Making Your Novel More Reader-Friendly

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Let’s face it: in this day of action movies, readers have a shorter attention span than they used to. The days of long, winding narrative are over. So what can we writers do to give us the best possible chance of keeping the reader engaged from the beginning to the end of our story?

  • Hook ‘Em

Readers need to be hooked at the beginning and end of every chapter. This is what stops them from putting the book down once they’ve reached a convenient stopping place.

  • Watch your Pacing

Making your novel fast-paced will keep your reader hooked, but you need to have the occasional moment of relief or your reader will become used to the constant high tension and may grow bored. I remember hearing once that the best way to do this is not to slow things down, per se, but to switch from one type of tension to another. From emotional tension to plot tension, or vice versa.

  • Shorten Your Chapters

Shorter chapters can trick the reader into feeling like the book is a faster read. How many of you come to the end of a chapter, count the pages in the next chapter, and decide it’s short enough that you’ll read just one more chapter? I know I do. The trick is to have a hook at the beginning and end, so your reader really, really wants to read the next chapter. If you can successfully do this, before they know it they’ve finished the entire book.

  • Keep Your Paragraphs Short Too

Readers love white space. It makes the book seem more manageable. Even if the paragraph could be longer, consider having no more than three or four sentences per paragraph. If you have a big chunk of narrative that could be written in one paragraph, break it into several. This creates the white space a reader instinctively looks for.

  • Use Lots of Dialogue

This is really a subset of the point above. Dialogue creates the white space a reader looks for, plus it’s fun to read the interplay between your characters.

What do you as a reader instinctively look for when considering whether or not to buy a novel? Do you scan it for dialogue or white space? Do you read the back cover blurb and/or the first few pages? (I do all of the above.)

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17 thoughts on “Making Your Novel More Reader-Friendly

    kay springsteen said:
    January 19, 2011 at 7:37 am

    I open it to someplace near the middle and look for pov – I don’t like first person as a rule (but can overcome this if the blurb on the back sounds good), but I hate this tendency for it to be first person present (I go to the field and find her there as opposed to I went to the field and found her there). It may be a great story but that kind of writing kind of throws me off and keeps me from getting into the story.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 19, 2011 at 7:42 am

      I have to agree with you there, Kate. It can be off-putting.

      I tried reading a story a few months ago where the main POV was 1st person past, and the other POVs were 3rd person present. The story was good and I understood what the author was trying to do, but it was far too jarring for me to continue reading the story.

    Laure said:
    January 19, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Amen, sister, on the short chapters. I’d also add, if you have to write a chapter longer than 9 pages, put some breaks in there. *begs* I mean, seriously, as a reader, I’m also a collector, and I don’t like to write in my books. So if I have to run off to, oh, cook dinner, (answering the phone and other such emergencies don’t count) I don’t like to grab a pencil or hunt for where I left off before. I’ve always thought a break point somewhere in your chapter not as a place to put the book down and never come back to, but more as a courtesy to your reader, which would make them–or at least me–more willing to come back to your story. 🙂

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 19, 2011 at 9:56 am

      That’s a great point to make, Laure. I do think shorter chapters and/or chapter breaks are a good courtesy to your readers. However, I do remember reading a book where at one point there were scene breaks every two pages. That was a little much.

      Nina Pierce said:
      January 19, 2011 at 1:30 pm

      This is interesting Laurie. I try to avoid scene breaks if at all possible. For me they interrupt the flow of the story. It’s interesting that you see them as a courtesy so the reader has a place to break without stopping their reading flow. Hmmm, interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    V. Mark Covington said:
    January 19, 2011 at 10:07 am

    True, and this is why I read mostly British authors now. American novelists, in the interest of holding reader’s shorter and shorter attention spans, have ‘dumbed down’ novels to almost comic book levels. Gotta hook ’em, give them short sentences, simple words and lots of action or “look something shiny” they are off watching American Idol. Where will it end? Adult picture books? Oh, wait, those are magazines.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 19, 2011 at 10:30 am

      The times are a’ changing. I personally like many of today’s fast-paced books, but then again, I do watch a fair amount of television, lol. 🙂

      Nina Pierce said:
      January 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      Fortunately there are a lot of authors who have stellar prose and keep the action moving forward. Not everything has to be short and choppy to hold the readers’ attention. (But I’m with you … it is a fear that good writing may go the way of the magazine article to keep the attention of multi-taskers.)

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    January 19, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Excellent points. I’m a lover of the classics, yet when I pick up a new release if it doesn’t hook me within say 30-50 pages, I don’t waste my time. Might I miss the book of the decade? No, I don’t think so. I just read it, Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay. 567 pages and he hooked me from page 1! Take a slow and elegant book for example – Remains of the Day – again, the prose is understated and simple, but the book had me in its thrall immediately.

    The same rules apply to a blog post – readers don’t like large blocks of text – in order to keep them reading, a blogger is better off writing in shorter paragraphs. It’s important to keep the eyes, and the action moving and yes, you can include some down time, but I too am guilty of counting ahead to see how many pages are left in a chapter and I’m a reader with a capital ‘R’.

    It’s not that we have shorter attention spans, it’s that we have multiple stimuli to choose from.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm

      That’s a good point, Julia. Used to be I’d finish a book whether I liked it or not, because I’d committed to it. These days my time is very limited. So a book has to hook me from the start or I won’t finish it.

        Brinda said:
        January 19, 2011 at 3:23 pm

        I agree with you both. I need to be hooked rather quickly or I’ll toss it aside (unlike the days in the past when I had time to suffer through some slow beginnings). I have other things I could be doing or reading.

    Ciara Knight said:
    January 19, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I read the back cover blurb and maybe the first few pages. White space isn’t something that bothers me. I’ll read an 800 page book if it has been recommended and skip a 150 page book if it has bad reviews.
    Great post, Rosalie!

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 19, 2011 at 12:35 pm

      You know, it’s funny. I read the first few pages to see if the book interests me, yet I never really considered just how important those pages are until I heard a discussion on it. I guess I forgot that agents and editors are ultimately readers. If it doesn’t catch their interest, odds are they won’t keep reading to see if the story improves.

    Bart Palamaro said:
    January 19, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Love those short chapters, ’cause that’s what I write. Average 6-7 pages and some as short as 3. Makes for lots of chapters in a 100k novel. I like reading those too, a long chapter makes me edgy, wondering what the point is. But my favorite authors are Jane Austin, C. S. Forester and Dorothy Sayers. Not exactly sound byte writers. Go figure.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 20, 2011 at 7:41 am

      I trend toward shorter chapters too. I like the action and punch they have. But then I usually have a few 20-pagers in there too, so go figure.

    Marianne Stephens said:
    January 19, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    All very excellent suggestions! Getting readers “hooked” immediately is such a major plus!

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 20, 2011 at 7:41 am

      Yes! It can make the difference between them leaving with the book or not.

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