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51 things that break a reader's immersion

Switch Blayde

When we talk "show don't tell" I frequently say I want to be immersed in the story. I want to live it through the characters. Well here's an article that talks about 51 things that break a reader's immersion. Don't worry, it's not a "show don't tell" discussion.

The author says:

Now, I'm not a monster. I don't close the book on the very first misplaced comma. It has to be something that actually distracts me from the illusion that I'm inside the story world, watching the events unfold. And I don't just stop at one, either. I tally up three such immersion breaks before I pull the plug. Then I do my best to explain why it broke my concentration.

As many readers have been quick to point out, it's important to remember that these are only the issues that I myself have reacted to, and I am well aware that in this IOD series, I am a harsher critic than most readers are likely to be. But I have another class of correspondents who tell me that they trip over exactly the same issues I do, and many writers will want to take note here, because these correspondents tend to be submission editors, slush pile readers, and professional critics-the very gate-keepers of the publishing industry who writers are trying to impress. So if you want to run a quick "polish test" before you submit your own work somewhere, I hope you'll find this list a helpful guide.


Anyway, I thought you might be interested in it, especially because he gives specific examples. Here's the article:

http://creativityhacker.ca/2015/12/01/51-things-that-break-reader-immersion/

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

As many readers have been quick to point out, it's important to remember that these are only the issues that I myself have reacted to, and I am well aware that in this IOD series, I am a harsher critic than most readers are likely to be.


I don't have time right this minute, but I probably will take the time to go through this. The part I've quoted tells me he is taking a far more reasonable tone than most of the people you have cited.

Crumbly Writer

The 51 reasons, rather than being laid out from the most onerous or numerous, are simply a mismatched jumble of issues which may or may not apply to any particular author. Were all these authors of the same calibre, or were some absolute crappy writers while others only had a few relatively minor issues?

I was also bothered that his defense of his approach is that "my readers (of my blog) consist of the 'industry gate keepers'. For those of us who aren't dedicated to winning a publishing contract, why should we care what these 'caretakers' think? It's one thing to say the stories weren't well-written, but he defends that statement by saying "The only people who count agree with me", which doesn't address the issue at all.

Again, I'll have to examine it in more detail later. The information is so disjointed, it'll take a while to make sense of (other problem with bad authors!).

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

For those of us who aren't dedicated to winning a publishing contract, why should we care what these 'caretakers' think?


Because like it or not, those gatekeepers know what they're talking about. It's their business. They deal with it day in and day out. And they are judged by the sales of the books they approve so they know what sells and what doesn't. Are they right 100% of the time? Of course not.

sejintenej

@Crumbly Writer

The 51 reasons, rather than being laid out from the most onerous or numerous, are simply a mismatched jumble of issues which may or may not apply to any particular author

Jumbled? He tried to put common faults into groups of similar faults - for example those relating principally to science fiction type stories (I disagreed with some of those because it is common to sci fi that things happen which are outside the human/scientific "norm" at this time.

On top of that he starts by saying that one WTF is not going to throw him - it needs three different ones (but by implication it could be any three of the entire 51).

Should you take notice of what these 'caretakers' think? Surely you would like readers to continue reading after the first screen; he is simply giving you a list of conditions more likely to cause readers to simply stop reading and give you a "one". There is nothing to stop you a) deciding that he is wrong about certain WTF events and b) adding your own WTF events

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


And they are judged by the sales of the books they approve so they know what sells and what doesn't.


But that is no basis at all to say that things that they don't approve wouldn't sell.


Are they right 100% of the time? Of course not.


There are two basic types of errors.

Type 1 errors are false positives. Type 1 errors by the publishing industry gatekeepers are easy to measure and fairly low.

However, a low type 1 error rate by itself, doesn't prove that they know what they are talking about with a lot of the issues we have been talking about (dialog tags, show don't tell, most of the types of issues in the article you linked to here).

For that we need to look at type 2 errors as well.

A type 2 error is a false negative. For the publishing industry, type 2 errors would be books that have been rejected that would have done well if they had been published.

Unfortunately there is no way to measure their rate of type 2 errors. They could have a type 1 error rate of just 0.01%, but if the type 2 error rate is high, above 50%, then no, they don't know what the fuck they are talking about.

ETA: There is no way to measure the type 2 error rate, it could be as high as 99% or as low as 1%, we have no way of knowing. However, personally, I think it's unlikely to be lower than 10% and possibly quite a bit higher. No one in the publishing industry has ever lost their job for rejecting a book.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Dominions Son
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

I've had time to read it now and I think 43-45 out of his 51 items are highly subjective, so subject as to be of marginal usefulness.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Because like it or not, those gatekeepers know what they're talking about. It's their business. They deal with it day in and day out. And they are judged by the sales of the books they approve so they know what sells and what doesn't. Are they right 100% of the time? Of course not.

I wouldn't object if he'd phrased it that way, (ex. "these books don't sell, as others confirm"), instead he addressed it as "If you're an author, you do what we tell you, no questions asked".

By the way, the number of misses the publishing houses make are legendary--are that only includes the phenomenal successes they passed on--not the many rejected which were never seen again. The gatekeepers of the publishing houses enforce the rules, more than they look for creativity. With so much junk to wade through, with little personnel support, they're simply looking for excuses to toss material rather than read it. Not strictly following a style guide allows them to bypass a large amount of books.

@sejintenej

Jumbled? He tried to put common faults into groups of similar faults - for example those relating principally to science fiction type stories.

My objection isn't the categorization, it's that he listed the categories without showing examples. You can picture much of what he infers, but he never states any of his writing objections.

I'm not dismissing his advice, just the way he expresses his ideas--which is essentially how writers communicate their stories.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Switch Blayde

@Dominions Son

Unfortunately there is no way to measure their rate of type 2 errors.


When I worked for American Express, Credit Scoring was new. We built a credit scoring system to help the New Accounts analysts determine whether they should approve an application for the card.

A lot of what the credit scoring system came up with, based on historical statistics, went against their beliefs. But they were told to follow it. I suggested they approve some applications that the system said not to and monitor them. That way they could prove your "type 2 errors." They thought I was crazy for suggesting that.

The publishing industry can prove their type 2 errors sometimes. Harry Potter proved they were wrong. Also the founder of Elora's Cave. Her novels were rejected so she sold them through her own site. It was a big success so the publishers admitted they were wrong and offered her contracts. Some of the self-publishing successes might have started out as traditional publishing rejects. And of course some of the books the trad publishers publish might fail.

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

My objection isn't the categorization, it's that he listed the categories without showing examples.


Actually each was accompanied by a link to a book review (on the same site) where the book reviewer was calling out an example of that item. He could have been clearer though because each review pointed out multiple problems and only one was relevant to the item for which it was used.

Dominions Son
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


The publishing industry can prove their type 2 errors sometimes.


What's important for this discussion is the over all rate of type 2 errors.

Isolated individual cases of known type 2 errors prove nothing useful to the discussion.


And of course some of the books the trad publishers publish might fail.


That's a type 1 error, not a type 2 error.

ETA: I will say this again. Type 1 errors and type 2 errors are very different in both form and causes. If the trad(as you put it) publishers have a high type 2 error rate no, they do not know what they are talking about.

Dominions Son

@sejintenej

Surely you would like readers to continue reading after the first screen; he is simply giving you a list of conditions more likely to cause readers to simply stop reading and give you a "one".


Except that most of the 51 are highly subjective. a single example of something that might give one reader a WTF moment might go completely unnoticed by 10 others.

Things that are subjective are not particularly useful for an author to use to evaluate his own work.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

And of course some of the books the trad publishers publish might fail.

From what I've observed, the majority do. The few phenomenal successes underwrite all the failures they don't bother to promote.

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

The few phenomenal successes underwrite all the failures they don't bother to promote.


Which brings up a chicken/egg question. Do they not promote them because they expect them to fail? I so, why publish them at all. Or, more likely they are failures because the publishers don't bother to promote them.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

From what I've observed, the majority do. The few phenomenal successes underwrite all the failures they don't bother to promote.


You need to understand the publisher's definition of failure. I once heard it was if the money they invested wasn't returned in the first 6 weeks. So a novel that ultimately did well over time would still be considered a failure using their metrics.

Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Which brings up a chicken/egg question. Do they not promote them because they expect them to fail? I so, why publish them at all. Or, more likely they are failures because the publishers don't bother to promote them.

I think it's more like a chicken shoot. You release an entire flock and let the participants (readers) blast away. Some will get lucky, but most won't get close. The publishers release thousands of books, only promoting those they know will be big sellers, hoping the others might achieve some moderate success.

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

I think it's more like a chicken shoot. You release an entire flock and let the participants (readers) blast away. Some will get lucky, but most won't get close.


For me, that kind of approach is counter to the notion that they have some great expertise about what does or doesn't work in a book.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

For me, that kind of approach is counter to the notion that they have some great expertise about what does or doesn't work in a book.

Which was my point. They bet the farm on a few 'key' books, which don't always live up to the hype, while they underplay a whole array of tremendous books, which never really get a fair hearing.

It's certainly not an ideal situation, but I don't see any better ones on the horizon. Indie publishing opens the door to everyone, but it requires a certain expertise in social media, otherwise it's an empty promise.

Replies:   docholladay
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

I think it's more like a chicken shoot. You release an entire flock and let the participants (readers) blast away. Some will get lucky, but most won't get close. The publishers release thousands of books, only promoting those they know will be big sellers


I don't think a publisher releases thousands of books. Only a few each year. The process is very slow and laborious. And it costs a lot to produce each book.

The Acquisition Editor's job depends on her successes and failures. I don't think they consider it a crap shoot.

But this thread wasn't about publishing. It's about what to look out for to make your story better.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I don't think a publisher releases thousands of books. Only a few each year. The process is very slow and laborious. And it costs a lot to produce each book.

Hell, Switch. I publish a "few [books] each year". The mainstream publishers don't exactly publish thousands (I was speaking collectively), but most churn out hundreds (at least a hundred, and a few several hundred). Have you examined their recent catalogs?

As for the thread, drifts always accumulate in shallow depressions, the NE's recent storms should remind everyone of that. 'D

docholladay

@Crumbly Writer

Which was my point. They bet the farm on a few 'key' books, which don't always live up to the hype, while they underplay a whole array of tremendous books, which never really get a fair hearing.


The publishers do that and also push certain genres by giving better commission rates for the genre. Then unless the individual store outlet does their own stocking and rotation of merchandise the distributor does it. So guess which genre the distributor will stock for the store. Problem for the stores is that after a certain number of days those books can no longer be returned for credit. So the store either is stuck into a sell it or eat it situation.

Sure the so-called top 10 list will be stocked, but outside of that the majority will be the merchandise the distributor gets the biggest commission for.

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

It's about what to look out for to make your story better.


But that is predicated on an appeal to authority. Critical examination of that authority's qualifications is not exactly off topic.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

It's about what to look out for to make your story better.


And the definition of What's better varies from blogger to blogger, from editor to editor. There is no universal definition of what a great story is or what all publishers want. That's also the Fun of the Fair, and you have to be in the game to play it.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

And the definition of What's better varies from blogger to blogger, from editor to editor.

That's why I've always said, most books/articles on writing all boil down to "write like I do, otherwise you'll never succeed". It's why I've stopped reading writing magazines. I prefer seeing how people write, and hearing about how authors approach problems, rather than some author lecturing me on why he got lucky.

Perv Otaku

Well, at least the list is short in the sense that there isn't a paragraph for each of the 51 items.

Anything that goes to 51 items is just a list of general "bad writing" gripes though. So many of his issues were obvious things.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Perv Otaku

So many of his issues were obvious things.


Obvious only if you know it.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


Obvious only if you know it.


That was my point. If they're common mistakes, I'd prefer a shorter list which details the mistakes, rather than a list of everything which pisses off one particular reader. This article wasn't so much an instructive discussion as it's a 'these are all the things I hate' diatribe. In short, I didn't learn a lot from it. I learn more from examples than I do lectures or a list of bullet points.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

That was my point. If they're common mistakes, I'd prefer a shorter list which details the mistakes, rather than a list of everything which pisses off one particular reader. This article wasn't so much an instructive discussion as it's a 'these are all the things I hate' diatribe. In short, I didn't learn a lot from it.


Not what pisses of a particular reader. It's a list of faults that make a story bad. And not only his opinion, but the opinion of those "in the know."

I didn't see much that I didn't agree with as errors people make. Some seem like common sense, but to those who don't know about them, they can learn from it.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Not what pisses of a particular reader. It's a list of faults that make a story bad. And not only his opinion, but the opinion of those "in the know."

I'm not objecting to his list of problem areas, what I object to is the 'category list' he delivers. Even his 'check out this review for more detail' doesn't provide much additional information. Instead all you're left with is 'these are 52 random things that bother me, and a bunch of other people agree with my list'.

As usual, I prefer discussing details about techniques, rather than dictates delivered from on high, as I find those largely meaningless.

I can understand his objections, but other than agreeing with his list, I'm not sure where to take it from there.

Chris Podhola

I took the time to read through the article and the advice seems pretty sound to me. It also looks like he offers further links for each 'flag', so I think there is quite a bit of learning material here for anyone ambitious enough to take the time to study further.

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej

@Chris Podhola

I took the time to read through the article and the advice seems pretty sound to me.

I agree with Chris. If you look at the first five items they are about confusing the reader or inserting ambiguities.
I just read a sentence along the lines of two hotel rooms being allocated to Tom and Dick and Harry and me. My immediate question was "who will be watching my girlfriend visitor and me tonight or have I got a room to myself?" Something like that interrupts the flow of reading and too many of those will become frustration.

The author mentions "Also called "word recycling." Repeated use of a conspicuous or unusual word." which has been the subject of many many posts in this forum.

The list is simply one of known writing problems which, with enough repetition, will cause the reader to abandon the story though different readers will be allergic to different "faults". That does not mean that an author cannot include some of these but should be aware and careful.

Ernest Bywater

A couple of comments on the article:

- They're his thoughts on how he felt reading 204 books over 6 months.

- A couple of the items mentioned seem to be the same thing said in different ways; like Confusing word choice and Awkward Prose it's hard to get one without the other and Ambiguous prose seems to fit right in there as the same thing as well. He also talks about over using the same word a few times, but says it in a different way - it's like he's padding the list.

- He doesn't offer real answers to the issues. In one he goes on about not enough details, then later goes on about too many details, with nothing offered about what is the right level of detail.

- Most of what does say that makes sense is all stuff I was told about watching out for in good writing when I was in high school back in the late 1960s. The fact he's making an issue of them now makes me wonder about the quality of the teaching on how to write today.

Chris Podhola

@Ernest Bywater

If you take the time to follow up on each topic he presents by clicking on the review of the books he references in regard to each 'flag' you get a thorough explanation of what he's talking about.

I guess it's possible to disagree with his points, but his points are thoroughly discussed and exemplified.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Chris Podhola

If you take the time to follow up on each topic he presents by clicking on the review of the books he references in regard to each 'flag' you get a thorough explanation of what he's talking about.


Chris, in the linked article above he says, "Here's a lot of common errors," but then only links to one incident of those errors - most of which are things I was told to watch for in high school in what they call year 8 now. However, overall, I was left with a feeling he's pushing to get more people to read his earlier blog entries on the books he mentions.

If the only way to get a clear understanding of what he's talking about is to follow the links, then he's guilty of his own complaint of not enough clarity in what he's saying. The point made should be clear in the original and not require the referenced work to be understood.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

If the only way to get a clear understanding of what he's talking about is to follow the links, then he's guilty of his own complaint of not enough clarity in what he's saying. The point made should be clear in the original and not require the referenced work to be understood.


Totally disagree.

It's much clearer the way he did it. He didn't muddle up each item with extensive examples. The reader gets to choose where he wants to drill down.

I didn't have to look at any of the examples to know what he was talking about. But if I wasn't sure of one, then I could look at the detail. To have that detail with every point would make it unreadable.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

I didn't have to look at any of the examples to know what he was talking about.


Neither did I have an issue with understanding what he was saying, but Chris' post implied you had to drill down to get a full understanding, which is why I used the word If at the start of that quote of mine. And my last post was in reply to Chris' one.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Switch Blayde

Totally disagree.

It's much clearer the way he did it. He didn't muddle up each item with extensive examples. The reader gets to choose where he wants to drill down.


I was going to say the same thing, but you beat me to it. The way he went about it was fine.

Chris Podhola

@Ernest Bywater

Chris' post implied you had to drill down to get a full understanding,


No ... Chris's post implied that you COULD drill deeper down if you wanted or needed further information.

Capt Zapp

@Ernest Bywater

the quality of the teaching on how to write today.


I don't know for a fact, but it seems 'education' now means cramming the students full of what is needed to pass a 'standardized test', not on how to get through life. What good is a good 'test' score if you can't even write clearly?

Replies:   richardshagrin
Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

He doesn't offer real answers to the issues. In one he goes on about not enough details, then later goes on about too many details, with nothing offered about what is the right level of detail.


There are no answers to these issues, they are far too subjective.

Take "confusing word choice" for example. What is confusing to some readers might seem perfectly clear to others.

richardshagrin

@Capt Zapp

Teachers get graded on how well their students do on standardized tests. Their employment and raises and possible promotions depend on how well their students do. And administrators get graded on how the students in their school or schools do compared to other schools and school districts.

You get what you inspect, not what you expect. If writing clearly had some financial or security for the teacher impact, likely students would be taught to write clearly. Since standardized tests tend to be machine scored multiple guess questions, writing clearly has no impact at all on test scores, or rewards for teachers, or for students for that matter. Who needs to write clearly in their profession? Maybe journalists, but that is a dying profession. Would you recommend to a child whose long term income depended on what profession he or she studied for to major in Journalism? Maybe Broadcasting, but even that is getting past its sell date. Nobody wants to be Walter Cronkite these days. Advertising may still have a financially secure future, but not much success in advertising depends on being able to write clearly.

Perhaps schools should teach how to lie convincingly.

Replies:   Capt Zapp
Capt Zapp

@richardshagrin

Perhaps schools should teach how to lie convincingly.


That would definitely get them ready for a career in politics! ;)

sejintenej
Updated:

I'm wondering whether this discussion is not too overboard. It has made me notice far more errors such as:

"I made my agents breakfast" (surely there should be either a ' or "into" between agents and breakfast?) and two lines later

"I ended up making them all omelettes" (there are two errors here; a) this author makes a lot of omelets so why does he/she change the spelling? and b) he could either end up making omelettes (my spelling) FOR all of them or again he could make them into omelettes.

shortly afterwards we find:

"the different affects you could achieve with lighting" (wrong noun - affect is only a verb but effect (the correct word here) is both noun and occasionally a verb)

This is in one page of one chapter by an author and in a story I like very much so in fact all these errors don't faze me.
He/she also gives tribute to not one but four editors and a proofreader!

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