Hide Your Programming

As those who know me are aware, I’m a gamer. Today I was playing my new favorite iOS game, and saw the programming for the first time, after several hours of playing. It made me think of something I know about writing.

What do I mean by seeing the programming? Well, in this case, I went to fling a bomb at something and had it skip past the first thing it was supposed to explode, exploding it along the way, and jump to the next, exploding that as well. That’s not what it’s supposed to do, but it did so, because the hit boxes – the areas around the sprites representing items – were close enough together that the explosive device interacted with the first one and set off an unintended chain reaction. The sprite of the bomb hit the first item, and the first item’s hit box was big enough to set off the second item, whose hit box was also programmed to explode when an explosion hit it.

The point here is that when that happened, I was suddenly thinking about the way the sprites and their hit boxes were programmed, not about whether I would get the hoped-for item out of the explosion, in order to finish the quest and level up my armor. The game intruded itself upon me and broke my immersion.

This can happen in stories too. When it does, suddenly the reader is thinking, “What? That’s the third use of that word in as many sentences,” or “That doesn’t make sense, he left that gun in the other room and I didn’t see him pick it up again,” instead of being immersed in the story. The writer’s programming is showing.

How do you avoid this? One way is to read bad fiction. It’s important to read good fiction, but it’s also important to read fiction that makes you snort and want to throw it across the room. Catch those moments when you find yourself having trust issues with the author, being broken out of the story, or shaking your head. What did the author do there? What could they have done instead?

Another way is to make sure you’re doing the programming correctly. Like the game developer, the author does a massive pile of work behind the scenes that translates into a smooth, immersive experience, not necessarily into direct world building information. Make sure your internal logic is consistent. Make sure your world building extends in all directions farther than your actual story. Make sure your logistics – like what room the gun was left in and how many left turns the caravan has made – are in good order.

Here is where a good critique group can be very helpful. Their critiques may not be correct on what to do to fix the immersive breaks that caught their eye, but the information about where they were drawn out of the story can be immensely useful.

An editor is also highly suggested – someone who has read so much fiction that she can not only tell where she’s broken out of your story, but why, and who can make suggestions as to how to smooth the breaks. Someone who is familiar with and enthusiastic about your work, someone who has experience with lots of different fiction and different authors, and can draw on all that experience to help make your writing better.

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