It’s the very question that we, as fiction writers, should be asking readers. But as far as I could tell, no one had.
My writing BFF and I had gotten ourselves into a pretzel trying to figure out the difference between premise, theme, story question, arc, and tagline when another part of my brain kicked in and said, “Wait! We’re thinking like technicians, not like readers.”
Readers don’t make all those distinctions. They just want—well, what do they want?
Before I turned to fiction, I was a qualitative researcher. As Brene Brown said in her well-known TED Talk, qualitative researchers are storytellers, offering “data with a soul.” From my experience designing, conducting, teaching, and writing about qualitative research, I know that it begins with two things. First, picking the right question. And second, asking the right people. When I wanted to understand the experience of mental illness, I asked people who’d been living with it: “What’s it like for you?” If I wanted to understand what people enjoy eating, I’d have to ask the eaters, not the cooks. You get the idea.
Thus, this project was born.
I decided to do a simple voluntary survey consisting of one open-ended question: What makes you love a novel? I posted the question on eight Facebook groups for readers, letting people know that they could write whatever they liked, without having to choose from predefined categories such as hook, voice, etc.
Within three days, I’d gotten 152 responses. In research, it’s always good to do a second round of data collection, if only to check in: “Did I get it right? Did I miss anything?” So I posted a follow-up, summarizing what I’d learned and offering another chance to reply. That gave me an additional 21 responses, bringing the total to 173.
Obviously, these 173 people don’t represent all the readers in the world, but they do represent those who care enough about books to join an online community, think about what they read, and take the time to make their views public. They deserve to be heard.
If this were an academic article, I’d provide all my tabulations and tables. It isn’t, so I won’t. I’ll get right to the highlights. Note: The percentages below refer to ideas, not people—that is, how often the idea was expressed. Most people made more than one point, so each of their points was counted separately.
So what did I discover?
The most frequently cited reasons for loving a novel were:
- The characters, including their interactions (24%)
Specifically, within the category of “characters”:
Well developed, authentic/relatable characters (11.4%)
Emotional connection/caring about the characters (5%)
- A great storyline, with plenty of twists and turns (11.5%)
- The experience of immersion and emotional engagement (9%)
- A chance to learn something new/made me think (6.3%)
- The quality of the writing, including the voice (6%)
Other elements included good dialogue, humor, an evocative setting, and a satisfying ending.
Most of all, it was the bond with the characters, the immersion in the world of the story—needing to know how it all turns out. No surprise, given that we’re talking about fiction.
The question What makes you love a novel? is, of course, a reflective one, a retrospective look after you’ve finished the book. I didn’t ask, “What made you pick up the book in the first place?” I did expect, however, that responses would span three points in time:
- Initial encounter: Is the book grabbing my interest? Can I tell that I’m going to love it, right from the beginning?
- Throughout: Is the book sustaining my interest? Do I want to keep reading, all the way to the end?
- Afterward: Do I think about it later? remember it? recommend it?
We’re told how crucial that “first impression” is—in fact, that’s all we typically get of an agent’s attention before a judgment is made—so I was curious to see how often people mentioned that initial connection, as compared to their experience at the other two points.
To my surprise, among the 493 “bits of data” that I collected from 173 respondents, there were only 12 references to the importance of that early “grab.” In contrast to what we’re told about agents, only 5 out of 173 readers said this had to happen on page one. Everyone else said it happened later, while they were reading—or later still, after they’d finished.
When we feel something about a story, during and afterward, it means the story mattered to us. We might talk about it on social media, recommend it to a friend, buy another book by the same author. It might even change us in an important way. Isn’t that our goal, as writers? Not just a good first impression, but a meaningful relationship.
One other point, worth noting. A number of people volunteered information about what they did not love—that is, reasons they stopped reading. Several said they disliked long wordy descriptions; others disliked devices such as multiple time lines or points of view, which they found confusing and disruptive, breaking the flow. A straightforward, emotionally compelling, and interesting story—that was what they liked, not a sophisticated structure.
So what do we make of all this?
On the one hand, some of these findings dovetail with what we might expect. On the other hand, they’re disturbing because of the disparity between what writers care about, what agents care about, and what readers care about.
What matters to writers are the things we’re taught about goal, motivation, inciting incident, stakes, crucible, crisis, and so on. What matters to agents is whatever they glean from a query letter or the first few pages of a manuscript—that quick initial spark (or its absence). Anecdotal reports are pretty consistent on this point: an agent makes a judgment to stop reading after the first or second page.
But that’s not what most readers do; 93% take a lot longer to decide.
If this survey is a good indication, we’re left with an odd situation. The things that make readers love a book don’t necessarily correspond to the things that writers and agents value—or is it simply that the timing is different?
What do you think of these findings? Do they seem accurate? Do you, as a reader, feel the same way, or do you love books for different reasons than those cited in the study? What should we, as writers, do about the apparent disconnection between the experience of these three groups? I’d love to hear your thoughts!