Breaking the Continuous Dream
As discussed in the previous post, the writer’s job is to create a continuous dream for his readers. When he can’t, the reader is confused or bored or will abandon the reading. The breaking of this dream often consists of inadvertent slips by the writer—ones which are eminently avoidable.
Here are some ways writers can break the continuous dream for readers:
Implausibility in plot
If the reader ever thinks anything like “He wouldn’t do that,” or “That wouldn’t happen,” or “How did she get there?,” you’ve pulled the reader out of your world by making him skeptical of events in the novel. The detective who just happens to be in the right place to catch the murderer, the heroine who overcomes using a power the reader didn’t know she had, the lightning which luckily hits the secret cache—all of these can make the reader pull her head figuratively out of the continuous dream enough to have a moment of doubt, confusion, or disbelief.
By erratic, I don’t mean ‘runs around a lot’ or even crazy. Rather, I mean characters who suddenly become different people in the middle of the novel, usually because the writer needs them to do something uncharacteristic to move the plot along. The loving devoted father who suddenly slaps his son so hard he crashes into the secret room; the villain who frees the hero in a sudden rush of sentiment (thus allowing the hero to live on for a sequel); the taciturn and sulky teen who suddenly breaks into a peon of love for his would-be significant other.
I don’t mean to suggest that none of the above could happen, but you’ve at least got to give the readers enough clues to this surprising aspect of the character that they don’t get confused about who the character is. If it comes out of the blue, it breaks the continuous dream.
I once read a mystery novel where a psychologist, a biker and a model were talking (don’t ask how that happened—another example of breaking the continuous dream). I suddenly realized that I couldn’t tell who was saying what unless the author tagged the dialog with a name. They all used the same kind of vocabulary, had similar insights on the world, and spoke in beautifully formed sentences. I don’t think so.
You don’t have to stereotype your characters but you do have to be aware that how they say something can be as important as what they say.
Otherwise, you again pop the continuous dream.
Grammar and other stuff
I know, totally boring. But if the reader starts to think, “Shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?,’” or “Which ‘he’ are we talking about? Jordan, Guy, Allan?” or “Is that the right spelling?,” you’ve lost them. They’re thinking about the mechanics of the work and not where you are hoping to drive to (dangling participles also a problem but I like them).
Keeping a continuous dream is not the same as magic
Dodging these pitfalls can up the chances of your reader remaining in the continuous dream. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that doing this conscientiously is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, to great writing. This is where craft, practice, and magic come in. It’s one of those unfair things—if you commit these errors, you and your reader pay for it. But avoiding them doesn’t guarantee an enthralling narrative. Sorry to have to break this to you (pun intended—breaking your continuous dream—might not be a pun if I have to explain it. Sorry).