This week, we have the latest in Claudia Hall Christian’s regular column on Surviving Serial Fiction. This week’s post – the fifth in her series – is aimed towards helping writers keep their serial fiction intelligible and engaging for today’s distracted reader. Squirrel. We are excited for this opportunity to share more of Claudia’s expertise with our Tuesday Serial community. Welcome back, Claudia!
5 Ways to Make Your Serial Fiction More Readable
The world has changed. Your readers have ten things they could be doing besides reading your story. Moreover, you’re competing for attention from social media, streaming movies, music on multiple channels, 24-hour news stations, and that’s not to mention texts, phone calls, or, oh yeah, actual work. To make matters worse, your readers are exhausted from all the reading they do!
It’s amazing that anyone ever reads anything for fun.
Whether you like it or not, your readers are tired, distracted, and bombarded by a lot of stories. If we want people to read our stories, we must be willing to write in a manner which engages them.
What does this mean? To better understand readability, let’s take a step back to look at the four types of reading:
- Elementary reading is quite literally reading that a student in elementary school can understand.
- Inspectional reading is skimming or superficially reading.
- Analytical reading is thorough reading.
- Syntopical reading is thoughtful, comparative reading.
(Don’t panic. Shane Parrish does a great job explaining all of this on his blog, Farnam Street. While you’re there, sign up for his free newsletter. You won’t be sorry.)
Your readers currently read at a fourth grade reading level. In fact, you’re probably reading this at a fourth grade reading level.
If you publish your serial fiction online, most of your readers are reading at less than a fourth grade reading level.
You’re probably wondering how your adult, well educated readers could possibly read at such a low level. The reason is very simple: being distracted lowers your IQ.
What’s a writer to do?
Here are five ways to make your serial fiction readable.
1. Reintroduce your characters: Trust me. There are days when some of your readers will not remember who any of your characters are or how they fit into your story. Don’t leave your readers guessing. Give your readers simple reminders.
Janice found her boyfriend, Bryce, standing on the other side of her front door.
Rather than – Janice found Bryce standing on the other side of her front door.
“Jeremiah’s going to be here for dinner?” she asked. “I didn’t realize he was out of prison.”
Rather than – “Jeremiah’s going to be here for dinner?” she asked.
Regardless of how central you believe your character is to your story, practice reminding your readers who they are. Your readers will thank you.
Every three months or so, I include these kinds of qualifiers for every character in the chapter. It’s a good practice to help cement your characters in your readers’ minds.
2. Limit your use of pronouns: This feels clunky when you’re writing and editing. However, your reader will quickly loose track of the “she” in “she said.” Use your character’s name.
When we read in electronic form, the last chapter or paragraph is gone from our line of sight. This means that we only bring to each new paragraph that which we remember or have right in front us. In most cases, that’s very little information.
Drop the pronouns and your story will read a lot better.
3. Use the short sentences rule! 14 words. That’s the number of words in a sentence that’s understood by 90% of people. 8 word sentences are understood by 100% of people. That’s right. You have between 8 and 14 words to get your point across.
Short sentence feel weird to write and edit, especially in fiction. Your reader will never notice.
There is a limitation with short sentences if you publishing with Smashwords. There is a bug in the Smashwords “meat grinder” program. The program trips on too many short paragraphs (i.e., short sentence dialogue.) At this writing, they have not found a way to fix this error. You can still publish your work there by posting your story in ePub format instead of Microsoft doc format. So if you get a weirdo error, just bump your story up in ePub.
4. Keep it simple. I’m not saying you should dumb down your story. Please do make your story have as many complications, twists, and turns as possible. You simply can’t get there all at once.
Keep your individual scenes simple and to the point. You want to get from here to there? Write a scene about right here. The next few scenes should be about somewhere between here and there. And sometime later you’ll be there.
Your distracted reader will have a better comprehension of four short scenes than one long, complicated scene.
5. Put the sentence you want your readers to read at the start of a paragraph. Because people read up and down in electronic format, their eyes catch the first sentence of every paragraph. This means that their brains overemphasize the importance of this sentence. This is particularly true for single sentence paragraphs.
This means that single sentence paragraph, like this one, are more likely to be read.
Make sure you use them for what you want your reader to know.
Writing for distracted people takes a lot of intelligence, patience, and practice. If you want to be a successful author in 2015, you need to create readable work for distracted people. Because let’s face it — everyone is distracted now.
Until next time!
If you enjoyed this post, you can view past installments by clicking “Special Events and Guests” on the menu bar above and then selecting “Surviving Serial Fiction Series”. And please consider subscribing to the entire series via email.
Claudia Hall Christian writes thrillers, mysteries, and serial fiction including, the long-running Denver Cereal and Suffer a Witch, set in modern Boston and based in the Salem Witch Trials. She writes the Alex the Fey thriller series, the Seth and Ava Mysteries, and Jornada del Muerto. More about Claudia at her website.