menu Language Is A Virus

5 Ways to Break the Story Spell

You sink back into your favourite chair with a new book in your hand. With a barely perceptible sigh of anticipation, you turn to the first page. Ah, there's nothing like starting a brand new novel...

You start to read. Within minutes, you're engrossed in the action. A thunderstorm could break, and you wouldn't hear it. You turn the pages, immersed in the world of the story.

And then it happens. Something jars. Something is out of place.

Abruptly, you're reminded that you're reading. The sounds of the day become real again, and you're back in your everyday world.

The story spell has been broken.

Sometimes, you know what it is that has jerked you away from the characters that you're beginning to care about... perhaps an ambiguity in the text has made you re-read the paragraph, and you become aware that you're reading for meaning. Sometimes you have no idea... there's just something wrong.

As the author, the last thing you want is for your reader to be reminded that your world is not real. Sure, they know it when they first open the book - but once they start to read, they want to lose themselves in your story. Here are 5 ways you risk breaking that story spell.

1. Failing to check your work for "echoes"

It's all too easy to unintentionally repeat a word. Basic words like 'said' or 'and' don't really matter, because they are so common they are invisible to the reader. But for most words, you should try to avoid repetition even on the same page, let alone in the same paragraph or sentence.

For example:

"I don't think you should go back there," he warned. "If I were you I'd be getting out of there. They're just waiting for you to step out of line."

Did you spot the 'echo'? There were two: 'there' and 'out of'. If I were editing this piece, I'd change it to something like:

"I don't think you should go back," he warned. "They're just waiting for you to step out of line. I'd be thinking of leaving. Fast."

2. Beginning too many sentences with the same word

This happens most frequently with sentences starting with "He" or "She" or "I" - although sometimes it can be the character's name that is repeated too often.

Often, a sequence of sentences that start with the same word have a very similar structure throughout. What is the result of this? The writing seems monotonous, and readers start to get bored. They become aware that they're reading. It's not hard to think of a way to restructure sentences to avoid this sort of repetition.

An example of repeated sentence beginnings:

She crept into the house, alert for every sound. She was sure there was someone there. She could feel it...

An alternative:

She crept into the house, alert for every sound. There was someone there. In the darkness, in some corner... she could feel it.

3. Indulging in long or unfamiliar words

While you don't have to write sentences that consist entirely of words of one or two syllables, you should avoid using words that half your readers probably won't know. Good writing is transparent. That means you don't jerk the readers back to the real world because they don't know what the characters are talking about. One unfamiliar word every few chapters is okay (especially if the context makes it clear) - an unknown word every second page is not.

Your reader will start to feel annoyed, then angry because he's not in the 'club' of people who know words like this. (A few examples: expurgate, kinematic, consanguinity, promulgate. You may know the meaning, but a large percentage of your readership will not.)

4. Introducing images that are too "different"

Never forget that your aim is to make the reader:

  • feel what your character is feeling,

  • see what your character is seeing, and

  • hear what your character is hearing.

Some writers, in an effort to be original, come up with images that are so vivid and 'different' that they distract the reader.

For example:

"Her hair was coiled in plait around her head, like a snake sleeping in the sun." (Are you seeing hair, or a snake?)

"Fear crept up her back like a funnel web spider." (Are you feeling her fear, or visualising spiders? This one not only makes you 'see' spiders, but a particular kind of spider!)

So... be different, but not so different that your reader is reminded that he is 'just reading'.

5. "Info-dumping"

The key to reader involvment is getting deep inside your character's skin. When you're in there, you mention only what is relevant to the character at that moment.

The minute you start explaining something in detail (a forensic procedure, the history of a place, a character's backstory) you are in danger of going into "lecture mode" - that is, dumping information into the story and stopping the story flow.

Don't do it! Weave in information gradually as the story progresses - and only as much as is needed.

There are other ways to break the story spell, but these five are amongst the most common. Try to avoid them in your own work, and you'll have your reader hooked until the end of the novel!

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at

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