After a conversation I had a few weeks ago, I started thinking about what exactly it is that makes some novels faster to read than others.
You know the kind of thing I’m talking about- you’ve got two books of roughly equal lengths by different authors and yet you can read one in a couple of days, but the other one takes at least a week to read.
Anyway, I thought about this for a minute or so and came up with some ideas about why this sort of thing happens. If you’re planning on writing a full-length novel or even just a short story, then these things might also be useful when it comes to working out how quickly-readable you want your story to be. But, I should point out that most of this stuff is probably fairly obvious though.
1) Action vs. Description: Generally speaking, the ratio of action (eg: things happening, drama, events etc…) to descriptions tends to be a lot higher in novels that are quicker to read. Likewise, if you want your novel to be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, it may be worth ensuring that there are as many descriptions of things as there are dramatic events in your story.
In other words, the faster you want your novel to be read, the shorter the descriptions should be (because, if you can’t just describe things, then you’ll need to actually show things happening).
To give you an example of what I mean, I can usually read a 400-600 page Lee Child novel in a couple of days and these novels often feature relatively short descriptions, like this one from Lee Child’s “The Enemy”: “Made it through gloomy tiled corridors and came to a door with a pebble-glass window set in its upper half. The door had light behind it and Lt/Col. A. Norton stencilled on it. I knocked and went in. I saw a small and neat office. It was clean and it smelled feminine. I didn’t salute again. I figured we were past that point“.
Notice how, in this quote, every individual thing that is being described is only described using one or two short words. Likewise, the descriptions are interspersed with actions too (Eg: walking down corridors, knocking on doors, deciding not to salute). This means that this story is rather fast-paced.
Now, let’s look at an example from a much slower-paced novel. The novel I will be quoting from is a 661- page (including appendices) fantasy novel called “A Storm Of Swords: Steel And Snow” by George R. R. Martin which took me about a week or so to read. It’s the first half of a much longer novel, but it’s a roughly similar length to the Lee Child novel I mentioned earlier
Anyway, let’s take a look at a quote from it: “Two days’ ride to either side of the kingsroad, they passed through a wide swath of destruction, miles of blackened fields and orchards where the trunks of dead trees jutted into the air like archers’ stakes. The bridges were burnt as well, and the streams swollen by autumn rains, so they had to range along the banks in search of fords. The nights were alive with the howling of wolves, but they saw no people.”
Notice how, although there are a couple of actions in this quote (eg: travelling by horse), most of these few sentences are taken up with detailed descriptions of the landscape around the characters. Due to the fact that this novel contains lots of passages like this, it’s a lot slower to read than the Lee Child novel was.
2) Language: If you want your novel to be quickly readable, then you need to make sure that you use slightly simpler and more informal language.
This doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb down” your story or anything like that, it just means that you should mostly use words that don’t sound too “fancy”.
If you use more basic descriptions and language, your readers can “process” it a lot more quickly and, therefore can read more of your story in a short amount of time.
Going back to the quotes I showed you earlier, the Lee Child quote uses fairly basic language like “a small and neat office” whereas the G R. R. Martin quote uses slightly more complex language like “a wide swath of destruction“.
3) Plotting: Another thing that can determine how fast your audience can read your story is what kind of plot your story has.
Generally, if your story has a plot that contains lots of mysteries (that make your readers curious and eager to read more) or lots of fighting (which makes your readers eager to see who will win and how they will win), then it will be a faster-paced story for the simple reason that your readers will want to read more of it as quickly as possible.
Of course, none of these factors exist in isolation – since the Lee Child novel and the G.R.R Martin novels I mentioned earlier both contain lots of mysteries and fighting. So, both of them contain things that make people want to read more quickly, but the reading time for these novels still differs quite a bit because of the two things I mentioned earlier.
Even so, I very much doubt that I’d have been able to read the G. R. R Martin novel in just a week if it wasn’t for the fact that it contained lots of battles, adventures, dramatic plot twists, intriguing mysteries and things like that. If, for example, it had been a comedy or a romance, then it would have probably taken me more than just a week to read it.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful :)