Three Ways To Stop Your Readers Feeling “Out Of Their Depth”

Whilst writing a comedic game review yesterday, I ended up remembering my old GCSE Maths lessons and how stressful they were. This then made me think about the subject of being “out of your depth”.

Although I made a bit of a melodramatic joke of it in the review, one of the main reasons why I still despise mathematics to this day is because I was bumped up to the top class just before my GCSE course started… where everyone else in the class had three years’ worth of extra knowledge and it was assumed that I did too. Add to that a rather draconian teacher and frequently-confusing classwork, and I was left feeling somewhat out of my depth. Yes, I did well in the exam – but it put me off of maths for life!

Although a “baptism of fire” approach can sometimes work, it is just as likely to backfire. Nowhere is this more true than in creative works, where the audience is a lot more free to choose what they experience and whether they continue reading, watching, playing etc… But there are valid reasons why creative people love to drop the audience in at the deep end.

Some genres, such as the cyberpunk genre, rely on “overloading” the audience with visual or narrative information in order to create the sense of a dense, futuristic setting. Fantasy novels tell long, epic complex stories that “require” giant description-heavy and jargon-heavy doorstep-sized novels. JRPG-style videogames often require the player to practice for quite a long time before the game truly becomes enjoyable. I could go on for a while….

But, how can you avoid your readers experiencing the off-putting feeling of being “out of their depth”?

1) Be friendly or interesting: If you’re telling an information-dense story, then there are two options available to you.

You can write in a style that is easy to read and which makes the audience feel like they are hanging out with an old friend (so that they’ll stick around, even if they don’t fully understand what is going on). Or you can add something interestingly dramatic and/or mysterious to the early parts of your story that will make your audience feel curious enough to keep reading, despite feeling confused.

Combining these two things is also a good idea too. The thing to remember is that the audience are more likely to stick around if they feel that they are actually going to enjoy the experience. So, an interesting narrator or a dramatic beginning can reassure audiences that the effort that they’re going to have to put into your story will be worthwhile.

2) Start simple: Most “complex” computer and video games will start with an easy tutorial level of some kind or another. Sometimes, this can be a literal tutorial. But, more often, it is just an easier level that gives the player a chance to learn and practice in a low-pressure environment. Although these levels annoy the hell out of experienced gamers, they are there to help new players. Writers can learn a lot from this!

So, start your story with a more “simple” opening chapter. Yes, you might want to tell a thrillingly futuristic cyberpunk story about how a NeoTokyo hack crew mindjacks the cyborg CEO of GeneTeknotiX Industries using a Mogilev Mole virus to crack the neuro-locks on the mega-corp’s backup datavault and gain admin access to the core BIOS of consciousness itself. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t put all of this stuff in the opening chapter!

Start your story with something a bit more small-scale and understandable… then gradually add the complex stuff later.

For example, William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer” doesn’t start with lots of futuristic computer hacking. It starts with the main character visiting a bar and feeling somewhat down on his luck. Yes, the opening chapter still contains a lot of futuristic jargon but it is kept to a very slightly lower level until the reader can get used to Gibson’s style of narration.

So, make sure that the beginning of your story is something a little bit more small-scale and simple. Another classic example of this is the beginning of G.R.R Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones“.

Yes, the novel itself is filled with complex medieval-style politics and more characters than you can shake a stick at. But, the opening chapter is a self-contained horror story about a group of soldiers being attacked by mysterious monsters. Not only does this intrigue the reader, but it also gives them a chance to get used to Martin’s dense, slow-paced narrative style without being overloaded with character names, politics, background information etc…

Likewise, even Frank Herbert’s amazing sci-fi epic “Dune” begins with a smaller-scale scene (containing some occasional background information about the story’s “world”) where a character undergoes a dangerous test, rather than plunging the reader directly into the novel’s fascinatingly complex fictional world and political system.

3) Length, editing and segmentation: Long things can be off-putting because of the amount of time that new audience members have to invest in them. People are more likely to watch an unknown 90 minute film on impulse or pick up an unknown 200-400 page novel on impulse than they are to watch a 120+ minute film or read a giant 600+ page doorstopper.

So, if possible, keep your story as short and focused as possible. Edit ruthlessly. Or, failing that, find some way to break your story up into more manageable pieces. Whether this involves shorter chapters or perhaps a series of shorter self-contained novels (so that the audience doesn’t feel like they have to buy an entire series), make it manageable!

The detective and thriller genres are excellent examples of this kind of thing. Each story by an author may feature the same fictional character and/or setting, but each novel in a series can often be read on it’s own and/or in any order. This means that it’s a lot easier for the audience to just pick up a book and start reading, instead of worrying about investing time and money in a long, continuous series.

Just don’t fall for the common fantasy genre pitfall of segmenting your story… and then making each segment both off-puttingly gigantic and part of a continuous series (that has to be read in order!).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Entertainment Formats and ” ‘Jumping In’ Time” – A Ramble

2017-artwork-jumping-in-time-article-sketch

I originally wrote this article a couple of days after Christmas last year, when I found myself in the wonderful (but paradoxically annoying) situation of having several different types of entertainment on the go at the same time.

At the time of writing, I’m still in the middle of a computer game called “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” (which I will review sometime in the future), I’m watching season four of “Game Of Thrones” on DVD and I’m also reading a novel called “Brighton Belle” by Sara Sheridan.

So, with things in three different mediums, it’s hard not to make comparisons. And, for today, I’ll be looking at what I call ” ‘jumping in’ time”. No, this doesn’t refer to time gaps in stories. It refers to the amount of time it takes to start or continue enjoying something, and how much control the audience has over this.

The novel I’m reading at the moment has a really short ‘jumping in’ time. It’s currently sitting within arms’ reach of my computer desk and, if I feel like spending five minutes reading it, I can just pick it up and carry on reading. If I feel like spending half an hour or more reading it, I can also do this without really thinking about it too much.

It’s written in a way which is descriptive enough to make the novel immersive, but functional enough to ensure that the story keeps moving. It isn’t the kind of ‘slow’ novel that can take literally weeks to read, but it isn’t the kind of fast-paced thriller novel that pretty much demands that you read the whole thing in one 3-6 hour sitting. This balance between these two extremes means that it’s the kind of book that you can easily pick up at will and just read for as long as you want to.

Plus, unlike a lot of modern novels, it’s only a slender 243 pages in length. This shorter length also invites the reader to ‘jump in’ to the story by suggesting that it won’t take too long to enjoy the story.

It’s also part of a longer series (I got the first three books for Christmas), where every novel in the series is completely self-contained. In fact, I accidentally started reading the third book (“England Expects”) for about 10-20 pages before I even realised that it was a later part of the series, and switched to the first book instead.

Best of all, since it’s a paperback book, the “system requirements” aren’t that high. As long as your eyesight is good enough and you are literate, then you can enjoy it. “Brighton Belle” was first published in 2012 and it requires exactly the same ‘hardware’ to read as a book from 1992 or 1952 does. Now, compare this to a high-budget modern computer game or one of those online-only TV series that are all the rage these days, and you’ll see why it has a massive advantage in terms of being accessible to audiences.

On the other hand, the “Game Of Thrones” season four DVD boxset I got for Christmas has something of a longer ‘jumping in’ time. Not only do you have to know all of the backstory and the characters (which I do already), but the box is one of those elaborate boxes where you have to remove a cardboard sleeve, then remove a box from inside another box and then unfold a concertina before you can even get to the discs.

In addition to this, you obviously have to watch the series in almost one hour increments. Whilst this allows for easier time-planning than, say, a two-hour film – it still means that you have to set aside about an hour or more to watch it. It isn’t something that you can enjoy for five minutes, twenty minutes or one and a half hours. You can only enjoy it in strict one-hour increments.

Now, compare this to the average Youtube video. Although “Game Of Thrones” might have much better production values, a compelling story etc… the average Youtube video is only about 3-10 minutes long. They’re the kind of thing that you don’t have to put much thought into watching. They have a very short ‘jumping in’ time. Even though I really love “Game Of Thrones”, I probably spent much more time watching Youtube videos in the days after Christmas.

On the other hand, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” has an even longer ‘jumping in’ time than all of these things. Whilst it is well-made enough to run on even fairly old computers (like mine), you have to download more than a gigabyte of data once you buy it, which can take a while. Likewise, there’s also a small 20mb patch that takes almost as long to install as the actual game does.

Although it’s really fun, it’s also a very slow-paced game. Not only are there long loading times (although this might be an old computer thing) when you start playing, but the game’s combat system is designed to be more of a slow and strategic chess-like thing.

Combine this with the fact that it will only allow you to save your progress at seemingly random points in the game and the fact that the story, characters, game world etc… are really compelling, and it’s the kind of thing where you have to set aside at least 1-2 hours whenever you want to play it.

Now, compare this to another game like “Doom II” (or, rather, fan-made levels for it). Since this game is extremely old, it loads almost instantly. The gameplay is designed to be fast, responsive and intense. It also allows you to save your game wherever you want. It’s the kind of game which you can literally play for five minutes, or an hour or whatever.

Although it would be the gravest of heresies to call “Doom II” a ‘casual’ game, it is a game with a ridiculously short ‘jumping in’ time. And, as such, my decision to play it is usually a lot quicker than it is when I decide whether or not to play some more “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”. Even if both things are extremely fun.

So, what was the point of all of this? Well, the shorter the ‘jumping in’ time for your story/comic/film/game etc…, then the more likely your audience are to return to it regularly. If your audience has a high degree of choice over the amount of time they spend with something, then they’re going to spend more time with it.

Yes, things with a longer ‘jumping in’ time can still be great, but this can also mean that the audience is more reluctant to enjoy them on a more regular basis.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Five Ways To Make Your “Newspaper Comic”-style Webcomic Instantly Accessible To New Readers

2016 Artwork Make webcomics more accessible to new readers

[Note: This article was originally written (in advance) when I was fascinated by self-contained webcomics. However, there will be quite a few story-based webcomics posted here next year. Still, I’ll post this article for the simple reason that it might be useful if you’re interested in making self-contained webcomics.
But, as a bonus, this article will include the unedited version of a comic that I posted here recently (which is totally not because I forgot to update that part of the article).]

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Although I’ve talked about a lot of this stuff before, I thought that I’d talk again about how to make “newspaper comic”-style webcomics “accessible” to new readers. We’ve all had the experience of finding an interesting-looking webcomic, only to find that there are long character histories, unfamiliar occasionally reccuring characters, obscure in-jokes etc.. and other things which can be fairly confusing.

Yes, if a webcomic is interesting enough, you’ll probably end up putting the time into learning the backstory and learning about the characters. However, this can sometimes be off-putting to new readers who just want to enjoy a comic for a few minutes without a large time commitment.

This is especially important for webcomics, for the simple reason that they are often read in a non-sequential order. So, making them instantly accessible is important.

To use an example from my own occasional webcomics – the mini series I posted last month should be as instantly readable as the one that finishes here tomorrow night and the very first mini series . All of these comics feature the same characters, but they don’t have to be read “in order”.

So, how can you make your comic instantly accessible to new readers? Here are a few quick tips:

1) Clear character design: If your main characters look different from each other and have distinctive personalities (reflected in their dialogue and actions), then your audience will be able to quickly get a sense of who they are -even without knowing their names or a lot of their backstory.

If you read the comics I linked to earlier, then you’ll probably know these four characters, even if you don’t know their names:

These are the four main characters from my long-running occasional "Damania" webcomic series (in chronological order, based on first appearance).

These are the four main characters from my long-running occasional “Damania” webcomic series (in chronological order, based on first appearance).

In fact, even if your characters just have fairly distinctive (and memorable) visual designs – whether realistic or unrealistic-, then this can go a long way towards making your comic slightly more accessible to new readers.

2) Character rotation: I’ve talked about this at length in another article, but it’s usually a good idea to ensure that all of the main characters appear fairly regularly throughout your comic. In other words, your readers shouldn’t have read more than a few random comic updates before they’ve seen all of the main cast.

In fact, if possible, it can sometimes be a good idea to make the occasional comic update that includes the entire main cast of your comic. Like in the unedited version (the edited version can be seen here) of a comic I posted here on Sunday:

"Damania Regrown - Back In Time" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Regrown – Back In Time” By C. A. Brown

By doing this, you avoid the problem of re-introducing old characters and confusing new readers. If possible, it’s also best keeping the main cast relatively small too.

3) Story arcs: If you’re going to include a short (and be sure to keep it short!) story arc in your “newspaper comic”-style webcomic, then make sure to briefly explain the premise of it at the beginning of each comic! Likewise, each comic in the arc should also contain a self-contained joke.

This can be as simple as having a character briefly explain the backstory during the first line of dialogue (eg: “Music festivals are a lot different than I expected”, “we’re halfway through the festival already?” etc…), to use a small title at the top of each comic strip (eg: “Meanwhile, at the music festival…”) and/or make the backstory very clear through visual details (eg: by drawing a music festival in the background).

This is a trick that you’ll often see in traditional newspaper comics and it’s important because not everyone reads a newspaper every day. As such, if someone only sees two random comics from a six-comic arc, then those two comics should be just as funny and as instantly readable as a “normal” comic is.

4) Organisation: If possible, it might be worth organising the “back issues” of your webcomic into something that makes it easier for new readers to jump between different points in the comic. The traditional “back”,”forward”, “first” and “latest” buttons on many webcomics are useful for looking at very recent or very old comics, but they aren’t so useful if – say- you want to see a comic from a few months ago.

There are lots of ways to do this – from a traditional “archive” page, to a calendar-based system. The best way to do it will depend both on your webcomic itself and on your own web skills. But, you need to have some way for new readers to easily navigate your comic if it interests them.

For example, since my webcomic is an occasional one (posted in mini series of 6-17 daily updates every month or two) and because I don’t really have that much knowledge about HTML etc.. what I usually do is to collect all of the updates from each mini series into a single post (eg: like this one) once that mini series has finished. Then, I post links to these collections on a larger index page – along with a short description of my thoughts about each mini series.

5) Self-contained comics: This one almost goes without saying, but each of your comic updates should be a self-contained thing that can be enjoyed on it’s own without reference to any other comics.

After all, many of your readers might read your webcomic in a random order, or they might miss several updates. So, making sure that each comic update is it’s own self-contained thing is vitally important to attracting new readers.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂