Although this is an article about writing easily-readable fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games (and, yes, this is sort of relevant to the topic I’ll be talking about).
After getting a vaguely modern refurbished computer a week or so before writing this article, I decided to test out a couple of modern games on it. One of these games was a survival horror game from 2018 called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” – which, at the time of writing, I’ve only had a very brief chance to play.
Although I was astonished that the game would actually run on a computer that I owned, the only way I could make it playable (albeit at about 15-30 frames per second) without a dedicated graphics card was to drastically lower the level of visual detail in the game. Still, the fact that I could actually play it really astonished me, even if it ended up looking like this:
Of course, following on from this, all of this time spent gaming meant that I had slightly less time for reading. But, since I still wanted to keep reading regularly, I found myself gravitating towards books that were more “readable” (eg: fast-paced novels, TV/movie spin-off novels etc..).
So, this made me think about writing more readable fiction. So, here are a few tips:
1) Visual detail and descriptions: Just like how I was able to get a modern game to run on what would probably be considered a “low-end” modern computer (but futuristic compared to my vintage mid-2000s machine) by adjusting the graphics settings, the level of descriptive detail in your story can affect how readable it is. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t describe anything or that you should just set your story in generic mundane locations that you don’t need to describe much.
You still need to include descriptions, but you need to be a bit more careful about how you include them. You should mostly try to integrate shorter descrptions into narrative sentences. In other words, include lots of little descriptions in your story. For example: ‘Jack sat on the wine-stained sofa.’ or ‘Sophie creaked the scratched door open and darted inside‘. But, don’t do this with literally every sentence, because that can look very amateurish. In short, your descriptions need to appear alongside more gripping story-related actions when it improves the story.
Still, there are times where you will need to include longer descriptions. After all, if you need to include a new location or set the scene in some way, then a longer description is needed. The trick here is to think about placement, length and quality.
Not only should these descriptions only appear in situations where the story would be ruined without them, but they also need to focus on the most essential details of what you’re describing. If you describe a few important details really well, then your reader’s imagination will fill in all of the rest. This means that you can include a very descriptive passage that is also short enough (maybe a couple of paragraphs or so) not to break up the flow or pacing of your story.
Plus, a few well-placed high-quality descriptions will also make the rest of your story seem more detailed and atmospheric too. After all, once you’ve given your reader a mental image of a particular location, then they are probably going to remember it (although adding a few shorter recap descriptions of the location later in the story can be a good idea too).
2) Writing style and vocabulary: Just because you’re writing a readable story doesn’t mean that you have to use extremely simple language. By definition, readers are intelligent people. But they might have slightly less time or they might just want to relax and not put the effort into reading ultra-formal or experimental writing styles.
So, the thing here is to aim for a “normal” writing style, one that is clear without being too simplistic. Likewise, although you should include more complex sentences when necessary, try to make sure that your sentences are as short and to the point as possible (without making your story sound like it was written for a five-year old) to improve the pacing. In other words, just write clear narration aimed at ordinary people.
Of course, if you’re interested in writing, then you’re probably a reader too. You probably have a slightly larger vocabulary because of this. You’re probably going to use it. And, there’s nothing wrong with this – if it is handled properly. In other words, if you’re going to include an obscure word in your story, you need to either make it’s meaning obvious from the context or include a brief explanation.
For example: ‘The piercing smell of petrichor, a field after the rain, filled his nostrils.‘ or ‘By the fountain, a drenched busker played a haunting tune on the hydraulophone that had been drilled into a metal pipe.‘
3) Narrative and/or signposting: In short, your readable story should have a fairly linear narrative that moves forward and can be followed easily. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have multiple story threads, but keep the number of them fairly low (eg: 2-3 of them) and make sure that each chapter follows on from earlier chapters in a logical way.
If your reader doesn’t have to worry about things like keeping track of non-linear elements (eg: lots of time jumps, long flashbacks etc..) or doesn’t have to worry about deciphering more experimental writing, then they’ll be able to relax and enjoy your story more easily.
But, this isn’t to say that you can’t do a few experimental or non-standard things if you genuinely feel that it improves your story. However, if you want your story to be the kind of readable thing that people can relax with, then you need to signpost these things.
In other words, like with a complex computer game, you need to include a hidden tutorial to guide the audience without them even knowing. This is thankfully a lot easier than it might sound. It can be as easy as just providing a few small details at the beginning of each chapter (eg: location, time, who is narrating) or using formatting to signpost when you’re doing something different.
For example, Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 crime thriller novel “The Apprentice” includes a mixture of first and third-person narration. However, this doesn’t become confusing or disrupt the flow of the story because each type of narration is clearly signposted. The third-person narration is written in normal text and in the past tense. The first-person narration is written in italics, uses a different narrative style and is in the present tense. It’s very easy to tell the two things apart.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂