Sep 25 2007

Novel Writing Strategies: Keeping Readers Interested


  • Summary of past novel-writing problems
  • Solutions to improve reader longevity
  • Improving chapter length
  • Marketing!  Marketing!  Marketing!

This is mostly aimed at anyone trying to write a novel, particularly an online novel, but Superhero Nation fans might be interested to see what my writing process is like.


  • My first chapter attracted readers but didn’t keep them. 
  • Of the first 100 readers that started reading, 30 lasted over half a minute and 15 spent enough time that I could reasonably assume they finished the chapter. 
  • None started reading the second chapter. 


  • My short-term retention was a problem.  70% of the readers decided right off the bat that the novel didn’t work for them.
    • The novel’s opening was not working
  • Medium-term retention was pleasantly high.  Half of the readers that read past the first few paragraphs made it through 9000 words.
    • The middle was considerably better-written than the beginning
  • Long-term retention was zero.  15 readers read 9000 words, but none started the second chapter.
    • The first chapter was incredibly long, 30 double-spaced pages.  Readers that finished that lacked the time/energy to proceed.     

Fixing the Introduction

It’s hard to describe how bad my first five pages were.  But I’ll give you the first 75 words, along with parenthetical comments from a dangerously perceptive reviewer. 

Courtney had problems. 

One.  His name was Courtney.   He hated it but knowing  that he vastly outsmarted the gigglers comforted him.  (This opening does not grab me. Who are these gigglers?)

Two.  He was an ex-superhero, the once and present Lash, the best nonpowered hero New York had never heard of.   He had showed Gigas, the head of the Social Justice League, up when a supervillain struck.  Gigas had him fired and, more humiliatingly, violated the first rule of superheroics by x-raying Lash’s face. (Very un-superhero like) But they couldn’t take his name.  (do you even need this?)

It would take me hours to fully explain why the first 5 pages were so bad, but let me summarize. 

  • Melodramatic
  • Anticipation problems.  A good opening makes readers think “Sweet Jesus, I want to see where this is going.”  This opening probably makes people wonder whether the story would interest them.  (Who’s Courtney?  Why should we care about people laughing at his name?)
  • Passive narration (‘telling’ a story rather than ‘showing’ it).  High on backstory, short on action.
  • There’s no scene.  
  • Hard to understand (maybe not these first few paragraphs, but certainly the rest of the five pages). 

It took me three months to turn my deservedly savage reviews into a rewrite.  You can see the rewritten chapter here, but I’ll analyze the first two paragraphs. 

[start] The tree was critical.  The blueprints for the Governor’s mansion clearly showed that the tree’s branches came intriguingly close to a second-floor window.  It was less obvious that the window led to the room of a servant scheduled to work during tonight’s fundraiser.  Most importantly, the Governor’s security detail only sent a guard past the tree every forty-five seconds, plus or minus fifteen.  The superhero had spent an hour counting.  Lash had estimated that the leap through the open window would be four feet.  He could do that.  Maybe.  Being an unpowered hero was always interesting. 

Lash lay behind the courtyard fountain as the hapless guard wandered past the tree again, his heels clicking against the cobble-stone path.  The beam of the guard’s flashlight soon faded around the near corner.  Forty-five seconds. [end]

The most obvious change is that this is a scene: a character attempts to break into the Governor’s mansion.  After the first three sentences, he seems like he’s a criminal, probably an assassin.  Then I off-handedly refer to him as “the superhero,” even before we know his name or what he looks like.  A traditional individual-focused story would probably start with the character and then describe the mission, but I start with the mission and hardly describe the character at all, besides how physically inept and meticulous he is. 

Up to the word “superhero,” this could very well be a police procedural or a Mission Impossible-style spyfest.  Then the story gets ridiculous, particularly in “…four feet.  He could do that.  Maybe.”  My first opening was melodramatic, but I think this comes off as comically melodramatic and patently ridiculous.  (Four feet?  The ‘superhero’ can’t jump four feet?) 

I think that my readers have been cued to expect a somewhat strange story about superheroes.  (In case that weren’t obvious enough, Lash’s main weapon in the first chapter is a fire extinguisher).  I think that reader anticipation has shifted much more to “I’d like to see where this is going” from “this sounds boring.”

Is my new opening effective?
I’m inclined to say yes.  Remember, before I had…

  • 100 readers started chapter 1
  • 30 made it past thirty seconds
  • 15 made it to the end of chapter 1
  • 0 started chapter 2

I rewrote my opening two weeks ago.  Since then, I’ve had…

  • 37 readers started chapter 1
  • ?? readers finished chapter 1
  • 10 readers started chapter 2 (so I’d assume that at least 10 readers survived to the end of chapter 1).
  • 9 readers started chapter 3
  • 64 readers started chapter 4 (I bet you’re asking what the hell!?! I’ll explain this in just a second). 

These numbers are drastically better.  My first-to-second chapter conversion rate is more than 25% and the people that start the second chapter appear to be dedicated readers.  My survey sample is pretty small (only over the last two weeks), but it seems that the first three chapters are generally successful enough that this story might be publishable.  But publishing is a distant concern and right now I’d like to worry about 1) posting the best chapters I can write to the website and 2) getting as many readers as possible to those chapters.


Remember that 64 readers started chapter 4?  That probably seemed pretty weird, given that only 9 readers started chapter 3.  My brother linked to my site in a discussion on sympathetic villains at The Volokh Conspiracy.  Since then, ~55 Volokh Conspirators have started chapter 4.  So even a comment can generate a significant amount of traffic.  I suspect that a link from, say, one of the writers at Volokh would generate enough traffic to be commercially significant.  But TVC is mainly a legal blog; I can’t imagine why it would be disproportionately loaded with comic book fans. 

I suspect that my demographics will be better represented at Daily Kos or Little Green Footballs link.  Speaking of LGF, it actually inspired the conservative-lizard and liberal-frog demographics of Superhero Nation. 


The original version of my first chapter—the terrible version—was 9000 words long (30 pages).  9000 words is a hell of a commitment, probably several hours.  Who wants to spend several hours at a single site? 

I’ve since split up the first 9000 words into 3 chapters, but chapter 3 is still ridiculously long.  I have to cut it down more.  (Everybody Dies is also too long).

One thing I’ve learned is that chapter length really matters. Shorter chapters—no more than 2000 words—work much better. Each chapter’s end is an opportunity to leave your reader on a cliffhanger and make him feel that he’s accomplished something.  Each chapter’s start is a chance to rehook your reader or at least give him a chance to recuperate and return. Additionally, each chapter allows you to subtly shift the focus of the reader’s attention and focus by using a new chapter title.

I’ve mentioned before that chapter titles are really important to selling a novel. They’re also important for the reading experience. You can use the title to create a sense of anticipation, foreboding or establish the mood. Right now, the chapter titles I’m going with are:

  1. Life, Death and the Manhattan Mangler [~1000 words]
  2. The Empire State Strikes Back [~1500]
  3. The Best Investigator in the World [~7000 words]
  4. Everybody Dies [~8000 words]
    • Unless I also want my readers to die, I should probably break this up into many chapters.  Possible chapter titles include “The Human Condition,” “Only Human,” “Grim Prognosis,” “Reach for the Skyline,” and “Two Girls for Every Guy.”
  5. The Human Resources Promise [~1500 words]
  6. Stockbroker to the Slaughter [~2000 words]

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Novel Writing Strategies: Keeping Readers Interested”

  1. Melissa H.on 18 Mar 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Hmm. I miss the original opening.

    “Courtney had problems. ^J One, his name was Courtney.”

    I immediately met a character, and also realized that the writer had some comic sensibility.

    The new version starts with some guy doing some stuff. To me, that’s not as interesting as meeting a sympathetic character.

  2. Bretton 27 Sep 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Suppose you have several things going on at once during a chapter with different characters. Each of these parts are decidedly too small to warrant chapter breaks, but if put together end up creating one superlong chapter (by your standards. it’s over 12,000 words). Do you think that ellipsis is enough here to show the breaks between events, or should I actually use a chapter break? All these events are related, and I fear that a chapter break might make it more difficult to relate them. (Also I’d need another chapter title that can relate to this miniplot.)

  3. B. Macon 27 Sep 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Hmm… how many things do you have going on at once? If you can split your chapter into 4-8 pieces, you could probably get each piece to be somewhere between one thousand and three thousand words. If the characters are really doing their own thing, the most coherent way to structure the chapters would probably be to give the characters their own chapter(s).

    That’s probably harder and more laborious than it sounds. I wrote this article a long, long time ago (September 2007) and our book has changed considerably, but one of the things that stuck with me was how frustratingly difficult it was to break up a bloated chapter. Looking at your case, your process might look something like this.

    1) Separate the material by character. If John and Tom and Sue are doing their own things during the 12,000 words, it would probably be easiest to give each of the character separate chapters so that they don’t distract from each other. Readers will be more inclined to ask “wait, what’s Sue doing?” if she made a cameo a few pages ago, which will probably happen if you have one mega-chapter.

    2) Add some sort of links between the chapters. If the first chapter focuses on John doing A, you’d have to make us feel that we aren’t totally getting diverted by switching to Tom doing B. Otherwise, it’ll feel like you’ve ended John’s chapter with “TO BE CONTINUED!”

    3) Add a cliff-hanger or hook for each separate chapter. Remind readers why they absolutely have to keep reading. Maybe something is at stake, or someone is in danger, the heroes have made a minor discovery that will accelerate their quest, some mystery is shortly about to be solved, or some confrontation is looming, or some interesting situation is staring us in the face. Generally, the key is immediacy. Too many manuscripts (particularly by newer authors) fail because they don’t offer any resolution in the short-term. The characters delve deeper and deeper into an ever-thickening plot that offers far more questions than answers. You might not be prepared to answer the central question of a mystery half-way through (“who’s the killer?) but you can probably give us incremental progress by having the detective pursue and eliminate suspects from consideration. The detective might not know who did it, but he knows one more person who didn’t do it. That’s progress.

    In conclusion, I think your storyboard for what used to be the mega-chapter might end up looking something like this. For the purpose of numbering the new chapters, let’s say that the old chapter used to be chapter 20.

    CHAPTER 20: John does X, which reveals or causes another problem or mystery.

    CHAPTER 21: John does Y to deal with the problem/mystery caused by his actions in the first chapter. There’s some sort of setback.

    CHAPTER 22: His attempt to deal with the setback in chapter 2 draws Bruce into the plot. For example, hacker John and hard-boiled private investigator Bruce are investigating the murder of a prominent programmer. John made a minor discovery online that revealed the address of a suspect. It would make sense to have Bruce take the lead in investigating that lead because his skillset and personality are better-suited to the task. Chapter 3 might end with Bruce getting into a fight at the house.

    CHAPTER 23: Bruce wins the fight and discovers that there’s more here than meets the eye. The address was a fake, or otherwise a setup. He’s managed to eliminate the lead and he’s probably discovered something about the modus operandi of the criminal(s), but there’s nothing more to learn here. To continue the investigation, he either needs to find another lead somehow or get one from John.

    I hope this was helpful. I typically find plotting very difficult.

  4. acharaon 13 Dec 2012 at 3:48 pm

    In my first chapter, my main character tortures a fairy by hacking off its wings for the black market. Thoughts?

  5. Dr. Professoron 13 Dec 2012 at 6:14 pm


    That sounds like it could keep a reader such as I, interested. Maybe you could just start out the chapter with your main character actually noticing a fairy because of the wings. Are wings considered of high value in your book?

    Because if they are, the character would maybe attack the fairy by forcing off the wings.
    Anyway, if I were to see a first chapter like that, the questions the reader/ I would ask would be:

    – Why would you need to torture a fairy for only the wings?
    – Does the black market hold any other magical things?
    – In fact, what’s the black market for?

    To me, a good way to draw someone into your story is to have your main character do something totally unheard of. Something that nobody else considers normally found in novels.

    All in all, you’ve got something pretty interesting going on here. Just make sure to explain the basics at the end of the first chapter. Many writers I know ( including me ) aren’t the best with keeping the exposition shown in moderation.

  6. acharaon 14 Dec 2012 at 10:21 am

    Well, I think that it’s consdered torture to cut off limbs without any painkillers! 😉

  7. Mugsyon 03 Jan 2013 at 8:55 am

    It has been a long time since I’ve posted here and I’m working my way through the archives. This post is daunting as I have finally finished typing my novel. It is less than 60,000 words and 18 chapters. Broken down evenly that’s not a problem but he last 5 chapters are extremely short (I was in a hurry to finish the project and they need much fleshing out) and chapter 13 is only two words. So at the start of my novel the chapters are all 10+ pages long.

    Breaking them up in itself is a daunting task. Also I had strong intentions in the comedic style to keep Ch. 13 as is as a sort of superstition of the narrator.

    I know the novel needs a lot of work but are there any instances where longer chapters don’t discourage readers?

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