Thoughtful Thursday: What threw you out of a story?

When you start to read a work of fiction, you check your disbelief at the door. This is even more important when you are reading speculative fiction or horror, and there’s even a name for it; the willing suspension of disbelief.

William O'Connor

Wyvern Dragon by William O’Connor

Usually, once you’ve seen a dragon on the cover, you’ve already suspended your disbelief and you are prepared to go along for the ride. Sometimes, though, in the middle of a book, just for a moment, you stumble across something that you just can’t accept and it jars you out of the book. You may still go back and finish the book, and may even enjoy it; but somehow you remember that moment.

The Novella “The Weight of the Sunrise,” by Vylar Kaftan, won the 2014 Nebula Award. On John Scalzi’s blog Whatever, one commenter noted that, while they enjoyed the story, Kaftan had a character born and raised in Britain refer to the wisps of hair that cover the forehead as “bangs,” instead of  “a fringe.” That one choice of words threw the commenter out of the story.

Tell us about the time your disbelief kicked back in, and you were jarred out of a story. Did you finish the story, or was it so bad you walked away?

One random commenter will choose a book from our Stacks, and we’ll hope that it keeps disbelief suspended!


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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

42 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    For me, the biggest offender is when an author can’t keep his/her facts straight–when a character, for example, is said to have blue eyes on page 27 and green eyes on page 427. That strikes a bad chord with me, and lets me know that I am reading a flawed work by a writer who is not in total command and control. And this, of course, further erodes that suspension of disbelief….

    • I know! I think this is related to editing or the lack of it. The writer probably stops seeing it after the second read-through, but you’d think someone at the publisher would notice, wouldn’t you?

  2. Hmm. From reading this post, I get the feeling you don’t believe in dragons. Odd, that. :>)

    When the character does something stupid to forward the plot. I love smart and sassy leads. I love dark and dangerous leads. But I am instantly thrown out of a story when any heretofore smart and clever character suddenly engages in an act of stupidity…just to put said character in a funny sideshow or because said character needs to be in a time/place/situations that the character would not normally go.

    I read a lot of zany cozies so I expect some level of happenstance or contrived humor. But when an author fails to come up with clever motivation for a situation and uses, “a stupid decision on the part of the main” the story becomes contrived and I am thrown out of the book entirely.

    Now, I must run. The dragon in the garden is bellowing about something or other and I don’t want him pulling up the leeks in frustration.

    • Actually, I too, have a dragon that lives with us. He’s a sea-dragon though. They tend to be quieter, although shlepping him out to the coast on a regular basis for a kelp feed is required!

  3. I have just finished The Naked Sun by Asimov and it has one of these throw-me-out-of-the-story elements that I can never get past. In order to explore evolutionary psychology (which should be really fun), Asimov creates these societies that I just can not believe in. I’ll talk about that when I review it soon, but there were so many aspects of the society that just would never happen. This is a common problem for me. If I don’t believe in the society, I can’t believe anything else in the book.

    Same goes for a romance. I really need to believe that those two people would be attracted to each other, or I lose the rest of the story. For example, in Discovery of Witches, the heroine is an independently-minded prestigious Yale University professor who falls for a domineering vampire who treats her like a child. No way.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      @ Kat: You might be discounting the overwhelming influence of vampiric pheromones on the female libido here….

      • Gah! Bite your tongue…er, never mind. I’m with Kat. No way!

        Although in all honestly, if the guy is dead, that’s a “No deal” right there. I don’t care if he even HAS pheromones at that point!

        • I was just about to say to Sandy, before reading Maria’s comment: do you think dead people even HAVE pheromones?

          Obviously, plenty of women are turned on by vampires, but since I know many female academics (and am one myself) I feel like I have some experience here. I say no way. (And yet the author herself is an academic….. go figure…)

    • And that series, Kat, only gets worse and more egregious regarding the vampire’s treatment of his lady love.

  4. Can’t stand it when I’m cruising along in a story and suddenly hit a major typo. It’s like running into a wall at full speed and I’m thrown out of the story. Also don’t like continuity errors, where a character might set down his drink more than once without ever picking it back up. Stuff like that really bugs me, as a decent editor should catch those!

  5. trey palmer /

    Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez is the most vivid example to spring to mind lately. Why? For two that stand out. The first was the viewpoint character repeatedly grabbing the idiot ball to advance the plot. Not once, but multiple times. Then there was the romance between her and the make protagonist that came from nowhere.
    In short idiot ball plots and romance that aren’t logical and feel weeks onto the characters.
    To lesser degrees characters that won’t talk to each other because I’d they stop and do, or ask each other questions, There is nip plot.

    • Good ones, Trey! I agree — I hate it when the entire plot depends on characters not filling each other in on the kinds of stuff that normal people would usually tell each other.

    • trey palmer /

      And I apologize for the misspellings. Stupid smartphone keyboard.

    • I know! It’s like, “Do you think we should have mentioned that we found a flashdrive on the body? Since everyone’s worried about that missing secret formula?” C’mon, people.

  6. Sandyg265 /

    I was reading a book once where the main character hot wired a car. In the next chapter he abandoned the car, leaving the keys in the ignition. I did finish the book since I was more than halfway through it but I didn’t really enjoy the rest of the book.

  7. RedEyedGhost /

    Most recently, in Cibola Burn, there’s a fair amount of plot related to eyes, but the biology of the eyes was completely wrong. As my job is all about the anatomy and physiology of the eye, I found this quite annoying and extremely distracting. Of course I finished the book though!

  8. Paul Connelly /

    The character living (A) 300 years in the future, (B) on the other side of the galaxy, or (C) in the post-apocalyptic fantasy world, whose conversation is sprinkled with pop culture references from the time that the book was written. So sorry, your youthful fads will not be immortal, Mr/Ms Author! In fact, it’s a good bet they’ll be irrelevant 30 years in the future, on the other end of the same continent, or after the next economic bubble predictably collapses. Very sad.

    • Or, one of my favorites (and, since I’m picking on Asimov today, this is one of his): we’re 3000 years in the future, we’ve colonized a hundred planets, and the female characters are only found in the roles of housewife and secretary. (Yes, I read a lot of 1950s SF.)

      • Paul Connelly /

        A lot of 1960s SF (at least the poorer sort) only added the “sexual plaything” role to the housewife and secretary ones. Nature is full of relentless change and experimentation, so it’s disappointing how ready we are to term certain behaviors “unnatural” and how easily we think of our own culture as a universal arbiter of value. The same kind of tendency not only shows up in SF, but in historical fiction, and even in the attempts of scientists to decipher the behavior and culture of prehistoric humans (and pre-humans).

        • Perhaps these are reasons I never got into the older sci/fi. I don’t know. I’m reading a book called X-Nova by Ken Hagdal right now. It’s in the future and it is a kind of 1984 — women gained control of the world and how they are running things. There’s the role-reversal and that assumption that aggressiveness was somehow a bad thing–that many of the “male” attributes were responsible for women’s lot in life. Of course there is the irony that now that women are in charge…they are doing most of the things they couldn’t tolerate from the men…

          But I’m not sure I like this type of fiction any more than the reverse. I realize marginalization is a part of reality, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it (even if it is a kind of lesson in and of itself and part of the book’s point).

          My favorite fiction involves characters who work as a team–and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a man/woman team, a woman and her dog, a man and his father…there’s something so awesome about two or more people/creatures who have learned the magic of playing off one another’s strengths. Of course the book doesn’t have to start that way–learning to be a team is a story in and of itself.

    • This is a pet peeve of mine, too, but I’ll keep reading if the book is otherwise good.

    • Trey /

      Yeah, that’s another one that shows a failure of imagination and capability. A particular one that stands out to me is Fly From Evil. It was an Amazon freebie, and looked like it might be interesting with libertarian sky’s teasers. But it broke for me when the viewpoint character started doing his Grateful Dead thing.

      It also had opposition that was mustache twirling evil. That one tells me the author forgets that the opposition will be the heroes of their own narratives and may even act noble and good in the service of their causes. The best example I can think of is Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Crux, and Hannu Rajaniemi isn’t too far behind as we learn the motives of the Sobernost.

  9. Melanie Goldmund /

    One thing that really threw me out of a certain prize-winning book was that the author over-used the pronoun “he” to the point where it was very confusing. I’d be reading along, and “he” would say something. I’d naturally think that “he” was the last person mentioned by name, only to find out that it was the other person in the scene, the only who’d been mentioned by name at the beginning but not since! This eventually led to me abandoning the book, that author, and everything else associated with that particular prize.

    • April /

      I had to stop reading a book once after THE FIRST SCENE because of that kind of thing. I had no idea 1. who the actual protag was 2. who was speaking at any given time out of three or four (couldn’t tell) people speaking and 3. what the hey was going on. I literally read it over several times trying to figure it out and then deleted it from my Kindle. If I’ve got to puzzle over one scene, what is the rest going to be like? Never did figure it out either.

  10. I hate when magic is too prevalent to begin with, as if there is no cost to using it.
    But what really kills it for me is when magic can be used for the silliest of things but then when you really need it, it’s not used. Sometimes there’s some lame excuse why it won’t work in whatever the particular case is. Other times, it’s not even explained.
    To me, that’s just plain lazy on the author’s part, like they don’t want to bother explaining how the characters can find their way in a deep dark cave, so they just use a magic light, or someone is wounded so “snap” and they are healed. Then they have to use lock-picks to open a door or have to resort to physical combat with a thug, cause those things are cool to read about, where as, the former examples are not.

  11. April /

    Looks like my original post got lost in cyberspace. In short (because I was overly wordy the first time) I agree with all of the above with the addition of logic. If the worldbuilding and character interaction will follow known logic then we’ll mostly be able to glide on through the experience. Science is tricky, you have to either get it right according to what we know already or make it fuzzy enough and logical enough that we can believe it can work that way.

  12. I get taken out of a story if the dialogue does not sound like the way people speak. Or if the characters are consistently referred to as “smart,” or “honest,” or “sassy” but never actually DO anything to earn that label.

  13. Jesslyn H /

    I was reading a paranormal romance where tech was breaking down and magic emerging (no, not that one). Anyway, the man and woman were hiding from/getting chased by these killer, superpowered wolves as they made their way thru a forest and right in the middle of the chase, they stopped to have this heartfelt conversation, passionate kissing and almost-sex up against a tree.

    I wasn’t just ‘taken’ out of that story, I got yanked out.

    • April /

      Oh yes, this happens way too often in PNR so I’ve basically tried to stay away from it as much as possible. Nothing worse than having your protagonist either escaping from or hunting a nastie baddie and stopping to admire the buns on the guy in front of her or vice versa or worse, deciding that a quick ‘passionate embrace’ is called for in the middle of the chase/hunt. I’m sorry but those things should be saved for times when your life is not depending upon you being alert and focused.

      And at the same time, those ‘ooh, he’s hot’ or ‘yum she’s sexy’ internal dialogues are extremely annoying. Perhaps because for me they don’t seem realistic in the situations they are given and also because they are often the only excuse for attraction and then love between two leads which just doesn’t work for me.

      • Couldn’t agree more. Discussing guys as if they are food (yummy, for example) is bad enough, but using that kind of internal dialogue at all is lazy writing. Don’t say “She’s sassy and bad-ass.” Just show us. Describe the guy once and if he’s bad-ass, cool and such, go ahead and let us figure it out from his actions.

        If a book starts out with the main characters drooling over body parts I’m not likely to give it more than 20 or 30 pages anymore. I can handle it later in a book if it MUST happen, but drooling/staring/panting isn’t much of a plot and it’s annoying besides.

        • Trey Palmer /

          Agreed, but related – gun porn.

          Before action and during it, I’m pretty sure people won’t be thinking about what model pistol, or just how long the knife is when its hitting the fan. Maybe if they live and there is an after action report, or the detective and forensics team cleaning up/investigating could get that detailed (FWIW, Stirling has a nice bit with this in Drakon), but during?
          During sparring, I’m too busy trying to not get hit and hit to worry about the fine details.

          • Guns bother me less UNLESS it goes on and on. Throw out the “he had a Browning such that could shoot more rounds than my Ruger yadda-yadda.” BUT I admit–if it’s much more than that, I might skip the entire fight scene entirely.

          • April /

            Don’t get me started on gun porn – I can’t tell you how many books I’ve given up on because the author is using it to create cool new weapons he/she’d like to own if they existed. Plot and characterization get thrown by the wayside while mannequins that sound like 16 year old boys get hot and bothered about their weapons. Ugh.

  14. @Kate Lechier- I’m so with you. If dialog reads like a really bad movie, I’m out!

  15. Kayla /

    I’m not great at keeping up with details, and I’m also not that critical, so it takes a lot to kick me out of a story. I can’t think of anything plot related that’s done it, only awkward writing or sentence structure. If a sentence is awkward enough, it jars me out of the story and I have to reread that part and actually think about it. I don’t have a concrete example of it now though.

  16. I cant stand when a story/character is saved by a hidden “talent”. You know when a character or plot is written into an unwinnable situation then stumbles upon some subconscious power or ability that saves the day.

    “Oh look…just a minute ago I was bumbling klutz who always fainted at the sight of blood. Now I’m the most amazing sword master the world has ever seen; even though I’ve never touch a sword before in my life. Oh, and apparently I can also shoot fireballs from my hands and control weather.”

    You know…that sort of stuff.

  17. I’ve fallen a bit behind on the Giveaway the past couple of weeks. The winner on this thread will be announced on Friday, July 18. Thanks for your patience and the great comments!

  18. Terri, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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