I read for one reason: escapism. Entertain me. Bring me places. Show me monsters, supercops, magic, the afterlife…you’re the magician and I’m the rube. Pull the wool over my eyes and make me forget about the real world for a small chunk of time. I’ll love you for it.
Just don’t insult my intelligence.
When I write, I follow two main rules: Rule #1 – Just write the story. I don’t get cute. I just tell the story as if we were sitting in front of a campfire. That doesn’t work for everyone; it’s just my style. As a reader, I allow a lot more latitude, because no two writers are the same, and I’d hate to miss out on a great story because someone starts slower than I would like.
And Rule #2 (Now that I think about it, this really should be #1.) – A reader will believe anything if you get the mundane, everyday details right. This means going to great lengths to make sure that your readers never have a chance to say, “Oh, come on. That wouldn’t happen.” It can be practically anything.
It might be one of those conversation where Person A tells Person B that they know something. Person B admits it, but they’re thinking about something entirely different. They both go on and neither one of them says anything to make the other say, “Wait…we’re talking about two different things.”
Or it could be mystery novel where one of the characters neglects to share the single most vital piece of information that will break the case.
Or, that staple of horror, splitting up for absolutely no good reason.
In reality, people just don’t behave like this, and it puts the brakes on what should be a smooth ride.
The most egregious example I can think of is in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I don’t like to constantly harp on Brown’s writing (yes, I do) because he’s obviously doing quite well for himself, but one part in TLS was so unbelievable that I actually dropped the book on the table and put my head in my hands.
*SPOILERS AHEAD* Peter Solomon and his younger sister Katherine are working in a top-secret lab doing top-secret research in noetic sciences (a fringe science, at best, but I’m okay with going with it). No one but their assistant is allowed in this lab. Ever. Peter goes missing (kidnapped by the bad guy) for days. Katherine is worried sick. The bad guy sends a text message from Peter’s phone (we’ve already been told that Peter can’t figure out texting on his iPhone) and tells Katherine to let Peter’s psychiatrist (the bad guy, naturally) into the lab for some reason I never quite figured out.
It’s a book. It’s pretend. I’m fine with all of this, until…
She lets him in without question. Do you think anything good comes of it?
To recap: Secret lab. Brother goes missing. Sister receives text from missing brother, which she knows is completely out of character for him. Still hasn’t spoken to brother. She lets shrink into top-secret lab anyway. Mayhem.
What? In real life, if someone you love goes missing for days, the first thing you’ll do after they send you a text is call them up and scream at them for freaking you out. And that’s if you don’t have a top-secret lab. If you do, your initial response would probably involve the phrase “Are you kidding me?!?” peppered with the business end of a bunch of curse words.
Could Brown have figured out a believable way to get the bad guy into the lab? I hope so. I figured out about ten.
This is why a writer has a responsibility to ask themselves two questions at numerous points in their work: “Would I actually do this?” or “Would someone else actually do this?” If a writer can answer either of those in the affirmative, it’s probably safe to continue. If not, rewriting is necessary. Either kill it altogether or be creative and make it believable.
Keep it real.