hero that bumbles along and is either not given the opportunity to be a hero, or when given the opportunity acts in a mediocre way–Bad.

  2. Excessive effort at creating an accent that makes the text nearly unreadable will not only throw me out of a story, I will generally put it down and read something else. I have far more things to read than I have time to read them, and I’m not likely to waste precious minutes trying to make sense of incomprehensible dialogue.

    Similarly, over-complex sentences that require the reader to slow down and parse them carefully in order to understand them turn me off. (If it’s a scholarly text, which I expect it to be dense and painful, I will continue to read it because I don’t really have any choice.) For pleasure reading, if I need to read a sentence more than once to understand it, I will generally choose not to read it at all.

  3. I read both the books you gave as examples and I share your assessment. Yet both authors excelled inmany areas so my reaction was that they were both good bit not great books.

    I am also in agreement with the previous commenters that pages of dull material or lack of plot development will put me off every time. In fact, that is the main reason I put books down, never to reopen is that I am bored. Usually, I give the book a chance if the story and or characters engaged me inthe beginning, but wandered off the track at the midway point. I resort to skimming for as long as I can take it, sometimes all the way to end if I am really curious to know Who Did It to what the McGuffin was.

    The top style element that jolts me from a story, as opposed to slowly creeping boredom, is the use of cliches. I can pass a couple mild cliches, in fact, some are nearly invisible, but the heavy use of purple adjectives or overused metaphors will stop me. Quickly. This is why I can’t read most category Romance. Too many flashing green eyes and flaming red curled cascading throughout to hold my interest.

  4. Maggie, good point on the plot issue. We are at our RV this weekend, and I forgot to bring a book with me other than books for work. I didn’t want to work the ENTIRE holiday weekend, so my wife gave me a “thriller” she’d recently finished. I wasn’t thrilled.

    The tissue-thin plot was like a re-work of every thriller movie I’ve ever seen. I got through a chapter, skimmed a few more chapters, then skipped to the ending, which was so predictable I didn’t bother to finish it. Yuk. I can’t believe some of the stuff that gets published.

  5. Being about to care about the character in the first 10 pages is crucial for me to get into the story. While this is not a stylistic issue, it does determine if I put the book down or not. The main character has to be involved in something interesting for me to move on past the first chapter. If I get past the first few chapters, I usually finish the book.