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?