Avoid plot error of reader cheating in your story

Sometimes authors, in the mistaken belief that they are creating a more exciting story, commit the error of reader cheating.

This occurs when the reader has no reasonable opportunity to anticipate that some decision, realization or event will occur.

Suppose in a fantasy novel that the main character uses magical abilities to resolve the story’s central problem. If the main character never used magic and the reader had no inkling that he even had that ability, then then the author is cheating the reader. Readers dislike this unwarranted surprise because it breaks their suspension of disbelief. No amount of explaining away the surprise after it occurs will fix that.

Instead, the author should plant subtle clues suggesting that the main character might indeed have magic. Perhaps his parents are mages. Maybe minor wishes he makes comes true. Possibly he feels oddly different at times, such as being “at one with nature” or full of boundless energy. Natural explanations should be given for these clues – such as the frame was rotted so the door fell off the frame, though the main character coincidentally wished for it, or perhaps he was extremely excited when walking all night without ever tiring. This way the reader believes that the main character can’t use magic to resolve the story’s problem, but when he does, it is believable.

There are several ways authors can avoid reader cheating. First, always plant subtle clues. The trick is to give hints that allow for a later action to occur but don’t make that solution so obvious that readers know how the story will end. Secondly, never withhold information from the reader. A character should be able to make a deduction only with the same information that the reader has been given. Finally, don’t let a character lie in his internal narrative, as this deceives readers. In the fantasy novel described during the previous paragraph, the main character shouldn’t know he has magical abilities. Instead, he should be as surprised by the reveal as much as the reader is.

The term was coined by science fiction author James Patrick Kelly as part of the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.