Many factors influence the readability of a book. The plot, the characters, the style of writing. All of it plays a part in making your book unique and interesting. However, these factors can just as easily take a great story idea and turn it into a scattered mess. It can make a story that is simple on the surface, confusing, or a story that appears interesting, as boring as watching paint dry.
These are the reasons a reader will struggle to follow a story!
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#1 - Poor Grammar and Spelling
The list of reasons isn’t ordered, so although poor grammar and spelling comes first, it doesn't mean it is the most heinous of writing crimes.
Yet, poor grammar and spelling is one of the most common problems. You will find it’s easy to find a book which has errors in sentence construction or spelling typos. The reason it is the most common mistake in writing is because there are either too few or too many eyes scanning the book.
If there are too few read throughs, it’s easy for a mistake to slip past and end up printed. The mind fills in the gap, glances over the error or the reader simply moves past the sentence completely. Whatever the core reason may be, the book has an error.
If you have too many editors, the book can become overly ‘edited’. While many errors are corrected, some are created in the process.
Of course, the third way is simply the lack of an editing process, or even a grammar and spelling scan. Depending on the writer’s deadlines, this can happen more often than you think and it is only a week later (if they move quickly) before a cleaned up version of the book is published online, just in time for physical copies to be printed.
Personally speaking now, if I come across such an error or two, I accept it and then forget it. Mistakes happen, especially in shorter novels, I’ve noticed. (No doubt an error caused by speedy writing). However, any more than that and my eyes narrow. Each line is scrutinized and every error noted. It throws off my writing flow coming across errors and the more frequent the errors, the further I drift from the book.
Of course, for a lot of readers, it’s not the case. Errors can come off as annoying and give the writing style an amateurish feel. It brings a novel down, making it harder to read with each problem.
To avoid the problem, I recommend playing the club bouncer and every sentence is a patron with an attitude problem. Glare at it, look it up and down, decide if they are a problem that needs correcting or if they make it in. It’s a boring and sadly, lengthy task, but necessary if you want a polished book.
#2 - Broken Dialogue Format
The next reason a reader might struggle to follow a story is a broken dialogue format.
Dialogue formats come in all shapes and sizes. Some writers have unique dialogue structures depending on the tone of the scene or the actions taking place. It all comes down to the writer’s style, which varies further depending on the genre they are writing.
Yet, there are some general rules that all writers try to follow to ensure ‘readability’.
First and foremost, the reader needs to know who is speaking. To ensure this, the dialogue will include names(“Hi, John!” - “Hi, Jane!”), or speaker tags(“Hi, John!” Jane said. - “Hey!”), or even a lead up to the dialogue (Jane approached John. - “Hi!” - “Hey, Jane!”)
Dialogue between two characters is easy enough, but for writing dialogue including three or more characters, it becomes more complex. Thus, it is no wonder that dialogues can easily turn into a confusing mess, especially when two or more characters can say a certain line of dialogue.
Many writers fear writing dialogue with more than two or three characters, so they go out of their way to ensure such situations don’t happen in their story. It can lead to confusing dialogue, or dialogue peppered with he-said/she-said, which isn’t fun to read either.
However, it should not be avoided for this reason.
No matter the number of speakers, a dialogue can be easily followed. Have speaker tags help along the way, establish back-and-forths (conversation between two characters) often enough that you don’t have to constantly use tags when the conversation starts circling (when characters take turns to speak).
Another factor which helps readability is personality and speech differences. If your characters are different enough in the words they use or how they use them, then you can get away with using less tags.
For example, a character might speak in a prim-and-proper manner, making their speech easy to recognize amongst the casual or lazy speakers. Thus, your reader will have no problem in separating them from the other characters. If characters aren't that different when it comes to speech, it might be best to play it safe and use tags when necessary.
#3 - Breaking the Suspension of Disbelief
Readability extends beyond simple structure and format. A reader’s sense of immersion is also important to keep them invested, encouraging them to follow your story closely.
Now, immersion is a tricky thing to consider at first. It’s impossible to convince the reader that an extraordinary story is ‘realistic’, especially when you include magic or complicated machinery based in science-fiction more than reality. Luckily, that’s not what you are trying to do when you are maintaining their immersion.
The reader wants to settle into a story, they want to believe that everything strange or silly really exists, for the sake of the story. In short, when they are reading fantastic fiction, they approach everything seriously. If it matters in the story, it matters to the reader. It’s what makes plot points investing, characters interesting and the story feel alive.
Immersion is that important to readability, so don’t stress if your story is unbelievable.
However, when immersion is broken, the reader will come to disconnect themselves from the story. The incredible plot points start appearing silly, rather than important. The characters come off as unrelatable, or less investing for the reader. Thus, the story loses ‘reader interest’.
It no longer has a hold on the reader and it becomes a struggle to get them reinvested the further they are in the book.
Now, the question is, what breaks the immersion? The answer is simply breaking the limits, pushing the boundaries that your story establishes for itself in the beginning. A story without limits loses immersion quickly, making it hard for the reader to see the weight of the tasks for the main characters or comprehend the scope of the world.
Immersion can be broken at any time, but it should be clear when. The greatest of fiction that includes fantastic elements ensures readability by making the stakes clear to the reader.
For example, life and death is a common occurrence in fiction. When one takes those limits away, the tension a reader feels when a character is in a life-or-death situation is lessened if not removed completely.
The simple solution is to keep your limits in mind and you will keep the reader immersed.
#4 - Lack of Clarity
Every writer knows their story better than the reader. The vision the writer has is amazing enough to write about, the challenge is putting that story into words so they can share that vision with others. It’s an artform, it's why you are reading this article.
There is only one problem; turning that vision into a novel is not an easy process and is rarely successful.
A writer’s story goes through many changes as they write their novel, there are times when they are writing because they have too or when they lack any inspiration. There are moments when the mind simply isn’t in the right place, a word is on the tip of their tongue, a sentence just doesn’t sound right.
That is why so many writers look back at their books thinking, “I could have written it better”, despite so many reader’s finding no flaw in the book.
Returning to why reader’s struggle to follow some stories, some scenes can easily lack clarity. A sentence or even a paragraph is simply not included. The result is an odd juxtaposition between one line and the next, confusing the reading.
It can appear more frequently in amateurish writing, but even the professionals aren’t safe from this occurrence. Some scenes can be difficult to write, or the words don’t come easily enough. A scene then has ‘holes’ in it and ‘grammar or spelling checkers’ won’t notice these gaps.
The best way to prevent this problem and ensure clarity in your writing is to read through it twice, get someone else to read it and then read through it yourself once more. A personal touch is required to ensure that you have the story flowing without interruption. By reading through it yourself, you make sure that you include everything you know to include, but by having a fresh pair of eyes read your story, you can find gaps that you never expected.
As a side note, I always encourage sharing your work with someone close to you or a professional. Someone who can be supportive, who you can ask for help and suggestions on improving your writing.
#5 - Inconsistency in Plot/Character Personality
Breaking character or creating plot holes is a common complaint of many readers. Nobody wants to become so set into the story, to be so sure of how things work and then the story contradicts itself or a character’s personality or values change to fit the plot.
In some cases, the reader simply doesn’t know the world, the story or the characters as well as they thought they did, but in most cases, it’s a fault on the writer's side.
These discrepancies occur most frequently in long-running series, but that is understandable. The writer tries to keep things interesting, try something new or stretch the boundaries they set in place. The longer a series gets, the more details the writers need to remember in order to make their next novel fit in the series. Sometimes the details are small enough to be excused, enough small mistakes and you have a big one; inconsistency.
Now, while it may occur in a series more often, standalone novels aren’t safe. These contradictions can occur if the novel was written over a few years, thus some earlier details are forgotten. These errors can also occur if the writer rushes the writing process, doing very little planning or going back on their writing when they hit a dead-end and ‘forcing’ the story in a different direction.
Of course, one can avoid these inconsistencies by keeping their characters and plot simple. Yet, if you don’t establish values and personality clearly enough, characters can come off bland. If your story is so simple, it can become predictable. All of these are ingredients for a boring story.
You want to create a unique experience for readers, you want to create memorable characters, characters that your reader can care about and be concerned for in tense situations. You want to show personality, not just in the story, but in your writing style as well.
The solution to this problem is the same as creating clarity in your story. Let someone else read your work. Let them analyse and find the problems that you might not see.
Now, I would also like to address planning, which I mentioned earlier.
Planning a novel goes a long way. Of course, you can’t know for sure what your story will be by the end, even if you have a plot structure to work with. You might have new ideas along the way, ideas that can lead to better scenes, characters and even a better ending.
Yet, by having a plot structure, you avoid many dead ends. You know how to direct your story, you know what your characters should realistically feel and say, you have the general direction. If you do have new ideas and want to change things up, it is best to return to your planning and get the bigger picture before you impulsively run with the new idea.
I want to encourage planning, because it is a process that adds to the likelihood of completing one's novel. Many factors can get in the way and poor planning, or lack of planning, is one of the bigger ones. Take your time, it can be a fun process as you daydream and form your story guide.
#6 - Jargon Overload
The next problem occurs in deep fantasy and science fiction more than any other genre; jargon overload.
Constructing one's own terminology or borrowing from others to add to the immersion is a common practice. Afterall, when one constructs a separate society, a separate culture, it makes sense that new words will form and be used in both professional and unprofessional circumstances.
It goes without saying, when creating something that needs a fitting, immersive name, the writer should explain what it is, so they can refer to it later by the name and not another block of description.
For example, if I was to have an object called a ‘Thingamajig’, and have my characters refer to it often enough and use it when necessary, I need to describe this ‘Thingamajig’ as soon as possible to the reader. The reader needs to know that it is shaped like a three-sided pyramid, that it has purple fur at each point and that it speaks five languages.
However, I digress. I could spend a lot of time going through several examples of what a writer could use a new name for, but it’s best that I establish the problem.
While it is immersive to use fictional jargon, or even borrowed jargon, one should not expect the reader to be well-versed in what happens in one's fictional world. Too much jargon and/or very little explanation of these words can lead to confusion and frustration. These two emotions can easily lead to the reverse of one’s intention, meaning, the breaking of the reader’s immersion.
The simple solution to the problem is just to limit the amount of jargon one uses. Keep the terminology simple, or similar to what is used commonly today. That way, once you have explained the object, creature or idea associated with the name, the reader won’t struggle to recall or decipher your jargon when you use it later.
If limiting the jargon doesn’t work, then the speed in which you introduce your jargon should be adjusted. When you are writing a novel, you are trying to tell a story, not give a lesson in terminology. Slowly introduce these new things to the reader, let them sink in, progress the story, then introduce the next word.
#7 - Repetition and Padding
The last writing crime, one that is sure to be high on the list of reading peeves, is repetition and padding.
There are only so many times a character can repeat the same statement, a writer repeat the same description, before the reader starts to roll their eyes and yawn. It's, sadly, another common problem. One that is starting to appear in famous author's writing in all genres.
Once more, this is an annoying mistake that can happen when a writer forgets what they've previously written, but in most cases, it's simply a ploy to reach a certain word count. Some publishers expect a certain word count, or pay more when an author reaches a word count, which is incentive for writers to write more, or pad their story when they can't add anything of worth.
Repetition is a mistake that can be avoided by reading your writing. Padding can be avoided by checking a scene/paragraph/sentence with your story, deciding if it is necessary or if it adds anything to the story.
If it's there to make sense of the scene, or it's an amazing break, or it progresses the plot, or it develops a character, then by all means, leave it be. However, if it fails to meet any of these requirements, seriously consider whether it's worth keeping.
And there you have the reasons why readers struggle to follow stories.
The core of all these problems is bad communication. As I said before, a writer is trying to explain their vision, tell their story, over tens or even hundreds of thousands of words. It is easy to make mistakes, it's easy to hit dead ends or change ideas. Yet, it is just as easy to read one's work over, to get a second opinion, and rectify any problems that are found.
Speaking of which, if you are unsure of who to turn to and want professional assistance, be sure to check out my writer's workshop. You can receive personal help from me when writing your novel and have access to a library of writing courses I've created over the years, which are yours forever when you purchase any of the workshop tiers.
If you're interested, you can learn more about my writing workshop and it's benefits here.
With that said, I thank you for reading this article, I hope you found it helpful!
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!
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