Readability: So Very Important

Imagine that a t.v. series of 24 one-hour episodes has your interest. It’s a big commitment. Once you try it out, whether or not you continue watching the series depends very much on its ‘watch-ability.’

If you watch a lousy movie, you might just sit through it since it’s just a couple of hours long. But you probably wouldn’t persevere through a 24-hour t.v. series if it wasn’t highly watch-able.

What makes a movie watch-able?

  • Acting that isn’t lifeless, but also isn’t overdramatic for the style of show. You might not even notice good acting, but you definitely notice when it doesn’t suit you. You like to feel that the actor or actress is a perfect fit for the part. The characterization must be good, too.
  • The right pace for the genre. Action should keep a fast pace; suspense may have slow points. If the audience expects the movie to be action-packed, for example, the moviegoers will become restless if it isn’t.
  • Good storyline to engage the audience. It shouldn’t be too predictable, yet shouldn’t upset the moviegoers either. The plot should be easy to follow and should make sense to the audience.
  • Entertainment. The movie must suit the audience who shows up, which means packaging and marketing to attract the right audience. The audience must enjoy the movie.
  • Looks realistic. I was watching a horror movie once, where about halfway through almost everyone in the theatre burst out laughing at the special effects. The girl was supposed to look possessed, but it just wasn’t pulled off right; it produced laughter instead of dread. Very often, the special effects are amazing, but when they aren’t, it makes a huge difference.
  • Excellent cinematography and sound effects. Try to make your own movie and you may discover some of the possible problems. It’s amazing how incredible the audio and visual tends to turn out. Normally it’s so good that we just take it for granted. It is very important, however, because if this turned out lousy, it would kill the viewership. Imagine if a movie cut into scenes at the wrong moment, filmed scenes from a poor angle, or didn’t have the lighting right, for example. There are many ways to mess up a great movie through amateur filming mistakes.

If any of these points doesn’t suit you, would you commit to watching a t.v. series of 24 one-hour episodes? That would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Reading a book requires the same level of commitment. A book must be highly readable to make that commitment worthwhile.

If a movie lacks any of the points above, would you recommend that others watch it? Similarly, a book needs a high level of readability to generate valuable word-of-mouth recommendations.

Here are some factors which make books readable:

  • The words flow smoothly, except perhaps in rare situations where a little stumbling may be relevant to the story. Like. This. You have to know your target audience. Use suitable language for your audience. Most people want an easy read, where the words flow nicely for them and they understand quickly. There are people who do want a more challenging read, but they may not comprise a large part of your target audience. If you just write the book any way you please, you might discover that the audience it suits turns out to be really tiny. Writing and focus groups can help you gauge such things in advance.
  • The length of the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are important, too. Some readers get overwhelmed if many paragraphs exceed the viewable region of the device (which may be a cell phone) or if the chapters are too long. Again, this depends very much on your target audience. The sentences should vary in length and structure, but in a way that the words flow smoothly when they are read.
  • Every spelling and grammatical mistake that a reader notices is like a little hiccup. Such hiccups must be rare or they quickly make the book difficult to read. Another kind of hiccup is repetition of words; variety is the spice of writing. (There may be a few exceptions. For example, some authors prefer “says” for just about all dialog, but not all agree on this point.)
  • Good writing tends to show rather than tell where it makes sense to do this, and tell rather than show otherwise. You don’t want to interrupt the action to show some minor point that could be simply told, but you do want to show many main points rather than tell them.
  • The storyline must engage the audience, not be too predictable, not upset the target audience, be easy to follow, and make sense to the audience.
  • The audience needs to love the characterization.
  • Just like movies, the pace needs to be just right for the genre, the story must feel plausible, the audience needs to enjoy the storyline, and the audience needs to be engaged throughout. The packaging and marketing must attract the right audience for the book.

People do read Thomas Pynchon and Franz Kafka, whose books are not too readable for many people. I do, and I love their writing. People do read classics, both the readable ones and the challenging ones. However, it’s really difficult to write a modern classic and find a significant audience for it. If you want to write with Pulitzer Prize style, the wiser route may be to first develop an audience and reputation writing at this level as a journalist.

Writing mistakes are like cinematography mistakes – they can kill sales. Both books and movies must flow smoothly.

It’s hard to walk out of a theatre when the movie watch-ability is fantastic, and it’s hard to put down a book when the readability is fantastic. When it’s lousy, many people may walk out of the theatre or stop reading the book.

There’s more to a good book or movie than just having a great idea. The way the story is told is at least as important.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

11 comments on “Readability: So Very Important

  1. People have commented that my book reads like a watching a good movie. I haven’t decided if that is a positive thing or a negative thing. I mean it is a positive comment that they enjoyed the book like a good movie and not a bad one. But i do believe my writing style is succinct and abrupt the way a screenplay might be.

  2. I get the reads like a movie or tv show a bunch because if the present tense. Interesting that you mention typos as hiccups. I have that issue with a few oops that one could see is a hiccup or a remnant of an edited out version. I’ve been complimented on being well-edited ‘for an indie author’. Yet some people pounce at one typo. So I guess there will always be audience members that demand their version of perfection

    • I’ve read hundreds of classics and bestsellers, but have yet to find that typo-free book. I always find at least one, and there are probably a few that I don’t find. A handful of typos spread over hundreds of pages is probably realistic. But realism is an option. 🙂

  3. I have written and published the first two books in The Khekarian Series (science fiction). I write my books as though presenting a film. I “see” the action to make sure it works. Every aspect to me must be viewable and logistically make sense.

    Dialogue, too, must work and sound right, and (for preference) different characterization must come through. By that I mean I like to make my characters distinguishable by how they talk – different speech patterns, different words, different ideas.

    Realism is very important to me. I want my readers to feel as though they live my fiction, not just view it from outside. I want them to feel with my characters. Emotions, therefore, are important. I want readers to care – and so far, they do.

    This is an excellent article.

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