Playing Fair With Your Readers

This Guest Post was written by Brenda Gates Spielman

Have you ever been reading a book and been jarred out of the story because a character does something which leaves you thinking “That is just stupid”?

I had a moment like that when reading a cozy mystery a few years ago. One of the characters, supposedly intelligent, provides the amateur sleuth with a key clue, and more or less says, “Maybe this is important, but I didn’t tell the police when they intervened me”.

The jarring note was the complete lack of explanation as to why this intelligent law-abiding man didn’t share the information with the police. Of course, the real reason was to stack the deck so the amateur sleuth could solve the mystery—but it was so poorly motivated, well, not motivated at all—that it pulled me right out of the story.

It’s not a problem if your characters do something stupid; in fact, I suspect a storyline where everyone acted intelligently and logically would be boring—but when they do act stupid, it needs to be properly motivated so that your reader believes this character could indeed act in that way. This keeps your reader in the story.

Any good story needs the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief (as first coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817) to a lesser or a greater extent. Fantasy and Science Fiction need it even more than other genres, because they are asking the reader to be willing to believe in magic and wormholes; but to preserve it, the storyline needs to be internally consistent. Otherwise, the reader is distracted from the story thinking “Why did he do that”.

So when pirates force the fantasy hero to walk the plank in Chapter 20, and he is saved from drowning by his dormant gills, then you had better have brought up the rumor of his mermaid grandmother in the beginning of the book.

This guest post was written by Brenda Gates Spielman

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