Reader Retention: Overwhelming Content and Finicky Doors

Mystery Door

Even the most voracious readers sometimes find themselves putting a book down after Chapter 2, never to return. The psychology behind why we abandon some books and not others is fascinating and multifaceted, and is an important topic to think about for authors who need to hold their readers' attention. One theory can explain much of shortened reader interest: the book simply has too much going on. One of my own personal methods is to think of books as a series of doors that the reader must be enticed to open; it's a great way to illustrate how the reader is perceiving things, which is, in many ways, a more important point of view than the author's. Overwhelming a reader can take many forms, but here are some common ones found in manuscripts of all genres.

The Info Dump:

Your reader walks up to the door at the beginning of a book or chapter. Nailed to the door is massive scroll, ten feet long, and the scroll is entirely filled with instructions on how to open the door.

Many authors are already familiar with this one, especially in the fantasy or historical fiction worlds. It can simply be described as an "over-explanation," and the problem lies with the author getting too caught up in describing the situation, the environment, specifics of the characters, or background information right from the start. I once evaluated a manuscript that told about the main character's genealogy and his family's immigration journey for ninety pages before we ever got to a scrap of the real story. We didn't even see the main character until after page 100. So why does this cause the reader to set the book aside? It's boring, frankly. Nothing is happening, no one is doing anything, and the story has fallen under the wheels of the Bus of Passivity. It's certainly difficult to find strategic places for all the necessary background information, but it's a crucial part of story organization. If possible, consider this as you're planning out your book, not after you've begun to write it. It's far easier to pay close attention to how you're introducing your background information in the beginning of a project, rather than having to rewrite and hunt out space for it later.


Your reader walks up to a door, but the door is already open and there are a lot of people inside talking to each other. The reader walks through the door, and no one introduces him to anyone or even acknowledges that he's there.

This is the opposite of the Info Dump. The Over-Familiarity issue treats the reader as though he already knows everything about the situation, environment, and characters, and casually name-drops these elements, assuming the reader will figure things out in time. It bypasses explanation entirely and eliminates any consideration of the reader, instead just telling the story exactly the way it's seen in the author's head. Have you ever spoken with someone who simply uses the names of people involved when telling a story, and doesn't add any context for you to understand who those people are? Or have you been in a social situation where everyone in the group starts to laugh about an event they were all present for, but you weren't? This over-familiarity leads to a feeling of exclusion and confusion for your reader. They know they need more context and information to understand who these characters are and what's happening, but you haven't given them anything to work with. The balance between Info Dumping and Over-Familiarity is sometimes difficult to find, but it's essential to your readers' experience.

A Monstrous Cast:

Your reader walks up to a door, opens it, and enters. It's very crowded inside, and he is introduced to nine people within the first minute. He is expected to immediately remember their names, titles, relationships to others, and personalities.

Extra, needless characters simply inflate the number of people your reader has to keep track of, which can be overwhelming. If characters don't pull their weight or play a large enough role in your story, they need to be cut. They bog down the reader and take up page space that could be dedicated to story progression. A character is still not considered pivotal if they do one tiny action that your story thread relies heavily on later; you can find another way for that action to be done that doesn't require maintaining a whole character just for the sake of that moment. Often these characters are ones that we just love to write, we enjoy the personality of, or perhaps they were inspired by someone in real life. The good news is, once you cut them, you can give them a story of their own! If you have a character you love, but you know he doesn't fit into your current work in progress, set him aside for another project. No one ever said you can't recycle characters.

Over-Stylized Language:

Your reader walks up to a door, opens it, and enters. He is introduced to several people, and he finds many of them have very heavy accents. He has to ask them to repeat themselves over and over in an attempt to understand what they're trying to tell him.

This applies to any sort of heavy styling for your dialogue or narrative. Foreign accents, period speech, technical jargon, etc. are all things that need to be moderated, because they can slow the pace of your readers' experience to a crawl. If you're writing a sci-fi book that uses a lot of complicated technology, you'll need to be sure you can define the terms you're using succinctly through context, dialogue, or explanation. If you're writing a character who has an accent of any kind, don't spell out the whole accent in every line. Small affectations are plenty, and sometimes just stating that the person is from the American South, or describing a character's Cockney accent is enough to let the reader pick up on it and carry it through. Your Texan doesn't have to say "y'all" in every sentence, and your bitter Victorian grandmother doesn't have to speak in such a convoluted manner that she needs a whole paragraph to express her distaste for something. This is an area where "less is more" certainly applies.

Shock Factor:

Your reader walks up to a door. Without warning, the door breaks free from its hinges and hurls itself at the reader.

We want our readers to feel, to experience, and to fully immerse themselves in our books from an emotional standpoint. If your goal is to shock people, it will be very important to evaluate how you plan on doing that, and gratuitous content is not always the answer. Putting your character through a meat grinder and explaining each bone that crunches might shock your reader, but it will also turn them away. This doesn't just apply to horror or suspense fiction, however. Your romance book should not include an explicit sex scene; then it's erotica, not romance. Your mentally ill characters should not be irrational and violent in every way possible; they should have attributes that are relevant to their condition. There is a limit to how much discomfort or explicit content your readers will be able to handle and still get something out of reading your story. It takes careful consideration to be able to find the boundary line of how much your readers will deal with, and then walk right up to that line without crossing it.

Story Gumbo:

Your reader walks up to a door. He knocks on the wooden door and gets a splinter in his hand. He rings the doorbell and gets electrified. Tired of waiting, he turns the knob but it breaks off in his hand. It begins to rain.

Sometimes writers get excited about many ideas at once, and find ways to shoehorn all kinds of elements into stories. I refer to this as "gumbo," and readers will get frustrated with it. David Allen wisely said, "You can do anything, but not everything," and learning to use all your creative ideas in ways that do them justice is important. If your character is charged with saving the world from an evil mastermind, it's not necessary to also give him blindness in one eye, a dog companion, a terminal illness, and a poor relationship with his father. One of those extra challenges would be plenty interesting enough if well-written. The game is not to see how many interesting things you can play Tetris with and fit into one book -- the game is to write an awesome, coherent, enjoyable story. If you have an idea you find yourself wrestling with in your manuscript, perhaps step back and picture what the book would be like without it. If it's a world building element, perhaps it would be better served for another world than the one in your current work. If it's a personality attribute that seems to make unintended conflict within your character, perhaps it needs to be part of someone else.

In writing a book, you are inviting your reader to open the doors you've created. Those doors can have an infinite number of experiences and ways to be opened, but if it's too much work or is an overload to your readers' sensibilities, you risk them walking away from that door forever. Hickory offers both manuscript evaluations and developmental editing to help your project keep readers on the porch.

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