Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Pulls You Out of a Story?

As a reader, how often have you heard or said it? "The (language, verb tense, factual error, irritating character, clear evidence the author knows beans about Dallas) pulled me out of the story." We probably all have, and being pulled out of the story can of course be disappointing and may even make us put the book down for good. But is being pulled out of the story always bad? I think not.

You know what pulls me out of the story in a good way? Beautiful language. Just the right verb or noun, or an original metaphor or simile that just nails a comparison top the list. I leave the story's world momentarily to think, Oh my, that is gorgeous; that's the kind of thing I want to do; this is a good writer and in the next instant plunge back in all the more eagerly. Some readers, it lately seems to me, want nothing less than full immersion in the storyline itself from first page to last. But is that realistic, and it is the truth about the reading experience? I believe reading is interactive. Different parts of my brain, heart and spirit are engaged in different ways as the story unfolds. At times I dive deep and almost forget myself; at other times I ascend a bit (trying to imagine myself in the character's situation, say); at other times I come to the surface to ponder something for a minute or say, "Oh man, that's a great phrase," and then dive again, all the more excited about the story precisely because the good writing has penetrated my consciousness.

Yet, too much pulling out of the story interferes with formation of the "I'm part of this world" experience that can catapult a story to favorite status among readers. Being pulled out due to less-than-skillful writing, whether it's the choice of present tense when the story seems not served by it, a violation of the reader's suspension of disbelief, factual bloopers, or clunky language, is obviously worse than being pulled out for a neutral or positive reason. I'm reading a novel now that I don't want to identify because this post isn't an actual review of that title. It placed in recent award competition and for good reason: The story is engaging and original, and the book has considerably more strengths than weaknesses. I'm very interested in what happens next. But...you guessed it. Phrases such as "She had glossy black hair with pink cheeks" pull me out of the story. Her hair has pink cheeks? "Their silver armor reflecting in the hot sun..." Naw, either the armor reflects the sun or the sun reflects off the armor, but the armor doesn't reflect in the sun. Glinting would be a better verb. "Everything about her seemed finer and more delicate than the average person"? Nope, compare traits to traits, not traits to people. And at risk of being really picky: "'Go away,' __ thundered, in a voice that even made __ quake." The sort-of-lazy ways we talk shouldn't make it into our third-person narrative. The placement of that little word "even" affects meaning. "Even made __ quake" means the voice made __ do several things, of which quaking was the extreme. What the author meant was "made even __ quake," which means __ was the least likely of those present to quake, yet she did. As I said, I'm still reading and I'll read to the end with interest. But I'm not one who can just read for plot; in fact, reading just for plot pulls me out of the story. Top-notch writing, meaning in this case the stellar use of language, may pull me out for a moment to gaze at its beauty, yet that's the very thing that keeps me most happily immersed for the long haul.

How about you? What pulls you out of a story? Is that always a negative experience for you? Or do you think it can be good, even part-and-parcel of what it means to read a story?

19 comments:

Bish Denham said...

Excellent post! Sentences, like those you described, draw me out of a story. So do glaring contradictions. Sometimes its a little thing. Recently I read a book where there was a very detailed fight happening with a monster in the middle of the night. All I could think about was...how is anyone able to see what's going on?

Anna said...

Marcia, I know exactly what you mean about being pulled out of the story for good reasons. When I was reading BEFORE I FALL recently, there were a couple of times when I stopped because the sentence I'd read was just so GOOD. But I find that if the writing calls too much attention to itself, if it tries too hard to be good, that can also get distracting. For example, I love THE BOOK THIEF, but I've heard several people remark on the fact that they couldn't stand to read "one more beautiful sentence!" I guess it comes down to balance.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Great post, Marcia. For me it's language--a stop-in-your-tracks sentence. It both pulls me out because it's so perfect, so stunning. But it also makes me want to read more, to see what else the writer is going to surprise me with.

Corinne said...

Awesome post Marcia,

I find unrealistic dialog can be a deal breaker for me as can an abundance of overly flowery descriptions that can begin to feel forced. Like Anna said - you need to have balance with that kind of writing.

I think I measure my most favorite books by how often I am pulled out for good reasons by the lovely phrase, an amazingly perfect sentence, and the perfect and concise original metaphor.

Vijaya said...

It's funny that when I say I get pulled out of a story, it's usually in a negative way -- clunky writing, strange comparisons, etc.

But you're right that extremely beautiful writing also pulls me out ... so much so that I have to go get a highlighter or pen and scribble in the margins. But this does not annoy me. I like going back and re-reading the passage. This is why I re-read my favorite books.

Marcia said...

Bish -- I think light issues are easy to trip up on! Anything that you can't just quite believe is a story-puller-outer. :)

Anna -- Very interesting comment about The Book Thief. I couldn't read it because I just couldn't get into Death as the narrator, so it's not so much I got pulled out as I never got drawn in.

Andrea -- 100% agree!

Corinne -- Exactly. If every sentence is a "beautiful" sentence, the writing seems too -- thick, or something. My criteria for a favorite book is a lot like yours.

Vijaya -- I LOVE talking to books in the margins! I do it more with nonfiction, but there are definitely novels that reward pen-and-highlighter study.

Mary Witzl said...

So much in this post resonated with me. I get pulled out of a story by many things too. Unexpected empathy, beautiful writing, great humor, powerful descriptions, really apt metaphors -- all of those things make me deliciously conscious of the fact that I'm reading, but I don't mind that at all. Awkward writing pulls me out too; it always gets me reaching for my pen or clenching my jaw.

Marcia said...

"Deliciously conscious of the fact that I'm reading"--I agree, that's the state I want to be in. A least a little of the fun of reading is knowing I'm doing my favorite thing.

Angela said...

I think what pulls me out of the story is when the writer hashes and rehashes the same thing because they are uncertain whether the emotion or point is coming through. I feel like it puts the story in a loop, covering old ground.

Good post!

Anne Spollen said...

Awkwardness of any kind pulls me out of a story. Clunky language, mixed metaphors, an unlikely development (oh, and by the way, I'm a vampire)

What draws me in is language, always. Even if a plot is shaky, and the writer is new, I'll read on for language.

Marcia said...

Angela -- I really agree. It makes the story seem stuck in a holding pattern and telegraphs: "I don't trust you to get this." Or maybe, "I don't trust that I'M getting it across."

Anne -- I'll read on for language, too. I've just read two books back to back; the first had a good story and some writing glitches; the second had a "by the way, I'm a vampire" element that I didn't like, but I read on because the writing was more taut. Give me good writing, and to a point I'll excuse plot.

Sliding on the Edge said...

You've identified exactly what makes reading so unique. When you have that ah ha moment with a story you can close your eyes and let it really sink in or you can go back and re-read what struck you.

I'm big into marginalia and I almost feel like I'm interacting with the author when I write my comments.

Marcia said...

Yes, Lee, I love those stop, start and backup moments. At home, I guess you can do that with a movie, too, but it seems more disruptive somehow plus you inconvenience the people you're probably watching the movie with.

Ruth said...

I agree with most of what's already been said. Contradictions are the worst--usually it's sloppy editing, like one I saw recently: they went out of the house, and then on the next page they were still in the living room, heading for the door. Another thing, for me, is jarring or incorrect word choice... or a metaphor that "tries too hard".

Word verification: Kineye. Is that when a relative give you a funny look?

Marcia said...

Ooooh, that out of the house/in the living room thing was in a published book? I'd die if that big a glitch got into print. Maybe the worst mistake I ever read was when a woman's name changed halfway through the book. She was a minor character, but still.

Christina Farley said...

Oh this is something that I've been thinking ALOT about. And I have to say that I go either way. Some authors I know will bring me beautiful writing and I'm amazed at their poetry in a sense.

But I think that's what I loved about Hunger Games. I was so into the story that I forgot I was even on the couch!

So I think you've got two things really here. Storytelling and poetic writing. Both are great. Both serve different purposes.

But it's a choice that we as authors need to think about too.

Marcia said...

I've read a couple of writing books lately that stress the importance of the reader's emotional experience in fiction. Both the story and the language can give us that, and if the same book does both powerfully, for me that becomes a favorite.

Janet said...

I write picture books and middle grade. I find myself editing all the time and it's quite annoying when reading a book. I find lots of passive writing and I'm always stopping and rereading it in my mind the right way. I wonder how some books keep getting published and the author does all the things we are told not to do.

Marcia said...

Janet, I edit when I read, too. It definitely pulls me out of the story. When I realize I DON'T have to edit a writer's sentences is when I realize I can let my guard down, so to speak, and settle into a story.