How to write a book

What your readers will never notice… a small point about reader belief and story logic (with a little help from Terrance Dicks, Rod Hull and Nina Conti)

In our house, we have a catchphrase: ‘Nobody will notice, Jon.’

We adopted it from Terrance Dicks, script editor of our favourite era of Doctor Who. He said it while discussing a cheeky plot bamboozle in The Sea Devils, for which I have great affection (excepting the cheeky plot bamboozle). During filming, it seems that Jon Pertwee (Who Himself) had concerns and Dicks reports the following conversation:

Pertwee: ‘But Terrance, how could the Master hypnotise the nurse, switch outfits with him and tie him up… all in 30 seconds?’

Dicks (valiant in the face of a scorching deadline): ‘Don’t worry, Jon. Nobody will notice.’

We did notice, and Pertwee noticed, and probably all of Whovania noticed. It’s now a house phrase, chez Morris.

What the reader will never notice

There are some things readers will never notice. Suppose your character has to take a train to Birmingham. Do you have to explain the minutiae? Do you have to prepare a description of slogging to the station with a wheelie bag that keeps capsizing, watching the fields pass with the roar and rat-tat of the wheels, find words to describe that precise train smell? Certainly you do if that scene contains anything that’s important. But if it doesn’t, the reader will never notice they weren’t on the train with the character. Just write ‘she took the train to Birmingham’.

But they will notice this

But here’s a thing they will notice. If you sneak a plot impossibility past them, or a character inconsistency… You might manage to conceal it at the time, especially if you distract the audience, perhaps with humour, or you cover it in the general mayhem of a fast-paced finale. They might not see it immediately (or they might). But at some point they’ll think…. ‘hang on… that just doesn’t make sense.’

Emu and Monk

Storytelling requires us to suspend disbelief. We will do it readily and eagerly, if all is aligned. We’ll even believe something as obviously artificial as Rod Hull and his puppet Emu – we may not like it, but we are in no doubt that Rod is truly worried about what Emu might do, even though it’s obvious that Emu is a giant glove on Rod’s arm. That’s the spell of characterisation.

Continuing with ventriloquism (don’t try saying that fast), Nina Conti readily breaks the fourth wall. Her dummies tell us she has her hand up their bottom, they grumble about the voices she gives them. It glories in artifice, but something makes us believe in it as a singular mad world of its own. Though it’s daft and not-real, it has a kind of logic. Consistency.

That logic – and consistency – is important. Every story has logic: it’s one of the agreements made with the audience.

Logic and consistency – of fact and emotion – make the reader comfortable to commit to our creation, to put their minds in our hands. The reader knows it’s all made up, every character, every word of dialogue, every action taken, every mark on the page. We have to teach them our story’s logic and then play fair by it.  We can make them believe anything if we set it up (see my post about plot holes and endings).

If we break the agreement, for instance like the madly impossible Sea Devils reveal, I’m afraid they will notice, very much. Jon was right, Terrance. But bless you anyway. This was the first book I ever bought with my pocket money. It’s still on my shelves.

Stop sign pic by Alexander Kovalyov on Pexels

There’s loads more about plot and logic in my plot book!

Also, I’m honoured that this blog has been selected by the freelance marketplace Reedsy as one of their best writing websites.

And if you’re curious about the mischief I’ve been making in my own writing life, step this way

20 thoughts on “What your readers will never notice… a small point about reader belief and story logic (with a little help from Terrance Dicks, Rod Hull and Nina Conti)

  1. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! We create the ‘rules’ in our stories, and we have to abide by them, or else. Plot holes and impossible ‘events’ turn our readers off very quickly, and they’re unlikely to give us a second chance.

    But speaking as a reader myself, I find sudden and unexpected character reversals to be even worse than plot holes. Characters should change and /grow/, that’s part of the joy of reading about them, but we all know that those kinds of changes take time, and usually involve a fair bit of resistance on the part of the character. That’s why sudden reversals are so jarring.

    In my not-so-humble-opinion, pacing is every bit as important in a story as plot and motivation.

  2. Excellent points. It’s something that terrifies me, the idea of making such an appalling mistake. In consequence, I generally refuse to ever specify precisely where things are taking place, so that no one can ever say, “You can’t drive from London to York in *that* time!” When I do have a known place being used, I aim to have been there fairly recently, and do a bit of wandering around virtually as well; but that’s rare. It’s why I won’t ever write historical fiction, because not only would it mean knowing the period as an expert, but it’s also subject to new discoveries. A famous novelist did a novel on Stonehenge (called, *Stonehenge*) but not long after it came out, new information had emerged that made the entire plot absurd. Aged 13, I spotted a HUGE impossibility in the Agatha Christie “The Pale Horse” and was incandescent and terribly let down by it.

    1. Hi Viv! I had meticulous editors when I was ghostwriting, so I was drilled always to check every assertion. For Ever Rest I have notes of every detail like that – in the margin I had comments saying ‘Yes you can do this, time taken: 4 hours’! I pity that ppoor Stonehenge author.

  3. This is a great message on how suspension of disbelief works. It’s one reason why I value my critique partners and beta readers so much. They’re the ones who will tell me when something doesn’t work. If I try to pull “Nobody will notice,” they just say, “Well, *I* did!”

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