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My comic novel has a scene in which the hero is battling a monster. And at a moment of tension, where he's losing badly, there's a scene break in which the narrator goes into a brief digression. After the break, we return to the battle, where more stuff happens and the hero wins.

My readers don't like the digression. They say it "takes them out of the story". I must be doing it wrong, because I'm sure I've seen books do this well.

How can a digression in the middle of a tense battle be done well?

I'd like to have a brief break in the written action scene that comes off more like a cliffhanger and less of an interruption.

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  • one reader didn't like it - this means nothing. Write for yourself (and possibly eventually whoever is paying for the right to publish). Trust your instincts and style. If you are doing something new or innovative, it will be jarring or uncomfortable to many readers but that doesn't mean it is incorrect. – NKCampbell Oct 6 '16 at 15:38
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    Here's a question for you, related to mbakeranalecta's answer below: why do you as the writer want to put a digression in the middle of a tense battle? Is it just because "other books have done it"? Do you feel like the battle is too tense and you as a reader need a break? Are you worried that your comic novel isn't funny enough in this spot? Helping us understand your reasoning may allow us to give you a better answer. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 6 '16 at 15:52
  • Honestly, I just like the way it flows. At the moment of maximum tension, with our hero in the midst of being strangled, the folksy cowboy narrator takes a step back to explain that the hero's friends will embellish the events whenever they tell the story, as opposed to what really happens, which is... – Shawn V. Wilson Oct 6 '16 at 16:51
  • There's a typo in my original post, NKCambell. It wasn't just one reader who objected; it was two or three, which is like half of my writing group! – Shawn V. Wilson Oct 8 '16 at 15:36
  • I'm number four. – user5645 Oct 17 '16 at 15:24
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It sounds like what you want is a narrative structure similar to the recent Deadpool film, where the main character frequently breaks the fourth wall, has voiceover narration of ongoing events, flashes backwards and forwards in linear time, and generally metas all over the place.

If you establish this kind of Moebius strip narrative from the beginning, your readers may be more accepting of it happening in the middle of the big boss takedown. But if you do it for the first time at a crucial moment, then no matter how funny the rest of the novel is, you're breaking the suspension of disbelief.

So do it early and often, and teach your reader that at any point you might interrupt the action with narration, flashback, poetry, or random jokes. Whether the particular fight works will then require fine-tuning, but the effect should be less jarring.

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I think this very much depends on the narrative tone and style that have been used up to this point. If this is the first time you have done such a digression in what has otherwise been a straightforward narrative, the result is likely to do exactly what you reader says: take them out of the story. To fix this problem, you will need to introduce this narrative device earlier.

Then there is the question of where the dramatic tension comes from in the story. Sometimes (in the simplest form of fiction) the dramatic tension comes from the physical action. If that is the case, interrupting the physical action breaks the dramatic tension. (It does not, as you might think, increase it by creating a cliffhanger and making the audience wait. There is a reason people PVR shows and fast-forward past the commercials.)

A cliffhanger that is not associated with an enforced hiatus (commercials, season break) is only an effective dramatic device is something else, other than the resolution of the immediate action, hangs in the balance. This gives the narrative somewhere else to go and something else to do while outcome of the previous action hangs in the balance. This builds dramatic tension rather than breaking it.

But if the dramatic tension in your story comes from something other than the physical action (as it does in more sophisticated stories) then the digression can pull the reader into the story rather than taking them out of it, but only if it increases the dramatic (or, in your case, comic) tension of the story.

In short, you need to figure out where the arc of dramatic (or comic) tension in you story lies and how your proposed digression fits that arc.

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Just an addition to the excellent answers by Mark Baker and Lauren Ipsum:

I am sure you can make that interruption work, if you write in a style where it fits. But if you write for an audience (and not just to pass the time and please yourself) it may be not the worst idea to at least sometimes think of how a potential reader could experience your narrative. Unlike you, they do not know the story when they read it. For you, the interruption is no interruption. Because you know how the action will continue. Because you do not perceive your narrative sequentially, but as a unified idea. It is all in your mind at the same time.

For the reader on the other hand, the interruption is a potential break of trust. Reading is a contract between author and reader. The reader allows you to manipulate their emotions and trusts you to play by the rules that the cover, blurb, and first pages of your book have set. The reader has entered your world, identified with your protagonist, and is imprisoned with your characters in the chronology of the story. The moment of crisis, if well written, is a moment of crisis for the reader, too. If you interrupt the flow of such a suspensful and highly emotional moment, some readers will feel as if an important promise has been broken.

Now, of course, as Lauren and Mark have said, it is quite possible to interrupt the action in an enjoyable and satisfying way. I only want to warn you to (a) observe yourself closely so that you will notice when you stop writing to the reader's perspective – which is not the reader's taste! –, and (b) to believe your test readers. If there is a significant number of test readers who are uncomfortable with something in your text, it is highly likely that a similar percentage of your target audience will also feel uncomfortable about it.

Sure, not every book is for everyone (which is why your beta readers must come from your target audience, not from your group of alpha-reading fellow writers), but the choice to limit the appeal of your book must be a conscious one, not an accident that you later regret.

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