“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
I love this line from The Usual Suspects, beautifully delivered by Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint. He is, of course, referring to the criminal mastermind, Keyser Söze.
(I wrote and published the initial version of this post back in the days before Spacey joined the list of Hollywood names tagged in the #metoo movement. While his status has changed, the example remains valid.)
Nothing turns me off a movie more than catching an actor acting.
When we watch a movie or read a book, we enter into a contract with its creator. They will deliver a polished story into which we can disappear, and we will engage in voluntary suspension of disbelief. For the length of time we’re engaged, we’ll go along for the ride, accepting magic, warp speed, or whatever other fictions the storyteller presents to us.
It’s an actor’s job to smooth the ride for us. He is supposed to convince us he doesn’t exist. His character needs to be a real person to the viewer, the actor himself, a vehicle we’re not even aware is there. As long as everything else is done well, we can get lost in the story and not surface until the credits roll.
But what if something jarring happens to pull us out of the story? On the screen, that jarring event may be the moment you catch an actor not fully inhabiting his character. We’ve all experienced it. The moment feels false. You know he’s acting, and the contract is broken.
The greatest trick I can pull as a writer is convincing you, the reader, I don’t exist.
You want a good story you can disappear into. You want to escape into a story’s world and find yourself a part of it. For that to happen, I need to be invisible as a writer.
When writers intrude on the story, our contract with our readers is broken. In order to get lost in a story, readers can’t catch us writing. What does this mean?
The most obvious mistake writers make is to not clean up their writing. They leave a mess of grammatical and spelling errors splashed across the written page. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a poorly edited story.
Clunky, poorly worded sentences with awkward or dull prose prevent a reader from getting caught up the story. They’re the written equivalent of bad acting, or a bad script.
And then, there are continuity errors. If my protagonist has blue eyes at the beginning of a novel and I refer to his brown eyes three chapters in, I’ve broken your absorption in the story and my contract with you.
All of these, and other technicalities aside, the most egregious way to get caught writing is to try to force the story.
An example of this is making a character do something that doesn’t fit who they are. Writers will do this to make a plot point. This is a WTF moment for readers. It breaks the contract. The story world, its rules, and characters, must be consistent. If I can’t include a plot point and keep contract, I need to take the story in another direction.
I created this world and its inhabitants in a certain image. If I change things midstream, I’m no longer invisible, because you, the reader, can see me manipulating the story. You’re no longer immersed in what you’re reading; you’re watching me, the storyteller. I’ve been caught writing.
Writers owe it to our readers and, honestly, to our characters and world, to write them as we created them. If we think we need something to happen and it doesn’t fit our character, the solution is to give it to another character, change the character throughout the story, or find a way to cut it.
The same goes for magic rules. I can’t break them to allow a plot point to happen. If tempted, I remind myself—don’t. Just don’t! I’m a writer. I have an imagination. I need to use it. Find another way. Maybe my story needs to go in another direction. Maybe I need to find a different way out of the predicament I’ve written my protagonist into. Maybe I need a different predicament.
Writers owe a debt to our readers. Without you, there would be no one to appreciate our work. We also have a contract with you. We must pull our greatest trick. We must convince you we don’t exist, at least until you’ve read our stories, fully satisfied, and reached the end.
What’s the worst way a writer has broken contract with you? How have you caught writers writing? I’d love to hear back in the comments.