The best metaphor (and cautionary tale) I’ve read about how to keep readers immersed in a story came from a book on poetry — Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual.
Recalling a childhood vacation on the Wisconsin River, Kooser writes:
I do vividly remember going for a ride in an excursion boat that had a clear glass bottom. It floated with grace and ease and a throbbing gurgle across water brightly dappled with summer sunlight. Beneath the glass floor I could see fish swimming, catfish and carp and gar, and rocks eroded into imaginative shapes, and soda bottles that people on earlier cruises had dropped over the side.
I remember being completely absorbed… [until a] woman sitting nearby leaned over too far and her white-rimmed cat’s-eye sunglasses slid off the end of her nose and fell with a clatter onto the glass. That sudden interference on the surface of the dreamy world beneath me brought my attention back to the glass floor, back to the ordinary world of being a little boy, hot and impatient and cross. The moment had been spoiled.
The moment had been spoiled.
I remember reading those words, and it resonated with me beyond just poetry. How many times had I been pulled out of a story because of metaphorical sunglasses clattering upon the page of the book I was reading?
I’m sure you’ve experienced the same.
So let’s talk about these sunglasses and how to avoid dropping them — to keep your readers immersed in the world you’ve created.
Types of “dropped sunglasses”
JOKES. So what are some of these dropped sunglasses that appear in our writing?
Well, the lowest hanging fruit include mistakes of grammar, spelling, rhythm, and flow. That’s why it’s important to edit and proofread our writing — so it reads clear, like polished crystal.
But there’s more than that, too. So much more. Beyond just mechanical mistakes, dropped sunglasses can really be anything that spoils the illusion of the world and characters you’ve created, such as:
- Someone acting out of character
- A disjointed plot
- Vague, confusing language
- An inconsistent reality
- Inconsistent tone
- Literary showboating (showing off just to show off)
But how do you spot these issues?
You’ll get better at noticing dropped sunglasses yourself over time, but the best help you’ll receive will be from the friends, writers, or beta readers who provide feedback on your story.
These readers can help with various aspects of your writing, but an additional request I’d recommend is asking them to mark all the places where something jolts them from the story. If they’re able to identify what distracted them, awesome; but if not, it’s still valuable to know where they were jolted so you can go back and investigate.
After that, use their feedback to fix problem areas and smooth out the prose.
That way the little Koosers of the future who read your story will never be startled by fallen sunglasses. Instead, they’ll just settle in, forget they’re reading — and enjoy the fish swimming by in the shimmering waters.
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