Kay: What Readers Want

Photo: Black Milk Women

I recently ran across a survey that I thought the other Ladies and their fans might be interested in. The (very) informal survey was conducted by Barbara Linn Probst, a novelist and researcher who holds a Ph.D. in clinical social work. She wanted to know what elements of a novel made a reader love it.

Probst said that the idea for the survey was triggered because as a novelist, she felt that she was thinking like a technician, not a reader. She said that while she focused on characterization, plot development, and pacing, she said that she believed readers didn’t pay attention to those things—unless some massive failure drew a reader’s attention to them.

The simple, voluntary survey consisted of only one open-ended question: What makes you love a novel? She posted the question on eight Facebook groups for readers, emphasizing that people could write whatever they liked. She received 173 responses.

Of course, this is a small sample, and it can’t possibly represent all readers. However, it probably does represent to some degree a section of readers who care enough about books to join an online community, think about what they read, and take the time to make their views public. Avid readers, in other words. Here’s what she found.

The most frequently cited reasons for loving a novel were:

  • The characters (24%)
    Within the category of “characters”:
    Well developed, authentic/relatable characters (11.4%)
    Emotional connection/caring about the characters (5%)
  • A great storyline, with plenty of twists and turns (11.5%)
  • The experience of immersion and emotional engagement (9%)
  • A chance to learn something new/made me think (6.3%)
  • The quality of the writing, including the voice (6%)

Other elements that respondents mentioned included good dialogue, humor, an evocative setting, and a satisfying ending.

Probst had anticipated that reader responses would roughly follow these questions:

  • Initial encounter: Did the book grab my interest? Did I love it, right from the beginning?
  • Throughout: Did the book sustain my interest? Did I want to keep reading to the end?
  • Afterward: Did I think about it later? Remember it? Recommend it?

When she got the results, though, things didn’t exactly go the way she thought they would. She points out that the question What makes you love a novel? is reflective: it’s what you think about the book after you’ve finished it. It doesn’t reveal why a reader picked up a book in the first place.

As writers, we’re told to put that hook early in the book—certainly the first chapter, optimally on the first page, preferably in the first paragraph. But in Probst’s survey, there were only 12 references to the importance of that early “grab” (among 493 data points collected). Only five readers of the 173 said this had to happen on page one.

Even though Probst directed people to discuss what they loved, several people volunteered what they disliked about novels, offering reasons they stopped reading a book. Some disliked long wordy descriptions; others disliked devices such as multiple time lines or points of view, which they found confusing and disruptive. A straightforward, emotionally compelling, and interesting story—that was what they liked, not a sophisticated structure.

The most interesting thing to me about this survey is that there seems to be a significant gap between what writers work on, what agents and editors expect to see, and what readers care about. Writers focus on goal, motivation, conflict, stakes—all of that. Agents are pressed for time; they need to see a quick initial spark—a flash bang—in a query letter or the first pages of a manuscript or they stop reading. But 93% of readers take a lot longer to decide if they like a book—often they don’t decide until they reach the end.

Of course, you can’t possibly incorporate all the expectations and desires of agents or editors and readers in a single manuscript. Probably the only thing we can do is write the best book we can and, essentially, wing it. But I took a lot of comfort in knowing that most readers will be a lot more patient with a book than editors are—not that I would turn in a substandard product, but that I don’t have to threaten the universe on page one, every single time.

Will you stick with a book that doesn’t have a flashy open? Do your reader friends mention characters as the most important element of a story? What’s been your experience?






8 thoughts on “Kay: What Readers Want

  1. I used to be the type of reader who stuck with a book to the end, at least nine times out of ten. And out of every ten unsatisfying books, maybe one had a reason to be worthwhile by the end.

    When I hit about 35, I realized I didn’t have time for crap, and started abandoning books much earlier. But I often do finish what I start — I just vet books pretty carefully these days. I need good word-of-mouth, reviews, and it helps if I’ve read something else that I loved by the author. I do a lot of re-reading these days, too.

    If a book makes me laugh, it’s got me for several more pages. I love a good throw-away line that illustrates character or human nature. But then again, authors who know a lot about human nature seem to have some innate grasp of narrative and what makes a book run smoothly.

    • I’m with you—I never used to abandon books; now I do. I don’t need a big flashy scene to open the book, but I need to be intrigued. But the other thing that’s happened to my reading, and I think it’s partly me and partly the decisions that editors and agents make—sometimes I really like the beginning. It’s clever, it’s whatever, so I buy the book, and then 30 or 40 or 50 pages in, I’m over it. It’s like the author polishes the first three chapters, and then s/he stops. In which case, so do I.

      • I’VE BEEN WORRYING ABOUT THE SAME SORT OF THING! Authors who workshop their first books lovingly, and then just give book two a couple of good hard scrubs before sending it out in the world. Or, as you say, the first part is contest-ready, but the rest has not been refined quite as much.

        • This happens more with indie authors, I think, who enter contests frequently to give their books some exposure and get some feedback. It’s a shame, really, because if the rest of the book doesn’t match the opening, I think the reader might tend to leave a bad review.

  2. Isn’t this interesting as it was a topic on my brain just yesterday. I referred to the 50 Shades trilogy and how I read it out of initial interest (also partly because of the hype) but that I lost interest even before I finished book 2. Considering how popular the books were, and how much of an avid reader I am, I was surprised at my reaction to this book.

    For a book to keep my interest all the way through it has to hold a number of characteristics, including some you mentioned. But I think I need to give this more food for thought. Why was it that I couldn’t put The World According to Garp, or Sisterland, down? What was it in those stories or in those author’s methods that kept me enthralled all the way through?

    Interesting… 🙂

    • I know what you mean. I always prefer to finish a book, because the ending resolves the conflict and you want to know how everything comes out. You don’t get the satisfaction of the journey if you don’t know the ending. However, there are times….! Just recently someone lent me a best-selling literary novel, a book that had great reviews, and I stopped reading it about 60 pages in. I just couldn’t get into it. I’ve given it back, or I’d look through it more analytically, see if I could figure out what put me off.

  3. I’m fairly patient with books. I’m much less likely to put a book down because it’s slow than if it has stuff that annoys me–characters being stupid (especially if we’re told they’re smart), any kind of grisly violence, or just a general atmosphere that the world is a sucky place. I’m reading to get AWAY from that.

    • Yeah, me too. Subject matter counts a lot. I do not wish to read about serial killers, although I also dislike family redemption plots. So sometimes I feel that my lane is pretty narrow.

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