Three Sneaky Ways To Reduce Reader Frustration

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago is that I’ve started to notice things like story structure a lot more than I used to. Of course, this also means that I also tend to notice things like flaws, various pet peeves and poor planning/design choices a lot more too.

Still, I’ve also seen stories that contain things that should annoy me but somehow don’t because of clever writing. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for how to reduce some of the more common types of story problems.

1) Cliffhangers – Less Is More!: Yes, if you’re writing a continuous series, then a dramatic cliffhanger ending can be a good way to keep your readers excited for the next instalment.

However, from the reader’s perspective, there is nothing more frustrating than reading a dramatic story only for it to suddenly end on a cliffhanger. Not only can it feel disappointing, but it can also feel slightly manipulative too (eg: your readers feel like they’re being forced into reading the next book).

So, how can you include the dramatic suspense of a cliffhanger ending without leaving your readers feeling cheated or manipulated? Well, it is all to do with scale.

Simply put, the best cliffhanger endings I’ve seen (such as in some instalments of Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” series) will often be relatively small in scale, whilst also offering some sense of resolution too.

In other words, the main plot of the novel will be resolved – but the tantalising beginning of another plot will appear in the final chapter. Or, if you want to do something a bit more sophisticated, the main plot of the novel should be resolved, but the background story arc of the series can still be left unresolved.

By keeping the cliffhanger relatively small and/or in the background, the reader still gets the satisfaction of a resolved storyline in addition to an intriguing, but less overbearing, cliffhanger ending.

Likewise, another thing that helps to soften the blow of a cliffhanger ending is good signposting. In other words, label your story as “part one of…” or whatever, so that the reader doesn’t go into the story expecting a full, self-contained story. After all, a lot of cliffhanger-based frustration happens when readers are led to expect a full story, only to suddenly discover that they’ve only got part of a longer story.

2) Perspective changes – Consistency And Signposting!: Usually, there is nothing more jarring and disorientating than stories that switch between multiple first-person narrators or stories that switch between first and third person perspective.

However, the novel I’m reading at the time of writing (“Patient Zero” by Jonathan Maberry) actually manages to handle frequent switches between first and third person perspective reasonably well, in a mostly non-frustrating way.

But, how does Maberry do it? First of all, the title of each chapter includes a small segment that tells you where the events of the chapter take place (which also tells you which character or characters it will involve). Although this might seem like it’s stating the obvious, the fact that the reader doesn’t have to spend the first few paragraphs of each chapter working out what is going on keeps the story flowing reasonably well despite the frequent changes between first and third person narration.

Secondly, and most importantly, the narrative voice in both the first and third person segments of the novel is reasonably consistent too.

In other words, there aren’t huge stylistic changes between the two types of narration. Although this might seem like it would make the story bland, it actually makes it much more readable – for the simple reason that it doesn’t break the “flow” of the story too much. The switches between first and third person narration are reasonably seamless, since the writing style in both is fairly similar.

But, of course, it’s usually a good idea to stick to just using third-person narration if you want to focus on multiple main characters in multiple locations.

3) Slow Pacing – Distinctiveness And Interest!: Not every novel has to be an ultra-fast unputdownable page-turner. Sometimes there are valid reasons for a writer to do things a bit more slowly. And, whilst it goes without saying that slow pacing should only be used when it is actually a necessary part of the story, how can you keep your reader’s attention during the slower parts of your story?

First of all, give them a reason to keep reading! Whether it is an intriguingly strange or mysterious premise, or possibly even a feeling of suspense or curiosity, you need to make sure that your reader has a good reason to keep reading a slower story. In other words, there has to be some kind of dramatic payoff for all of the slow storytelling and/or something to hold the reader’s interest when your story slows to a crawl.

Secondly, make your story distinctive. If you include things like an interesting narrative voice, atmospheric settings, fascinating characters, clever descriptions, a sense of humour etc.. then your readers won’t care too much about the slow pacing for the simple reason that they’ll be too busy enjoying your writing. In other words, if a story is well-written enough, then a slow pace will actually give the reader more time to enjoy the good writing. So, make sure that the slow-paced parts of your story are well-written!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Clever Hidden Tricks That Writers Use

Well, I thought that I’d write about a few of the clever hidden tricks that writers use today (kind of like how game designers use hidden mechanics in videogames).

This article was initially inspired by a few of the books that I’ve read since I got back into reading regularly about a month and a half before I wrote this article. But, although I’ll be talking about some of these books, the cool hidden features I’ll be describing can be found in other books too. In fact, you might have seen a few of them without even realising it.

1) Internal recaps: At the time of writing, I’m binge-reading a ridiculously long 700+ page historical detective novel called “Lamentation” by C. J. Sansom. One of the interesting things about binge-reading a novel of this length is that it means that I was able to spot a really cool hidden feature that is designed to help out people who read it at a slightly slower pace.

In short, every once in a while (such as on page 201) there will be a recap of some of the previous events of the story. Either the narrator will briefly mention how some new clue connects to a previous clue that he has found, or there will be a scene where he spends a few paragraphs thinking about the earlier events of the investigation.

My initial reaction to all of this was “I know!!! I’ve been taking notes!” or “I worked that out on my own already!“. But then I realised that these short recaps are actually a really clever way to make sure that people who, say, only read thirty or fifty pages a day can still follow the complex events of the story. They’re kind of like the “previously..” segments at the beginning of TV show episodes – which are annoying if you’re binge-watching a boxset, but great if you’re watching one episode a week in the traditional manner.

So, if you’re telling a novel-length story, then it can be useful to occasionally include brief recaps of what has happened earlier in the story. Just like how novels in a series will sometimes quickly mention events from earlier novels in the series (to help both new readers and long-term readers), it can also be useful to briefly recap the earlier events of the story that you’re telling right now.

2) Hinting at a larger world/story: This is a technique that I noticed during both the final novel in Jocelynn Drake’s amazing “Dark Days” series and in Dashiell Hammett’s excellent “The Maltese Falcon“. Both stories will hint at a much larger story or “world” than is actually shown on the page – either through brief descriptions (that imply background stuff that isn’t directly explained or shown), through tantalisingly brief descriptions of really fascinating background events or through showing a dramatic event and then partially leaving what happens afterwards to the reader’s imagination.

When used well, this sneaky technique is useful because it helps to immerse the reader in the story. Although this might sound like it would annoy the reader, it has the opposite effect – it makes them curious. It makes them want to imagine what else happens in your story’s “world” and it makes them want more. It can also be a sneaky way to give your characters and/or story more depth than is shown on the page.

This technique is nothing new though and the most famous example of it can be seen in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Although most of Doyle’s stories will focus on just one of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, there will occasionally be ultra-brief references to some of Holmes’ previous cases. Some of these will be cases that appear in other stories but, in a stroke of genius, some of them aren’t.

This hints to the reader that they’re only seeing a few of the many intriguing mysteries that Holmes has solved. Not only does this make him seem like a character that exists independently of the events shown in the stories, but it also makes him seem like a more prolific detective too.

3) Easily- readable historical narration: One of the clever things that I’ve noticed in historical novels written in the 21st century, like Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” and C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation”, is how they’re able to create an ‘authentic’ historical setting whilst still using first-person narration that is very readable to modern audiences.

The narration in both these novels still sounds a lot like something from Victorian London/Tudor England, but these novels are as easy and intuitive to read as a non-historical modern novel would be. And, if you’ve ever tried to read anything that is actually from Victorian or Tudor times, then you’ll know how… challenging… these things can be to read when compared to modern writing.

So, how do they do it? These writers look at the general linguistic features of writing from these times and then apply some of the underlying “rules” from this to more straightforward modern-style narration. The important thing is choosing which rules to follow and which ones to ignore. Basically, if a rule gets in the way of the story, then it has to go.

For example, the Victorian-style narration in Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” keeps the formal language and style used in 19th century fiction, but sticks to using words and sentence structures that modern readers will easily understand. On the other hand, the narration ditches the frequent references to classical mythology that are a common part of 19th century fiction (because modern readers will be confused by these).

Likewise, the 16th century-style narration in Sansom’s “Lamentation” is kept very readable because it uses a slightly modernised version of the more “matter of fact” tone used in non-fiction writing from this time (rather than, say, the elegant theatrical poetry of Shakespeare). In other words, it focuses on using the more “timeless” parts of the English language, but with modern spelling and grammar. This is then complimented by a few carefully-chosen historical words and phrases that usually make sense from the context that they’re used in.

So, yes, if you want to make historical fiction narration more readable, then look at the “rules” used by writers of the time you are studying and then try to find an unobtrusive way to apply some of them to more modern-style narration.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂