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JARRING YOUR READER REVISITED

December 28, 2022

            When I originally posted this in 2018, I had good reason. Today, in late 2022, I continue to find this subject in books I read. The difference is that I’m now adding another thing that jars the reader. We’ll get to that in a moment.

            There are many ways to jar your reader.

            What do I mean by jarring your reader?

            First off, I think of the tired old joke I used to tell my grandson when we’d get into the car. Whenever someone opens a door, we’d get a warning on the dashboard Door Ajar. So, I’d tell him the door has turned into a jar. When the door closes, I’d tell him the door turned back into a door again. Hey, it’s a grandpa thing.

            Now, back to the gist of this. Jarring the reader is when you jerk them out of the story. In other words, you have them absorbed into your world. Then, you perform some blunder and it spoils the mood. In other words, it jars them out of your world and has them scratching their head with the internal thought: “What’s that?”

            Whether it’s a minor or major blunder depends on your literary outlook.

            I get accused of it occasionally when I read at my writers’ group.

            Why?

            Let’s look at how one can jar the reader. I’ll start with what inspired me to write this article. As often happens, it was prompted by a book I’d just read. Since the original article came out, I’ve read plenty more to add to my arsenal of proof as I see it.

BAD WRITING

            There are many ways to jar the reader out of the story. A biggie is, of course, bad writing.

            Anything that takes the reader out of the story could be considered bad writing, yet let’s talk strictly about the writing itself, and not other factors.

            A big example, which I found in the latest book I read was my favorite pet peeve, point of view.

            I just read a book that had no point of view at all. It wasn’t even omniscient. It was a complete free-for-all. What jarred me out of the story was that the writer shifted points of view from one sentence to the next. In other words, one character said something and then in the next sentence within the same paragraph, another character said something, with no differentiation between the two characters.

            Folks, THAT made me stop reading. I had to re-read the two-sentence paragraph two…maybe three times and try and figure out what was going on. After several reads, I finally figured out through implied speech that the second sentence was a different character!

            Next, from the same book, the writer shifted scenes without scene breaks. Even though there were scene breaks within the very long chapters, he only randomly used them. Instead, he quite often just shifted scenes at random with no transition. I was reading along and bam! New scene, with no rhyme or reason.

            The POV and the abrupt scene changes jerked me out of the story so many times, it ruined the immersion and flow. Each time, it took a while to get back into the story and I never really recovered because it happened again a few pages later.

            That’s an example of bad writing jarring the reader out of a story.

TECHNICAL ERRORS

            Say, you’re talking about guns in a thriller or mystery. The character puts a silencer on a revolver.

            Ding ding ding ding!

            Anyone with gun knowledge is going to scream fowl. This technical error is going to jar them right out of the story. While things might have been humming right along until that point, an obvious error like that is going to spoil things.

            Same thing for an error like location, time, language, whatever. Anyone with basic knowledge of these things is going to be jarred out of the story.

            You need to do your research! Poor research will jar the reader and spoil the illusion.

SUBTLE ERRORS

            I’m currently reading a fantasy to the group. In this case, it’s my world, so I can pretty much build it any way I want. At the same time, I not only have to play by my own established rules, but there are still borders I can’t cross, things I just can’t do.

            When I throw in some term or phrase that doesn’t fit, it jars the reader out of the world. My writer’s group is pretty good about calling bull when I toss in something that is just too much of a stretch. It’s purely unintentional most of the time, but once in a while, it’s deliberate. When it’s deliberate, I have to justify it. If I can’t see a good reason for it, I have to change it.

            If it doesn’t fit, it jars the reader out of the story. It spoils the mood.

STYLE ERRORS

            This is a huge issue for me and I see it a lot. While some may call it stylistic, I call it jarring and unreadable.

            What I mean is when the author starts with one style and switches in the middle (or anywhere else) in the story. As many of you know, I only read third-person, past-tense. I try to be careful to screen the book in the bookstore before I buy. However, some authors like to switch POV styles, tenses, or even formatting in the story. This jerks me right out of it. It’s great if I can catch it in the bookstore by leafing through the pages and looking for changes. Online, it’s impossible as (for instance) the look inside feature on Amazon only gives a few sample pages

            This change of POV is meant to emphasize something different, like a flashback, or a dream or whatever. To me, this interrupts the flow of the story, and doesn’t emphasize anything leading me to skip it. While I may miss key info, I don’t care. Often, I can’t even tell the difference except skipping these sections just makes the story shorter.

            This applies no matter what style you start out in. I’ve read a few first-person novels that were tolerable because of the writing…right until the author switched to third, or present tense, or poetry…of all things.

            I’ve read where an author started with a great action scene, then bogged down in backstory and characterization for way too long before jumping back into action scenes.

            What I’m talking about is consistency, not jumping styles so the reader (or the author) doesn’t get bored. That’s jarring.

            SUMMARY

            Your story is creating a world and drawing the reader into that world. When you flub something, it jars the reader and jerks them out of the illusion. It’s critical you eliminate these points, so you don’t spoil that illusion of reality for your reader.

            Happy writing!

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