Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Would you like more readers to enjoy your stories?
People read fiction to get away from work. If your readers must work at getting through your story, it will likely fail. I am speaking of commercial fiction (fun stories) and not the literary fiction kind (400-page behemoths about waking up one morning and going on a walk).
For works of fiction, readability means,
The story is enjoyable and easy to read.
Read each sentence of your story aloud and ask yourself, “Is this sentence easy to read, and is it enjoyable?”
Every sentence should stand on its own as enjoyable. For example, examine the first few sentences of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart:
Yes, I have been ill, very ill.
Buy why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad?
Can you see that I have full control of my mind?
Treat these sentences in your mind individually, as if each one were a micro-story on its own. The first sentence causes the reader to ask, What is true? The second sentence begs the question, Ill from what? The third steps right up to the reader's face and asks a probing question. The fourth draws the reader closer still and asks, Come, let me show you.
The main character is petitioning the readers trust, sympathy, and even help. How touching.
And we just met. It's a complement to be brought into someone's life, to be invited to a party or out to dinner. Let's make our readers comfortable and invite them in.
Some tips for Starters
Here are two introductory thoughts to prepare you for the long, heavy-lifting lists of writing tips you'll usually find in articles about writing fiction:
Would you rather read an article on 1) ketone formation mechanisms or, 2) a story about your irritating neighbor who suddenly and inexplicably disappears? Reading fiction is supposed to be enjoyable. I know you like being around fun, entertaining people. Give that enjoyment to your readers.
Cause your readers to create burning questions in their minds. What did happen to your irritating neighbor? Burning questions allow your readers to live within an unfolding story.
Buster Keaton is famously misquoted as saying,
“A successful film must appeal to the twelve-year-old mind.”
The person who actually said that was Buster Keaton’s friend, Roscoe Arbuckle (what a name!). Buster Keaton disagreed with Mr. Arbuckle on that point.
With no disrespect to Buster Keaton, the average reader in the United States has a seventh-grade reading level (12-years-old). My advice is for you to side with Roscoe Arbuckle and consider writing to that reading level of reader.
"All About Steve"
I love the movie All about Steve (2009) even though apparently no one else in the world does. We've shown it to a bunch of our friends, and everyone enjoys it. Movie critics hated it. This is because movie critics don't know anything.
The main character in All About Steve is a professional crossword puzzle designer for her local newspaper. The story presents many positive, upbeat messages. I site one of them here, spoken by the main character, Mary Horowitz:
If life is like a crossword puzzle, then its worth,
its greatness, should be judged in the same way.
Is it solvable? Is it entertaining? Does it sparkle?
Regarding our fiction, we must ask ourselves, is it readable, is it entertaining, and does it sparkle?
Let’s break down the tasks required for writing readable stories into two lists—one for readability and one for enjoyment:
Stay on point
Use shorter sentences
Make use of white space
Use simpler, shorter words
Use vigorous, concise writing
Some repetition helps for emphasis
Make each paragraph a cohesive whole
Present similar things in a similar manner
Stay chronological; follow the story trajectory
Use less jargon (sci-fi and fantasy often suffer from this)
Make transitions smooth, except occasionally for dramatic effect
Include fascinating details
Anticipate readers’ questions
Use fewer adverbs (ly-words)
Make the story and characters relatable
Arouse interest (more burning questions)
Show why items in your story are important
Long sentences increase tension; short sentences drive home a point
Use fewer adjectives (remove "big," "smooth," "happy," "sad"); describe, don't label
Embedded in the middle of the second list is the most important criteria of all: relatability. If your readers can relate to your characters, you are on your way to creating a well-written story.
What is relatability? It's when characters act and feel like the reader would act and feel given similar circumstances. When we invite friends over to watch movies, occasionally one of our friends says a sentence just before the character on the TV says that same sentence. This does not mean the movie is predictable. It means that,
At that moment, my friend is one with the character.
Readers enjoy being one with your characters!
Watch the following video. You'll know what the final punchline is before it's delivered. If you listen to the audience reaction, you'll know the audience does too. You don't mind the lack of surprise because you want the rude person put in his place. You relate to the other party guests who he treats badly.
If your readers are sucked into your story, a little bit of predictability is okay, if not welcomed.
Just for fun, and for a break from the heaviness, watch this classic video with Dean Martin and Foster Brooks. Why should there be all work and no play?
Let's go on. Almost as important as relatability is avoiding overuse of adjectives. Don't write a sentence like the following:
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
“Now, hold on!” you say. “What's wrong with one of the most iconic sentences ever written in the English language?”
The problem is its overuse of adjectives, namely “quick,” “brown,” and “lazy.” The adjectives serve merely as labels. The author never bothers to explain how the fox is quick, brown, or lazy. Imagine you're in a movie theater, and instead of seeing actors acting happy or sad, you see them holding up signs that say “I'm happy” or “I'm sad.” What a terrible movie that would be! That is what adjectives do to your story. It's the author's job is to provide the imagery, not the reader's.
Read twenty articles on how to write fiction and you'll be told twenty times to avoid using those pesky "-ly" words. Now, when I use adverbs in my fiction, I read the passage and say to myself, "I'm so good that I know when to use them. Yep, I do. Look how nice the passage reads. Look how it flows, how it captivates. I am an exception."
Then a week later I read the passage and say, "Nope. They're not needed. They only make me look desperate." So, I take them out. You'd think I'd learn.
Employ a cold reader
When you believe your short story or novel is ready for the world, have someone read aloud a paragraph randomly chosen from your story. If he or she hesitates or stumbles anywhere in the paragraph, your story isn't ready. Circle the errant words and fix them. Then look through the remainder of your prose for similar awkward phrasing.
Your work should be smoothly readable aloud by an average person on the first try.
One last point
As I researched the subject of “readability” to write this post, I amassed eighty-four pages of notes. Eighty-four! I reduced those eight-four pages to about two without removing a single principle. I promise I've left nothing out.
The people who write professional articles must like the sound of their clicking keyboards. This does not make their work readable.