Getting Out of the Reader's WayGetting Out of the Reader's Way

I can become so immersed in a story that anyone wanting to get my attention has to either speak louder or come and tap me on the shoulder. I suspect that most of you could identify with that!

We all hope that our readers have the same experience - that they're so involved with our characters and their lives that the real world simply disappears. For this to happen, we have to remove all barriers between our readers and the fictional world we have created. That's not easy to achieve: one misstep can remind our readers that they are 'only reading'.

How can we remove as many of those barriers as possible? How can we get out of the reader's way?

Begin by Putting Yourself in the Reader's Shoes

From years of being a reader yourself, you should already have a good sense of what prevents total immersion in a story. Here is a list of the most common mistakes writers make:

  1. Too many characters in a story or in a scene (the reader gets confused).
  2. Cardboard characters (the reader can't relate - they don't behave or talk like real people).
  3. A predictable and/or boring plot (readers are 99% certain they know what willl happen in the rest of the story).
  4. An overly complicated plot or a story with settings so 'different' that the reader is lost. (This is a common problem with fantasy or science fiction novels, or novels set in foreign countries with dozens of unfamiliar names/customs.)
  5. Inane, slow or boring dialogue (the reader doesn't care; there's no suspense or humour).
  6. Reliance on common situations, settings and cliches ('stock' phrases and descriptions).
  7. Poor style/grammar (the author makes mistakes with tense, person, punctuation, etc or uses wordy sentences... or stilted structure).

While a writer can't learn everything overnight, it's a good idea to make a note of things that are causing problems and work on them one at a time. But there's one simple question you can ask to home in on any potential problems: "Am I getting in the reader's way?"

  • You're getting in the way if you use wordy sentences or boring, repetitive sentence structure; dull description or lots of cliches.
  • You're getting in the way if you introduce so many characters that the reader can't keep them straight.
  • You're getting in the way if the story is in the past tense, then you suddenly switch to present tense. This jars the reader, and they're yanked out of the story.

Top tip:

Give your story to someone you trust to give you honest feedback. This could be someone in your critique group, a friend, a family member - it doesn't matter, as long as they won't say it's wonderful just to avoid hurting your feelings.

Announce that you don't want feedback on style, technique, plot etc: you simply want them to look for any spots where you might be losing the reader. Ask them to highlight those places and tell you what they feel... is it slow? wordy? boring? confusing?

Tell your reading buddy that you don't expect them to analyse the work. You just want a gut reaction. Give them examples of the type of comments you're looking for, such as:

"I started to lose interest about here because....

  • It got a bit slow
  • I couldn't figure out who was who - too many people
  • I couldn't figure out what was going on."


"I couldn't really get into it because...

  • I didn't like the main character
  • I could see where it was going - a bit predictable, maybe...?
  • It took too long for something to happen."

If your reader wants to give you more detailed feedback, fine (if you trust their analytical skills) but don't push it. You just want to have a general idea about how you might be getting in the reader's way, so you can go back to your computer and work on it.

© Marg McAlister


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