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March 6, 2018

Are Speedbumps Holding Back Your Writing?

Speedbump sign with text: Avoiding Writing Speedbumps

Every year Romance Writers of America (RWA) holds the RITA awards, a contest for the best romances released the previous year. The awards ceremony held at the RWA Annual Conference is the Oscars of the romance-writing world, complete with a black-tie dress code.

As a published author, I get to be a judge for the contest, which is always great fun for me. Two years ago, I judged one book I loved so much the author landed on my “auto buy” list, and I’ve since bought everything she’s ever released. *smile*

I’m once again judging for the RITA awards this year, and I’ve been blessed with a great selection of books in my judging packet. Every one of them has been at least very good if not perfection, and they’re all great examples of this genre I love.

Several of these books have just minor problems preventing me from awarding a perfect score. The experience got me thinking about some of the small issues that might hold back our work from being as good—or as great—as it could be.

Speedbumps Destroy Immersion

We’ve talked before about the importance of keeping readers in the story:

“Authors who keep readers immersed in the story can get away with so-so writing, and sometimes they can even get away with unlikable characters, characters who make stupid choices, lame subplots, sections with slow pacing, etc. We’ve probably all seen reviews of stories where the reader says “the writing was laughably bad, but I couldn’t stop reading.”

On some level, keeping readers immersed in the story should be our number one writing goal. Each time the reader is reminded that they’re reading a book—for whatever reason—we’re reminding them they have a choice to close the book.

Readers who are deep into the story don’t consciously think about the words on the page, much less the pages in the book. They’re right alongside our characters. Therefore, they forget they can walk away.”

Obviously, major problems—everything from plot and character issues to pacing/tension or info dump issues—will prevent readers from sinking into the story. But tiny problems can prevent story immersion as well.

Are speedbumps holding back your writing from greatness? Click To TweetIn that post mentioned above, I linked to Jefferson Smith’s first analysis of his “Immerse or Die” reading program. He found the most common problem that breaks his reading immersion is weak mechanics, such as spelling, missing words, grammar, etc.

We all know to avoid spelling errors, but other minor issues might jar readers from the story too. Even the smallest thing can act as a speedbump.

Speedbumps cause our readers to back up when confused or to look up from the page, which reminds them they’re reading words on paper or a screen and not actually living in our story world. Speedbumps break immersion.

3 Speedbumps to Avoid

There’s almost a limitless number of things that can pull readers out of our story. But let’s take a look at the issues I came across in these very-good-to-great stories that nevertheless reminded me that I was reading words on a page.

Three minor issues we might not be looking for when editing are:

#1: Dialogue Attributions

We probably all understand the potential confusion if a scene starts with unattributed dialogue. When beginning a scene, there’s no previous context to figure out who said what or why. But once a conversation gets going between characters, we still have to find the right balance.

We don’t want to use too many dialogue tags or action beats—attributing every line of dialogue—if we’re writing for adults or teens because our writing might sound repetitive and stilted. Those attributions will also get in the way of using short, punchy dialogue lines for rhythm or voice.

At the same time, we don’t want to go too long between attributions. Readers who get confused over which character is saying what will have to back up and reread to catch the flow of conversation again (reminding them that they are reading).

Most advice suggests that we should limit our writing to three unattributed dialogue paragraphs in a row:

Jerry glanced at his watch. “Sorry, Penny, I have to go.”
“Please don’t leave yet.”
“I have to.”
“But we weren’t done talking.”
“I’ll come back as soon as I can.” He kissed her cheek.

More than three, and readers might lose track, especially if the dialogue itself is fairly bland (like this example) or lacking obvious perspective, voice, or characterization differences.

In one of the books I judged, an unattributed exchange went on for seven paragraphs. Why do I know it was seven? Because I lost track of who was saying what, had to go back to figure it out, and then counted the paragraphs. Point made.

Confusion also is likely when a speaker has two dialogue paragraphs in a row. Here’s two writing techniques for that situation that can cause confusion:

  • If the dialogue continues without a break, we’re supposed to leave off the ending quotation mark on the first paragraph:
    “…And that’s why we need to consider giving Susan a raise.
    “I’m just asking you to think about it.”
    Obviously, we’d use this technique only for longer paragraphs that need to be split for readability, but it can still be confusing if the reader doesn’t notice those little marks are missing. (I don’t know about you, but I often don’t notice when I’m missing whole words in my writing because it’s harder to notice something that’s not there—especially two little squiggles.) So it’s usually best to use other characters’ dialogue or action, narration, or body language to interrupt with another paragraph and avoid this technique if we can.
  • Or sometimes the dialogue will be mixed with narrative for two paragraphs in a row:
    “I just think it’s really important.” She nibbled on her lip.
    “What do you think?” Her fingers fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve.
    Without clear attribution—or even with attribution that comes later in the paragraph rather than in the first sentence—readers are likely to assume that second paragraph is a different speaker. Yet because the author knows what they intend and doesn’t check their paragraph breaks, I see this issue all the time in books (including in some of the otherwise great published stories I judged).

In either case, when readers are confused about who’s speaking, they often have to backtrack a few sentences or paragraphs. That need to backtrack takes them out of our story, and thus is something to avoid if we can.

Also, I’ve seen both traditionally published and self-published books with these issues, so we can’t assume that our editor is aware or skilled enough to catch them. (Yet another reason why it’s good for us to learn as much writing craft as we can.)

Grammatically, these issues aren’t necessarily breaking any rules, but editing isn’t just about following “rules.” We don’t want our words to be unintentionally confusing because that interferes with the story we’re trying to tell.

#2: Ownership of Dialogue Paragraphs

Somewhat related to the first problem is the guideline that a speaker “owns” their dialogue paragraph. Just as a character’s dialogue paragraph shouldn’t include dialogue from others, we usually wouldn’t want to include action or internalization from others either.

That is, in a dialogue paragraph, any action or internalization shouldn’t come from a different character. A speaker “owns” their paragraph of dialogue, and the focus should remain on them.

I’ll be honest. I hated this guideline when I first came across it because I thought it led to too-short of paragraphs (blame my teachers for the “3 sentences to a paragraph” idea *smile*).

We often talk about cause and effect with writing, and I felt like I should include the point-of-view character’s reaction to the dialogue others said right away. So as a newbie writer, I drafted paragraphs like:

Susan’s tone turned haughty. “He doesn’t really love you, you know.” Jenna’s chest tightened at the claim. “You just think he does because he’s spending so much on gifts.”

Now I know better. Jenna’s actions don’t belong in Susan’s dialogue paragraph, and I’d divide those sentences into separate paragraphs (and flesh them out a bit if the single-line paragraph for Jenna bother me). Yet this is another issue that I see in books time and again, including in one of those otherwise great stories I judged.

Not only can it be confusing to readers, but if we mix the focus of who the paragraph is about, we also lose the ability to use action beats to attribute dialogue.

Normally, the first sentence about Susan would mean the dialogue was hers. But with Jenna’s sentence in there, that clarity is gone.

Who’s the speaker of that last line of dialogue? The rule about each speaker getting their own paragraph for dialogue would mean it’s still Susan, but do we trust the author to follow that rule when they’re ignoring this guideline about ownership? Maybe not.

#3: Dangling Threads

We’ve probably all come across stories with plot holes, when events just don’t make sense. But sometimes readers want resolutions to events that aren’t part of the plot, and if we fail to include that resolution, it can feel similar to a plot hole. Let me give an example from one of the other books I judged…

From a plot/story perspective, the hero needed a reason to realize how much he cared about the heroine, how much he didn’t want to be without her. Okay, a million events could trigger that realization, right?

In this story, the hero comes across a traffic accident and thinks about how he’d feel if it were the heroine in the car. Boom, done. That’s all we need from a story/plot perspective.

But in this story, the author decided to make the accident victim someone the hero knew and who was important to several minor characters. (Readers only knew of the victim-character. They were never on the page.)

Was it important to the plot whether the victim lived or died? Absolutely not. Was it important to the story? Not really.

The detail wouldn’t change a thing. So technically, not revealing the result (even though months pass in the story and those minor characters who would really care show up again later) isn’t a plot hole…exactly.

But it still felt like one to me because I knew these characters would want to know, so I wanted to know. I even searched on the victim’s name to see if I missed something, and that definitely interrupted the sense of story. *smile*

When things are important to our characters, they’re important to readers—even if it makes no difference plot-wise.

While we may be on the hunt for plot holes in our story, we might not think about the smaller details. Does that minor character ever escape her abusive boyfriend? Does that lost dog the neighbor kid was looking for ever make it home? Does that coworker we watched get fired ever find a new job?

Even if they have no bearing on the story we’re trying to tell, we might want to add a sentence or two with an updated result. If the question was important to our character, we’ve made it important to our readers. We don’t want to accidentally leave them hanging (and perhaps frustrated with our story).

Bonus: Cause and Effect

As a bonus, a fourth issue I frequently see—and have already written about—is mixing up cause and effect in our sentences. This speedbump messes with the flow of time and storytelling for readers, which can also make them back up and reread for clarity.

The issues I mention above might seem small and nitpicky, but their size doesn’t matter if they’re pulling readers out of our story. The effect—readers are no longer immersed in our story—is the same. So we want to avoid these issues just as much as the big ones.

It’s easy to keep the big and obvious problems in mind when editing our story—the plot holes, the character arcs, the misspelled words. But sometimes it’s the small things that can hold back our book from being truly great. *smile*

When you feel pulled out of a book, are small issues sometimes to blame? What minor issues have pulled you out of a story? Have you run into any of these speedbumps? Can you think of other speedbumps? How do you try to avoid speedbumps in your writing?

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[…] break paragraphs for clarity of speaker or action (identify who “owns” each paragraph) […]

Julie Glover

Hmm, that last one is making me think. A friend recently read my novel and wanted to know the resolution of a minor detail. Me? I didn’t care because its complete resolution is not relevant. But it bothered the reader that an open question didn’t get answered. Maybe I should just slide in the answer (which I now have to figure out, because I don’t even know for sure) to satisfy the reader.

Deborah Makarios

I’ve found that having my husband read the book aloud is a great way to check for things like dialogue tags – because if they aren’t clear, he doesn’t know what voice to use! It’s surprising how many published books (some by very successful authors) fail to pass the read-aloud test.

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Deborah, my husband and I used to sit down and follow all the “blocking” tags — sitting, standing, moving, body shifts, etc. — for an entire scene. I know now that kind of editing should be in the final draft stage, rather than in the writing stage as I was then. It’s very annoying to me, when a character stands up, and my first thought is, “Wait, when did they sit down?”, rather than on the story itself.

Deborah Makarios

Yeah, that’s a real pain, isn’t it! And then you’re scanning back through the last few pages trying to figure out what you missed, and you’re completely out of the story.
Changing what name you use for your characters can be confusing too – I read a book once (the first chapter of it, anyway), which referred to the main character in three or four different ways in as many paragraphs. Including as “the man” and I’m sitting there thinking what man? Who said there was a man? When did he show up? Oh – it’s MC! Unreadable.

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

That is precisely why I had to give up one author I loved who had 3 or 4 names for each character. This author would also change location, time, POV but not tell the reader WHICH POV. Is this the POV of the good guys or the bad guys? Argh!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks. Poor spelling, grammar and apostrophe use will do this every time. Also crawling its.

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Jami, Another golden post! I am teased frequently for being so obnoxious about grammar gaffes and spelling slips. The missing word thing happens WAY too often, even in books which have been published with a larger publishing house. We just came across a book, published by the SF imprint of one of the Big 5, with TWO errors on the back cover. The BACK COVER!!!! It pretty much sealed the deal for me — I’ll either publish through a smaller press or on my own. It seems to me that the “mechanics” of storytelling — grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. — are the biggest reasons people get fed up with books. So why are books, published by Big 5 PHs, coming out with so many problems? What does a Big 5 PH really offer us, if they accept anything an established (and selling!) author writes, without giving it the same critical look that a new author would get? The frequency of these mistakes has escalated, the quality of the writing has deteriorated and ebooks by Big 5 PHs are routinely $10 or more! Frankly? I’d rather pay less and give a new-to-me author a chance to win my loyalty. One final note on formatting — I’ve noticed that EPUB books don’t always look ‘right’ on my phone’s e-reader (FBReader Pro). Is there a good resource for those of us still learning, to use for checking that our EPUB (or other digital format) is “right” and that any issues are with the…  — Read More »

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Ooh, I especially like your point on not forgetting about the minor characters!

One speed bump that I complain about a lot, is when the author uses too many pronouns (he, she, they, it, this, that, etc.) that have no clear referent, so I feel frustrated that I’m not sure who or what the author is talking about. On “this,” “that,” and “it,” the author sometimes assumes that the reader will know what thing or situation this pronoun is pointing to. But there have been so many times when I was left confused about what “this/ that/ it” was referring to. 🙁

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[…] need to combine many craft elements to write a captivating story. Jami Gold has speedbumps that can hold back your writing, K.M. Weiland shows how to spot and avoid self-indulgent writing, Piper Bayard reveals how to write […]

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[…] to break paragraphs for clarity of speaker or action (identify who “owns” each […]

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[…] I wasn’t seriously hoping to final in that contest because it is so big (2000 entries!). Every entry I read as a judge was somewhere between very good and nearly perfect, and not a one of those stories I loved finaled […]

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