Alina Popescu, Writer

#Writing for the Impatient Reader – Thoughts, Ideas, and Tips

#Writing for the Impatient Reader – Thoughts, Ideas, and Tips
June 17
08:58 2015

The way books are written has evolved. I’d like to say it’s a natural shift in how the craft and art of writing are moving forward, but it is really mostly about competing with other media. Movies, videos, radio shows, magazines, online writing, everything has impacted how we read. As what we expect from a story changes, the way we write has to adapt too.

Oh, how the times have changed! We skim, we are in a hurry, we’re used to having everything a few mouse clicks and key strokes away. And we expect the same from the stories we read.

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s an example (or rather a few). One of my favorite childhood series was Winnetou. Action-packed Western written by Karl May. Now, I was too young to realize his knowledge of the Wild West and the Apache (or all Native) tribes was limited and the book was a beautified version of… well, everything. The point is, I devoured it and it was published in 5 volumes in Romania. You see, five full novels are quite a bit for an 11 year old, but I read them all and quite quickly.

The first chapter of the first book is hard to forget. The author starts by explaining the concept of a greenhorn, then he explains how he was a greenhorn but didn’t realize it. Two pages of information which are funny, yet in this day and age, should you put that at the start of your book?… Well, I know quite a few people who have shouted info dump for two meager paragraphs. I also remember reading highly introspective books, or some where descriptions of nature and landscapes made up 40% of the book. Did I enjoy them? Some I did. Would I dare write something like that? Unlikely.

Today’s reader is impatient. No huge chunks of anything, no repetitive thoughts (even if real-life people tend to obsess over the same things over and over again), no big descriptive passages. Action, dialogue, more action, more dialogue. Fast paced and as straightforward as it can be. Go easy on the horde of characters, names are hard to remember, don’t be too vague, don’t leave any questions unanswered, don’t have too many flashbacks and timelines, it’s hard to keep up.

books are entertainment

And then I think of Dune and all the different races and families and planets. All the religious texts, all the poems and songs, all the lineages. How did we keep up with that before? What happened to the readers? Are romance (preferably contemporary romance) readers the only ones who are still hanging on in there? Have the rest given up reading and moved on to movies and TV series?

The answer is no. Those readers are still out there, but when it comes to the majority, you are and always will be competing with other mediums. Think of the skimming of online articles – it’s why using bold and italic and subheadings is so important. Think of movies where you don’t get much of a description and of how people complain about a voice narrating in the beginning or during the movie. Think of the TV series that sometimes come out in full seasons. A one-day marathon and you’re done.

Scary? It should be. Books are art and culture and education. But before all that, they are entertainment. And when it comes to entertainment, you are competing with all those other media. Graphic novels and comic books and DVDs and TV shows. Concerts too! Time is limited and whatever is more enjoyable will win the battle. 

What can you do?

Well, there are a few things

  1. Avoid info dumps, or at least large ones. Try to add bits and pieces of information throughout the book. Spoon-feed it all and hope for the best. You might end up getting complains that it’s hard to understand – whether it’s the world, the character, or the background…
  2. Visual aids and glossaries help – showing readers who’s who and explaining the factions and terms used might help a bit. Of course, if you add them in the beginning, readers might skip. At the end of the book, it might be too late 🙂
  3. Pray your character’s voice is entertaining enough so that readers will enjoy their description of people and places and find it enticing. Also don’t describe too much. Or too little! Readers have to be able to “see” the world you’re creating.
  4. Make sure timelines are properly marked – points of view, different moments in time – find a way to visually distinguish between them. Sometimes the usual suspects – breaks, separators, new chapters – don’t help enough.

Sounds complicated, I know. If you worry about everything while you write, you’ll go insane. So just write the story as you feel it, then worry about all this while editing your draft. Then get the input of some beta readers. Careful here though! If your beta readers don’t have a problem with everything I’ve highlighted, you’re screwed!

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About Author

Alina Popescu

Alina Popescu

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12 Comments

  1. Elin
    Elin June 17, 15:15

    “Are romance (preferably contemporary romance) readers the only ones who are still hanging on in there?”

    Absolutely not. Readers who enjoy fantasy, historicals and science fiction have more patience with information and description because the author needs to put in more so you can visualise the world. Authors of contemporary romance don’t have to describe taxi, bar or baseball cap but authors of genre fiction have to put a bit more effort into describing a Hansom cab, taberna or bassinet, or quark drives, oxygen scrubbers and the lizard men of planet Zorg.

    Reply to this comment
    • Alina Popescu
      Alina Popescu Author June 18, 01:16

      Elin, agreed there. But those genre readers are way less vocal and (come in smaller crowds) than romance readers. I don’t mind the background and the info, especially for situations, settings, or times I don’t know. Then again, I love all things fantasy, paranormal, scifi etc grin emoticon 🙂

      Reply to this comment
  2. Michael E. Henderson
    Michael E. Henderson June 18, 22:48

    Great post.

    I agree that some things have changed, such as the disfavor of the omniscient voice, or the technique of writing the story in the form of a diary (Dracula, Frankenstein) but I disagree that the basic tenants of good writing have changed.

    I looked at Winnetou, and it’s not really an info dump. He’s giving us some background, but it’s still in the form of a story, and engagingly told.

    Many new authors, on the other hand, believe that the reader does not have the intelligence to understand the story unless they lay out in excruciating detail the background of the character and of the world. This ailment is particularly prevalent among fantasy writers.

    The tips you lay out are valid and should be followed. I’m glad you put them out there. But they are not new rules because we don’t have the patience to read a good story. All good stories have always followed them. All new writers should take your advice.

    Reply to this comment
    • Alina Popescu
      Alina Popescu Author June 19, 01:46

      Michael, I somewhat agree with you, but I base my conclusions on things I’ve read in reviews (for books I’ve also read, of course). The omniscient voice is frowned upon, yes, and some publishers simply refuse to publish something written like that. But I’ve seen a lot of reviews where people complain about timelines, different POVs and the complexity of a story. Especially for scifi. I like to use my brain and not see stuff coming a mile away. I like well thought out worlds and chains of events that you have to figure out like a complicated puzzle 🙂

      I believe authors should trust their readers will understand without becoming to repetitive or going into more details than needed. I also know some readers will cringe at anything that’s not straight up action in the beginning of a book, regardless of how it is delivered.

      As for my advice, you are right, hardly anything new 🙂 Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that a lot of things I perceive as known to everyone are in fact not so well known. We assume everybody knows what we know, readers and writers. That’s not always the best approach 🙂

      Reply to this comment
  3. A. Margrave
    A. Margrave June 25, 21:42

    I enjoyed the article! It raises several excellent points about how our reception of something as timeless as books has evolved. I have to disagree, however, on a few things.

    Our fast paced lives have come to affect how we soak in everything around us, but I think this is only a natural consequence that goes with our exponential evolution as a society. This must be true across history. People might bicker about how times are now, or about how people are so spoiled today, but I’m willing to bet our predecessors ran into similar problems back in their day.

    The concept of huge books might be imposing to younger audiences, but in general I don’t think people are impatient readers. People who say they don’t have time to read a long book probably don’t have much time in general, but let’s not view them as impatient. Rather, we must consider that someone not having the time to sit down and read something does not necessarily make them impatient. Perhaps they are simply a different audience.

    A good comparison to this phenomenon is video games: you have mobile games, and you have RPG games. Mobile games saw an explosion. There were theories that arose, the most prominent being that it was more suitable to people’s time tables. That doesn’t mean we should cut down on long story-based games; there’s still a broad audience for that. So does this implicate one audience is more impatient than the other? Perhaps. Perhaps not. There’s too many factors to boil it down to a mere human trait.

    “All the religious texts, all the poems and songs, all the lineages. How did we keep up with that before? What happened to the readers?”

    Things need to be put in perspective to answer this. What happened to the readers you answered for yourself in your article; modern society is what happened. Back in the day, the bible was just about the only book around to read. People weren’t just using it as a religious text, they used it to learn how to read. They used it as a guide to live, and still do. Naturally it becomes embedded in our history. Now let’s try Homer…His works, long as they are, weren’t necessarily read, but were recited. Imagine how much more exciting it was to listen to the Odyssey being sung by a skilled muse in its original language. These old, classic, “lengthy” works have lasted through the ages for good reason, and it’s not necessarily due to readers having the exceptional patience to sit through them. It’s dependent on the times.

    Your advice is sound and valid. We’re all trying to help each other to grow as writers. But the reality is, the amount of authors who have the capability to write a good, long book, or even a short one, are not very many. It will always be that way. Novel writing may be something anyone can do, but not something everyone can do. It takes a skilled author to write a good book at any length, a good plot to pull audiences in. And a skilled writer takes time and dedication to develop. Time and dedication that most people, in these fast-paced times, simply cannot afford. So while it is something to consider, we can’t always blame bad sales for longer works on an impatient reader.

    As a last note, an impatient reader can be a favorable thing. Sometimes they just can’t wait to get their hands on your next book… ; )

    Reply to this comment
    • Alina Popescu
      Alina Popescu Author June 26, 01:07

      Thank you for stopping by and for your comment! However, I never meant impatience towards long books. It is more about their complexity or the amount of detail they contain. A lot of the thoughts, reviews, and comments I based my article on are not from infrequent readers, but from those who consider themselves passionate about books, book nerds, etc. I think our impatience with layered, complex stories is a bit worrying, and some great books that should be timeless will be considered just too much to ever try and read.

      I’ve seen the same behavior in how people rate TV series. If the story is complex, there are many characters, and you have to solve a complicated puzzle to figure out what’s going on, viewers will complain they got lost.

      Also, I think you’ve misunderstood my point about religious texts. It was something that strictly referred to Dune – all the religious texts the author referenced or quoted, the poems and songs, all the races and the numerous families with their home lands and areas of influence. It is quite a saga with so many story lines which would now seem hard to keep up with.

      I am not saying it’s not okay to have different audiences for different kinds of books. I write in several genres, so that in a way helps me. How people read and how they want their entertainment and information has changed, despite of how much time they have (as I said earlier, people who read a few books a week still sometimes express such feelings). Writing should adapt to it, but I hope we still get twisted, complicated plots that keep us engaged. I still hope for detailed world building and compelling backgrounds and root for them. It would be a shame for them to disappear just because readers don’t have the patience to read them and want only dialogue and lots of action.

      Reply to this comment
  4. Shayla
    Shayla November 22, 07:39

    Alina, two of my favorite books ever – Winnetou and Dune. Even after Harry Potter, I still think there’s nothing that can surpass Dune. Unfortunately, I agree with you. People’s tastes have changed. That isn’t to say they don’t find book like Winnetou or dune still enjoyable, but most of the time we want action and angst and we want them delivered pronto. I could never stomach Sherlock Holmes for instance, despite trying my hardest. It’s simply too slow for me. I want something with adrenaline, something that will make me laugh and cry and something full of plot twists. Older books are not usually like that, but tv shows and movies have changed our tastes and perspectives. We think a little more visually now, which is why I believe we prefer books that would read like a movie script. It’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s simply how society nowadays works and, God forgive me, but I don’t think I have the patience to read the Karamazov Brothers and the likes again. I’ve changed along with the rest of society 😀

    Reply to this comment
    • Alina Popescu
      Alina Popescu Author December 02, 02:59

      I am with you on this. Sometimes I want something that’s super faced paced and full of action. But I remember reading this fantasy series once, two big books (about 500 pages) where everything was a constant struggle to survive, lots of characters, action to overwhelm you. In the middle of book three, I just had to take a break.

      We do need to adapt our writing style, but not everything works that way. It works for mysteries and adventure, but some other more character driven books still need you to take your time with them (both as a reader and as a writer).

      Reply to this comment
      • Michael Henderson
        Michael Henderson December 02, 08:14

        I still think it’s a non-issue. We’ve had movies and television for decades. A good story still has the same elements as it always has. I’ll grant you that 18th and 19th century novels don’t play well now, but novels written within the past fifty years still do.

        For example, “A Clockwork Orange,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and such.

        Art requires contrast. No movie you watch today, even high fantasy, is all action. It can’t be. If you want to see what happens if it is, watch a football game on NFL.com using the condensed version. It’s run a play, run a play, run a play, until the end. It’s very tiring. Whereas in a real game, we run a play, then talk about it. Show replays. Give analysis. It’s a much more satisfying experience.

        I don’t think things need to be dumbed down to the extent some people think. Where does it end? Will we all be reading comic books?

        No, there is a demand for good, well-written stories, and there always will be. These stories have the same structure and the same rhythm they have had since Aristotle.

        Reply to this comment
        • Alina Popescu
          Alina Popescu Author December 02, 08:31

          I think it’s a numbers’ game and a lot more of those identifying as book nerds have no patience for anything that’s not fast paced, possibly with a good to great outcome. I don’t know if I’d go back to reading Dostoevsky right now, but I do still enjoy books that don’t necessarily read like movie scripts.

          It’s a bit funny that while reader want the action of movies and TV series, they don’t want the same marketing hooks. You can still get damned to hell for a cliffhanger.

          Either way, to think the way people read has not changed or adapted isn’t the right way to go either. Maybe 10 pages of background information and descriptions before anything happens isn’t necessary. Maybe there is a point in having less introspection. I believe at the end of the day a good story is still appreciated. The number of people appreciating it, that might be a bit lower.

          Reply to this comment
      • Shayla
        Shayla December 02, 10:14

        True. True. It’s a very fine balance and some writers are more apt than others in finding it. Too much adventure and action can also get boring because it becomes redundant or too overwhelming. In the end it’s all about skills.

        Reply to this comment

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