51 things that break reader immersion, with examples

StatsSummaryCard-2015The ImmerseOrDie Report began in June of 2014, and since then, I’ve put 204 books to my simple test. Every morning, I get on my treadmill, open a new indie book, and start walking. If the book can hold my attention for the duration of my 40 minute stroll, it survives and I write a report about why it worked for me. But if I find things that break my immersion—things like spelling errors, bad grammar, inconsistencies, etc.—then I close the book, stop my timer, and write a report about how long it lasted and what went wrong for me.

Now, I’m not a monster. I don’t close the book on the very first misplaced comma. It has to be something that actually distracts me from the illusion that I’m inside the story world, watching the events unfold. And I don’t just stop at one, either. I tally up three such immersion breaks before I pull the plug. Then I do my best to explain why it broke my concentration.

IOD-Duration-Histogram-Jeff-204

After posting the 50th report last year, I wrote an analysis, sharing a variety of statistics that I thought were interesting about what I was seeing. But far and away the most popular topic I touched on was the breakdown of the different kinds of errors I was seeing. So this time around, armed with four times as much data as I had back then, I’ve decided to focus more closely on this list of issues. What are the actual writing “sins” that disrupt the reader’s experience?

Same graph from previous report

Same graph after 50 contenders

As many readers have been quick to point out, it’s important to remember that these are only the issues that I myself have reacted to, and I am well aware that in this IOD series, I am a harsher critic than most readers are likely to be. But I have another class of correspondents who tell me that they trip over exactly the same issues I do, and many writers will want to take note here, because these correspondents tend to be submission editors, slush pile readers, and professional critics—the very gate-keepers of the publishing industry who writers are trying to impress. So if you want to run a quick “polish test” before you submit your own work somewhere, I hope you’ll find this list a helpful guide.

Problem Categories

Each of the 204 reports I’ve published can sustain up to 3 WTF flags apiece, for a potential total of 612 flags thrown. But not all reports earn three strikes, so my dataset contains only 571 specific problem flags. However, after going through that data carefully, I find that most of these are repeated occurrences of just 51 distinct issues that happen over and over again. So to organize this index, I’ve broken the flags down into seven basic skill domains. I hope that this will help different writers zero in quickly on the types of issues that relate to different phases or abstractions of the writing process, and that this will help them learn to see such issues if they ever crop up in their own stories. After all, knowing that something causes a problem for readers is the first step in polishing it out of your work. And at the very least, this will serve as a list of the most common things to watch out for if you ever decide to submit your work to my treadmill.

Clarity

The first domain in which I throw a lot of WTF flags is the one of clarity. No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it stands to reason that if readers cannot understand what you are telling them, they are unlikely to engage very deeply with the tale. Because when you get right into it, if they had only put them out there with translucency, they would almost certainly have been seen around it, am I right?

Relax, that last sentence was an example of this kind of problem in action. I was obviously saying something, and it was grammatically correct, but even so, my meaning was entirely unclear. This is not to say that it’s a problem whenever readers don’t understand what’s happening in your story. With some books, figuring out what’s going on is the whole point. But there’s a difference between not understanding the causes and implications of a situation vs. not understanding the meaning of the sentences. One is the beginning of a delicious mystery, the other is a quick trigger for readers to abandon your book in frustration.

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
Unanchored pronounUse of a pronoun or pronoun phrase when it is unclear which noun the pronoun refers to.To Carry the Horn, by Karen Myers (8:37)
Ambiguous proseA passage whose meaning is open to multiple conflicting interpretationsSanyare: The Last Descendant, by Megan Haskell (15:04)
Confusing scene geographyA passage that depends on the user knowing where people and things are in relation to each other, but for which those details have been poorly described.Blade of the Destroyer, by Andy Peloquin (4:46)
Confused timelineA passage in which it is unclear which events happened when.Surviving the Fog, by Stan Morris (15:33)
Confusing word choiceUse of a word that introduces uncertainty or that has multiple meanings, some of which do not apply.A Patriot's Betrayal, by Andrew Clawson (11:39)

Style

Once we’ve stepped past the issue of clarity, the next class of issues relate to style. This isn’t about what your sentences mean, but the manner in which they convey their meaning. Is your prose clunky or elegant? Repetitive? Absorbing? Does your use of language offer a transparent window into a intoxicating world of imagination? Or is it a cartoonish freak show that draws attention away from your characters? These are all questions of style.

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
Intrusive expositionAlso called information dumping. A passage of backstory or background information that intrudes on the flow of the story.Last Flight for Craggy, by Gary Weston (3:11)
Echoing headwordsUsing the same word or phrase to start successive sentences, paragraphs, or even chapters.After: The Shock, by Scott Nicholson (38:03)
Echoing sentence structuresFrequent unvaried use of the same sentence pattern.Sector 64: Ambush, by Dean M. Cole (31:36)
Echoing word useAlso called "word recycling." Repeated use of a conspicuous or unusual word.The Tales of Abu Nuwas, by Marva Dasef (19:19)
Galloping "I" diseaseA special case of echo in which the "I" pronoun is used with intrusive frequency.The Body Electric, by Beth Revis (18:54)
Declarative sentence paradeA specific case of echoing sentence structure of the form "The subject verbed."Lethal Seasons, by Alice Sabo (10:45)
OverwritingUse of a conspicuously flamboyant or adjective-heavy prose style that is at odds with the story or situation.Fatal Infatuation, by Melanie Nowak (9:37)
Proper noun poisoningExcessive use of proper nouns in a limited span, most commonly found in constructed-world stories.In Siege of Daylight, by Gregory S. Close (20:33)
Recursive digressionExcessive temporary shifts of focus. Flashbacks within flashbacks, asides within asides, etc.Wings of the Sathakos, by Scott Beckman (8:34)
Boring sceneA scene in which nothing of interest seems to happen, or that does not appear to advance the story.Ultimate Duty, by Marva Dasef (19:45)
Authorial intrusionA passage in which the hand of the author can be seen.Flummox or Bust, by Kevin Bowersox (16:17)
Alphabet fatigueA story in which character or entity names are limited to a small number of initial letters. For example, too many M-names.The Mayonnaise Murders, by Keith A. Owens (7:04)
Null platitudeUse of an aphorism or saying that is intended to sound wise but in fact means nothing.Reader, by Erec Stebbins (7:24)
Distant languageUse of a narrative voice that lacks sufficient intimacy to engage the reader.Cyberbully Blues, by Rubin Johnson (7:50)
Awkward prosePassages that are inefficient, convoluted, or otherwise lacking in flow.Trouble, by RJ Price (7:21)

Internal Continuity

The previous categories focused on issues at a single point in time—a strange word choice, a confusing sentence, a pompous tone. This next category widens the lens, looking at how story elements behave over time. Basically, a continuity problem is any situation in which the facts of the story seem to be in conflict with what the reader already knows. With internal continuity problems, the facts at one point in the story do not match the facts that were given earlier.

As a simple example, consider a character who walks into a pitch-dark room and then “sees” something on the table. Wait a minute! How can he see it if the room is dark? Or the problem might take more abstract form, such as a dim-witted character who suddenly uses a big word, or an impoverished character who later yanks a silver dagger from his belt. The possibilities and permutations are endless.

Readers absorb facts like happy little sponges while they’re reading, so any time you tell them something that differs from what they’ve absorbed, it will stand out. Sometimes, contradictions like this are exactly what the story needs, but the reader must be able to trust that it was done intentionally, and was not simply a gaffe caused by sloppy writing/editing. When the text appears to contradict itself, the author is made to seem unreliable. It’s all well and good for a protagonist to be unreliable, but when the author can’t be trusted, immersion is pretty much impossible. So we really do have to be on guard for these.

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
Inconsistent voiceThe narrator or a character speaks with a constantly changing style or vocabulary.Ghost Moon Night, by Jewel Allen (17:06)
POV violationThe narration conflicts with the rules already established for focal character and/or camera movement.A Wizard's Gambit, by Ryan Toxopeus (5:52)
Inconsistent character behaviorA character does something in contradiction to already established traits.Justice in an Age of Metal and Men, by Anthony Eichenlaub (17:17)
Show vs tell mismatchSomething was described one way in exposition but was then demonstrated in a contradictory way.Athame, by Morgan Alreth (34:40)
Inconsistent story pointObjects, characters, or situations are not where they were a moment earlier, or not where we left them.In A Right State, by Ben Ellis (19:33)

External Continuity

A reader’s knowledge is not limited to just the things you’ve already told them in the story. Each one comes into a book with a lifetime of personal experience about all kinds of things from the real world: history, science, basic human nature, economics, etc. The writer is free to change any of these truths to suit the needs of their story, but unless the reader is shown that the rules are different in your story world, all this other knowledge will be taken as a given. Human beings must sleep, gravity pulls things down, mute people don’t talk much, fire requires oxygen to burn, etc.  So when your hero drops her weapon and it falls up, or her supposedly depressed friend starts cracking jokes, these things can conflict with the reader’s understanding of how things usually work, and that will pop them out of the story.

This is particularly a problem for the “invented world” stories common in fantasy and science fiction. The stranger your world is, the more careful you have to be about managing the readers’ expectations of what is considered “normal.”

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
Physics gaffeSome action or situation is described which contradicts the known rules of physics.The Brightest Light, by Scott J Robinson (11:59)
Illogical world buildingSome detail of a constructed world conflicts with what we know about how things usually work.Quantum Tangle, by Chris Reher (31:23)
Unbelievable character choiceA character makes a decision or takes an action that contradicts basic human psychology or behaviorThea of Oz, by Rebecca A. Demarest (34:59)
Unbelievable dialogueCharacters speak to each other in a way that feels artificial, forced, or contrary to human social norms.Nightblade, by Garrett Robinson (19:15)
Unearned emotional beatCharacters exhibit emotions that are not justified by the preceding story details.Wanderer's Escape, by Simon Goodson (14:18)
Unbelievable deductionA character draws correct conclusions from insufficient dataA Sip of Fear, by Brian Rush (12:05)

Story Manifest

There is a layer behind the actual words of the story. I call it the “story manifest,” by which I mean the list of characters and settings, and the events that take place between and among them. If you think of fiction as the portrayal of an imagined history, then the manifest is the collection of faux-historical facts from which the story is constructed. And sometimes, problems can appear in this dimension of a book.

To be satisfying, stories need to be about events and experiences that seem worth telling stories about. So if the building blocks of your story don’t carry a sense of importance, then it’s likely the story won’t either.

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
Get out of jail freeA character overcame an obstacle too easily. Also called wish fulfillment. There was insufficient hardship to make the victory satisfying. Deus ex machina is a specific type of this general problem.As the Crow Flies, by Robin Lythgoe (30:57)
Empty maguffinThe quest or peril that drives the action is inherently unsatisfying or unbelievable.Feyland: The Dark Realm, by Anthea Sharp (8:38)
Conspicuously familiar story pointSomething happens in the story that seems transparently repackaged from some other author's work.The Face-Stealer, by Robert Scott-Norton (5:28)
Pointless prologueA prologue is provided that adds nothing of substance to the story.In Siege of Daylight, by Gregory S. Close (20:33)
Disappointing plot pointSomething happens in the story that is unsatisfying when compared to the buildup it was given.Feyland: The Dark Realm, by Anthea Sharp (8:38)

Story Assembly

Turning the story manifest into an actual manuscript is not just a matter of writing prose. There’s an intermediate process that I call story assembly, in which the author chooses which scenes to show and a narrative structure within which to present them. Whose POV will the reader follow? Will there be a prologue? Will we open on a scene of the funeral and then jump back to explain how we got there? Or will the story proceed from the first event and march forward through the chronology of each beat, as they unfolded?

Mistakes at this level tend to produce stories that meander, where engagement suffers, and readers are much more likely to bail.

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
AnaculturismAnachronisms are story points that appear in the wrong time, like a wrist watch in King Arthur's court. By expansion, the "anaculturism" is any story point that seems conspicuously drawn from another inappropriate culture.The Amazing Adventures of Toby the Trilby, by Angela Castillo (14:56)
Floating head syndromeA scene in which much dialogue is given, but insufficient surrounding context so that the speakers appear to be suspended in an undifferentiated gray cloud of nothingness.River of Possibilities, by Marti Lawrence (19:37)
Orientation starvation/problemAction happens with insufficient depiction of where people are standing in relation to each other, or there is confusion on these details. Also called "proprioception problem."Law of the Wolf, by S. A. Hunt (5:46)
Exposition stutteringThe same information is stated multiple times without apparent cause.Song of the Summer King, by Jess E. Owen (6:35)
Boring dialogueDialogue that seems pointless or trivial, which does not advance the plot or characters.Cold Hands, by Matt Perkins (29:42)
Information droughtToo little information is provided for the reader to make sense of what is happening. This can either be an excessive case of trying to build suspense or can be a failure of basic reportage.Paralan's Children, by Katharina Gerlach (24:34)
Distracting detailsToo much information is given about a minor point, interfering with the smooth pacing of the story.After The Ending, by Fairleigh and Pogue (10:19)
Pacing problemsToo much happens without sufficient time for the reader to process events, or conversely, too little is happening and the reader is getting bored.Surviving the Fog, by Stan Morris (15:33)
ClichésConspicuously familiar story points that undermine any sense of originality in the story.Savage Dawn, by Inge Moore (16:22)

Publishing Proficiency

Previous categories related to failures in the writing, but this last group is comprised of failures in the publishing phase. More specifically, these are problems that arise when the manuscript is transformed into a marketable book.

Fortunately, these are the easiest to deal with. Most of them can be addressed by giving sufficient weight of attention to professional editing, encoding, and proofreading before launching the book.

ProblemDescriptionExample reports
Bonus/missing wordsWhen an important is left out of the sentence, duplicated, or inserted in an inappropriate place.Sand and Blood, by D. Moonfire (31:01)
Incorrect wordWhen a word is used in a manner inconsistent with its known definitions.Blade of the Destroyer, by Andy Peloquin (4:46)
Punctuation problemsPunctuation marks used in the wrong place or for the wrong purpose.Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin, by Elle Carter Neal (19:51)
Grammar problemsMismatched verb tenses, mismatched number between subject and verb, wrong verb tense used for the situation, incorrect conjugation of verbs, etc.Siege of Praetar, by David Kristoph (21:02)
Missing past-perfectA specific case of grammar problem that appears with alarming frequency - not using past perfect when dropping from a past tense story into the deeper past.Fencing Reputation, by William L. Hahn (26:50)
Layout problemsParagraphs not indented properly, missing indication of scene breaks, excessive line spacing, illegible font, etc.Somewhere to Turn: stories by Linda Courtland (27:53)

Conclusion

So that’s the list. 51 things that frequently break my immersion, and by extension, the immersion of many other readers. But I’d be surprised if there aren’t a few issues that I’ve missed—issues that I’m not sensitive to. Is there something else that pops you out of a book? Something that I haven’t mentioned here? If so, tell me about it in comments and I’ll add it to the list. The more complete this index is, the more useful it will be for everyone.

And if you want to start following the regularly posted reports, you can see the latest posted here, or follow the RSS feed, or even subscribe to a weekly digest by email. Or, if you find this really useful, why not pick up a copy of one of my books and tell me which of these rules the younger me was fond of breaking? :-)

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.